Playoff Struggles Against Heat Don't Diminish Bright NBA Future for Charlotte

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Playoff Struggles Against Heat Don't Diminish Bright NBA Future for Charlotte
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CHARLOTTE—Despite the first-round playoff beatdown administered by the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, the future of the Charlotte NBA franchise is bright.

And when the Bobcats flip the switch to become the Hornets next season, owner Michael Jordan hopes to build on the success of this season as well as draw on the loyalties of fans forged long in the past.

In that sense, a Charlotte NBA franchise hasn’t been in a better position in terms of facing an optimistic immediate future since the Hornets’ glory days of Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson and Muggsy Bogues.

This current group overachieved under first-year coach Steve Clifford, who took a team that had gone 21-61 the previous season and guided it to a 43-39 regular-season record that secured the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. In his first three full seasons of ownership, Jordan’s Bobcats went 62-168 and the owner went through three coaches.

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Coach Steve Clifford has been brilliant in his first season.

Looking ahead, Charlotte also has salary-cap flexibility it has lacked in the past and multiple draft picks stored up for the coming years.

After years of botched lottery picks and questionable trades that crippled the franchise (Tyrus Thomas, anyone?), it appears Jordan and his current management team, primarily general manager Rich Cho and president of basketball operations Rod Higgins, have finally begun to get it right. They have an intriguing current roster anchored by one of the NBA’s best big men in underrated Al Jefferson and a point guard they can build around in young Kemba Walker.

Those two players are at the center of a team chemistry developed and nurtured by Clifford in which lesser role players seem to thrive and everyone understands the concept and importance of team defense.

“This is the best group of guys I’ve been around,” said 10-year veteran Al Jefferson, who signed a three-year, $41 million free-agent contract last summer and was Eastern Conference Player of the Month the last two months of the regular season. “They play hard and play the right way, and we’ve got a great coaching staff.”

That coaching staff includes NBA veterans Patrick Ewing and Mark Price, who have had an impact. Ewing, the former 11-time All-Star center with the New York Knicks, obviously works mostly with big men. Price, a four-time All-Star point guard who spent most of his career with the Cleveland Cavaliers, was hired originally to help revamp the mangled shooting stroke of small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist but has ended up having a more positive effect, at least in the short term, in the development of Walker.

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“He’s helped me a lot with my pace, the change of pace to my play. And my in-between shots. Those are the biggest things he’s helped me with,” Walker said of Price.

Price said the mid-range, pull-up jumper has become almost a lost art in the NBA. But he is helping Walker bring it back into vogue, and Walker, listed generously at 6'1" and 184 pounds, is embracing it.

“It helps me, because it’s a shot I can make,” Walker said. “It’s a shot I’m comfortable with, and it helps save my body because I’m not always in there banging amongst the trees. It’s kind of a tough shot to guard as well.”

As it turns out, Walker also is a tough negotiator. He and Jefferson share the same management agency, and it was Walker who initially played an instrumental role in getting the center to sign with Charlotte as a free agent last summer.

Although Jefferson was slowed in the playoff series against Miami because of a torn plantar fascia in his left foot, he clearly has been the key to the Bobcats’ success this season and the foundation upon which the immediate future of the team must be built.

His numbers were stunning at times during the regular season, when he averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds overall. Despite missing nine games at the beginning of the season because of an ankle injury and taking some time after that to really get it going, Jefferson posted 42 double-doubleseighth in the league. To put that in better perspective, he had one less double-double than Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers in seven fewer games and one more double-double than Portland star LaMarcus Aldridge.

And Jefferson might not have come to Charlotte without an assist from Walker before they ever played together on the court.

“It was a big factor. I wasn’t even thinking about Charlotte until Kemba said something about it,” Jefferson said.

Walker added: “When we played against the guy, I was always a big fan of his game. I’ve never played with a big man as skilled as him, and he was the best option out there. I mean, Dwight Howard was out therebut we all knew Dwight was not coming to Charlotte. So I just wanted Al.”

It has worked out better than either might have imagined so far. Critics questioned if Charlotte had overpaid to land Jefferson, but fans who might have been restless about the acquisition at first now frequently chant, “MVP! MVP!” when Jefferson lines up for a foul shot at Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena.

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Owner Michael Jordan wants to get it right.

There are obvious deficiencies on the team that still need to be addressed. Higgins and Cho traded for sharpshooter Gary Neal just before the deadline and Neal has been a great fit, but Charlotte still needs more outside shooting and instant scoring. Gerald Henderson, the current starting shooting guard, is too inconsistent and has seemed completely overmatched in these playoffs.

Rookie Cody Zeller, the fourth pick in last year’s draft, struggled the first two-thirds of the season and again in the playoffs against the Heat. But he showed significant progress over the last third of the regular season and should continue improving next season, especially if he hits the weight room hard this offseason and improves his strength.

Overall, though, this is a team with some key pieces in place and a coach in Clifford who knows how to push all the right buttonsalong with a front office that finally, after years of getting it wrong seemingly every which way possible, seems to be coming around.

Jefferson said that while was frustrated by suffering the injury that slowed him in Game 1 of the playoffs against the Heat and eventually caused him to sit out the final game of the series, he is pleased with what the team has accomplished and the shape it appears to be in going forward.

"It has been a wonderful season and guys have a lot to be proud of for the things we have done this season," he said prior to Charlotte's 109-98 Game 4 loss that completed Miami's first-round sweep. "But we can't take any steps back. We have to continue to build and get better."

As the book closes on the Bobcats’ era and a new chapter is reopened in the Hornets’ NBA legacy in Charlotte, no one will be happier than the famous owner if the team finally turns the corner to contender in the watered-down Eastern Conference next season.

“You know his background,” Higgins said of Jordan. “He’s so competitive. If you ever watched a game with him, you could feel that fire. He’s hired a lot of smart professionals to do their jobs – but even when he watches a game at home, I imagine he’s grinding with that remote in his hand. He’s going to be playing and coaching and strategizing. And after the game is over, you’ll hear the feedback from him.

“He wants to get this right and bring a big-time winner to Charlotte. We all do. That’s why we’re here.”

 

All quotes for this story were obtained firsthand by the writer.

Joe Menzer has covered the NBA for years and now writes about it along with college basketball, golf and NASCAR for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.

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