How Can Charlotte Bobcats Take the Next Step?

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How Can Charlotte Bobcats Take the Next Step?
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You'll have to forgive the Charlotte Bobcats for gloating a bit.

This is more than living a dream. This is turning an impossibility into an opportunity—seizing a moment no one thought was coming.

The Bobcats (39-38) have already won 11 more games than they had in the last two seasons combined (28-120). Behind Coach of the Year candidate Steve Clifford's defensive principles and potential All-NBA selection Al Jefferson's offensive exploits, the Cats are officially playoff-bound for just the second time in franchise history.

So, yes, they are celebrating for a reason.

"We’ve been the worst two teams in the NBA. That to now? Night and Day!” third-year point guard Kemba Walker exclaimed after Saturday's playoff-clinching 96-94 overtime win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, via Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer.

From the standings to the stat sheets, nothing is the same in Charlotte.

Brock Williams-Smith/Getty Images

This team is unrecognizable in the best possible way.

It snapped a two-year run as the league's least efficient defense and vaulted to the category's No. 6 spot (101.4 points allowed per 100 possessions). The climb was even more dramatic on the defensive glass: 29th in defensive rebounding percentage last season (71.1) to first overall in 2013-14 (77.3).

"This is a significant accomplishment for our group of guys, and it puts us in a different place in the league," Clifford said, via The Associated Press. "The guys in the locker room are excited — and they should be — because we've got a good group of guys and a group of guys who are truly deserving."

That group of guys has pushed this organization on the cusp of something relatively special.

But this needs to be part of a process, not the entire journey itself. The franchise's only other playoff team—the 2009-10 group led by Gerald Wallace, Stephen Jackson and coach Larry Brown—topped out as a one-and-done postseason showing.

The organization didn't toil through some excruciating rebuilding years just to become more first-round fodder.

"We don't want to get to the playoffs and get swept," Jefferson said, per Steve Reed of the Associated Press. "We want to make some noise in the playoffs."

Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

Maybe Charlotte will have some postseason success in its future.

If the Bobcats (currently the No. 7 seed, just a game back of the sixth-seeded Washington Wizards) draw a first-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers or Toronto Raptors, things could get interesting. Charlotte swept its three-game season with Toronto and scored a 22-point win over the free-falling Pacers the last time those two teams met.

But, again, it's imperative to view this achievement through something wider than a one-year lens.

Jefferson (21.7 points, 10.6 rebounds) was the perfect fast-forward button for a franchise that couldn't afford the emotional and financial costs of another losing season. The big bruiser has made the game easier for his teammates.

Walker has more room to create his own offense out of pick-and-rolls and isolation sets. Journeyman Josh McRoberts has finally found a home for his floor spacing (36.6 three-point percentage) and ball movement (4.2 assists). Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson are never more than one cut away from the highlight reels.

Jefferson has sparked a badly needed reversal of fortune for the perennial cellar dwellers. But the 29-year-old can only do so much for the organization going forward.

This has been simply a laying-the-groundwork season.

"If you look at the last three years here, we'd be happy to be in any one of those spots," Jefferson said of Charlotte's potential playoff seeding in a chat with ESPN.com's Marc Stein. "... We just want to be in."

It's those types of tempered expectations that allow a second-tier star like Big Al to carry a team on his shoulders. But how can the Bobcats dream bigger? Where are the avenues toward making the postseason an annual event and not a best-case-scenario goal?

It starts with player development, something we'll learn in the coming seasons whether Clifford and his staff can handle.

Walker has increased his scoring (17.8 points per game) and assists (6.0) in each of his three seasons, but he remains a shoot-first point guard who doesn't shoot all that efficiently (.397/.339/.838 slash line). Rookie Cody Zeller has looked more comfortable as the season has progressed, but he's a long way from effective (5.9 points on 42.4 percent shooting, 4.4 rebounds).

The prospect ship looks like it's already sailed on third-year big man Bismack Biyombo. He's seeing a career-low 14.1 minutes a night, unable to mask his offensive shortcomings or overall rawness. Sophomore swingman Jeff Taylor will turn 25 in May and seems to have a second-team ceiling.

Walker and Zeller are two of the biggest sources of hope, but Kidd-Gilchrist is the wild card.

"If he can make the impact teams expect of a no. 2 pick, the Bobcats nudge their collective ceiling a bit higher," Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote of the sophomore forward.

Chuck Burton

That's about it as far as in-house options are concerned. The Bobcats aren't the oldest team in the league, but they're far from being the youngest.

That limits their potential involvement in the trade market.

Jefferson isn't young or cheap ($13.5 million for next season, $13.5 million player option for 2015-16). Ditto for the 26-year-old Henderson, who could pull in $12 million over the next two seasons. Walker, Zeller and Kidd-Gilchrist have some value in their rookie contracts, but they're probably more valuable in Charlotte than anywhere else.

That leaves two potential paths to acquiring talent: the draft and free agency.

The Bobcats won't have their own selection this season (they owe the Chicago Bulls a top-10 protected pick), but they could have as many as two first-round picks.

It's more likely they'll only collect one, though, as the pick owed to them by the Detroit Pistons is top-eight protected—and the Pistons currently have the eighth-worst record in the league. The Bobcats will be receiving the Portland Trail Blazers' first-round pick (top-12 protected), which should land in the early to mid-20s.

Charlotte desperately needs a scoring wing and an upgrade at the power forward spot, but it could solve a slightly less pressing need (backup point guard) with this pick. UConn's Shabazz Napier, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2014 NCAA tournament, and Kentucky's Andrew Harrison might both be in play for this selection.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Assuming that pick from Detroit isn't collected this summer, it will have nothing more than top-one protection in 2015. If next season's Pistons look anything like this season's bunch (28-49), the Bobcats could wind up with a difference-maker.

Young players (typically) take more time to develop, though, and the Bobcats didn't buy themselves a large window with Jefferson. Expect them to act accordingly in free agency.

Depending on McRoberts' decision with his $2.7 million player option for 2014-15, the Bobcats could have as little as $42 million on the books for next season, more than $20 million less than their current payroll.

They have the funds to be major players but probably not the reputation to attract major players. They're still in the secondary market, as we saw with Jefferson's arrival last summer.

Charlotte could go after a veteran frontcourt partner for Jefferson—NBA executives told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated the Bobcats might have interest in Pau Gasol—but there are some tempting perimeter scorers on the market.

Matt Slocum

Utah Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward, a restricted free agent at season's end, should be a top target. He definitely wouldn't come cheap (the Boston Celtics and his college coach Brad Stevens might make a hard charge at him), but he checks off so many items on Charlotte's wish list.

He can stretch the floor for Big Al (career 37.1 three-point percentage) or create offense off the dribble for himself or his teammates. Walker could use the presence of another playmaker, and Hayward could be that guy. He also spent the last three seasons with Jefferson in Utah, so there's a familiarity there, along with a potential recruiting tool for the Cats.

Lance Stephenson of the Indiana Pacers is another option. He's not the same caliber shooter as Hayward (34.9 percent this season), but as an unrestricted free agent, he may not be as expensive. Stephenson is also a capable ball-handler, an active rebounder (7.2 per game) and relentless defender. If Clifford wants a team of blue-collar workers, Stephenson would certainly fit the mold.

Which 2014 free agent should the Charlotte Bobcats pursue?

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If Charlotte gets priced out of those markets, Washington Wizards forward Trevor Ariza would be a less expensive possibility. His stat sheets are perhaps a bit inflated by his impending restricted free-agent status, but he's been a consistent contributor (14.6 points, .453/.415/.788 shooting slash) on a playoff team. He's also played Clifford-quality defense throughout his 10-year career.

There might not be a lot of sexiness to Charlotte's offseason acquisitions, but the Jefferson signing wasn't greeted to a lot of fanfare, either. The Bobcats aren't chasing popularity. That's often a byproduct of winning, anyway.

Charlotte should appreciate the significance of this playoff run, but it can't afford to stop its transformation here. This has to be a building block, not the final product.

For now, an unlikely postseason appearance is a cause for celebration. But with the right blend of personnel development, shrewd free-agent decisions and some draft-night fortune, this type of success just might become the Bobcats' basement—not their ceiling.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com. Salary information obtained via ShamSports.com.

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