The Charlotte Bobcats used the 2013-14 campaign to open a number of eyes and close one forgettable chapter for the franchise.
Monday night, the Miami Heat completed their sweep of the Bobcats, who will now be left under basketball's rug for good. When Steve Clifford's team returns next season, Charlotte's club will go back to being known as the "Hornets" with a purple-and-teal logo saluting the city's NBA past.
The Bobcats' final hour may have been their finest. If the Hornets play their cards right, that could be the basement for this rebranded bunch.
Rest, Relaxation and Recruiting
Getting a handle on All-Star-snubbed center Al Jefferson's torn plantar fascia should be Charlotte's first priority.
The team made the right decision to keep the 29-year-old out of Miami's series-clinching win Monday. He's too important to the future of this franchise to have risked further damage.
Team medical staff told Jefferson "not to anticipate needing surgery in the off-season," via Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer. Big Al, by the sound of things, just needs a big rest.
There is no such vacation period for the front office, though. The challenge is to take the success from this season's group—with so much of it resulting from effort and energy, it should be sustainable—and maximize it by addressing the problem areas on the roster.
Jefferson is an absolute keeper (21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds), and Kemba Walker is inching his way toward that status (17.7 points, 6.1 assists). Clifford, who finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, has already shown the ability of getting the most out of his guys, but that ceiling is probably a one-and-done playoff appearance.
Upward mobility should be Charlotte's only focus, and any sacrifices needed to be made in that pursuit (up to and including dealing Walker) must be considered, only for the right price, of course.
Free agency will likely be the first place the Bobcats search for talent. Consensus last summer had the franchise overpaying Jefferson, but by the end of the season, consensus painted him as an All-NBA candidate.
Obviously, things don't always work out that well. If the franchise is chasing a big fish (as big as it can land), it will likely have to pay a premium to get one. It's imperative either to find the right player worthy of that investment or to resist temptation to throw money at a market that doesn't offer what Charlotte needs.
The Bobcats have eight players on the books for next season, via ShamSports.com, but Jefferson is the only one with an eight-figure salary ($13.5 million). Although he was officially waived in March, Ben Gordon's $13.2 million contract will be the biggest salary relief coming Charlotte's way.
Jeff Taylor, who missed all but 26 games this season with a ruptured Achilles, has a nonguaranteed $0.9 million contract. Josh McRoberts has a $2.7 million player option, but he seems likely to decline it after posting career highs in points (8.5), assists (4.3) and made threes (105).
Assuming his contract demands don't get too outrageous, McRoberts could stick around in Charlotte. His floor spacing and passing ability make him an intriguing frontcourt mate for Jefferson. Both players sound interested in keeping their relationship alive, via Bonnell:
"Josh was our point guard and our power forward. He's the guy who made everything go." -- Al Jefferson on importance of McRoberts.— Rick Bonnell (@rick_bonnell) April 29, 2014
McRoberts said he wants to play in Charlotte for many years.— Rick Bonnell (@rick_bonnell) April 29, 2014
So, what does this roster need to add over the summer? "Wing scoring. Wing size. Wing shooting," ESPN's Marc Stein wrote.
Charlotte needs somebody (or somebodies) to give Jefferson some breathing room under the basket. The team finished 23rd in three-point percentage (35.1 percent) and 25th in three-point makes (516). Gerald Henderson doesn't yet have a consistent shot from deep (40-of-115), and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist couldn't function offensively away from the rim (29.9 percent from beyond three feet of the basket).
Charlotte probably doesn't have the money (and definitely doesn't have the market) to lure Carmelo Anthony away from the New York Knicks, but Sacramento Kings swingman Rudy Gay might be a target if it's willing to spend.
Sean Deveney of Sporting News reported possible interest in Indiana Pacers wing Lance Stephenson, while the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence added Cleveland Cavaliers forward Luol Deng's name to the list of potential targets.
Should the franchise swing for the fences again, expect a second-tier player like the three forwards mentioned above to be the biggest prize. As Jefferson proved, apparent second-rate signings can still produce first-rate results.
Draft, (Potential) Dealing and Development
Charlotte will finally be paying off its draft debt to the Chicago Bulls this summer from the Tyrus Thomas trade in 2010, but the sting won't be nearly as painful as it originally seemed. A first-round pick that would have lost all protection in 2016 will be just the 16th selection in June's draft.
The Bobcats won't be left out of the first-round proceedings, though. The Portland Trail Blazers' pick, 24th overall, is definitely coming to Charlotte. The Detroit Pistons' top selection will be won or lost at the May 20 draft lottery. Detroit owes Charlotte a top-eight protected pick and currently occupies the No. 8 draft slot.
Charlotte has a few different holes it would like to fill on draft night. The Bobcats ranked 19th in bench scoring this season (30.0 points per game), via HoopsStats.com, so upgrades are needed on all areas of the floor.
That can be seen in the varying players and positions projected to Charlotte at the 24th pick in the mock drafts done by Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman, CBS Sports' Gary Parrish, NBADraft.net, DraftExpress.com and HoopsHype.com.
|Bleacher Report||T.J. Warren||SF||NC State|
|CBS Sports||K.J. McDaniels||SF||Clemson|
|DraftExpress.com||P.J. Hairston||SG||Texas Legends (D-League)|
|HoopsHype.com||Cleanthony Early||SF/PF||Wichita State|
There are some variations here, but a common thread emerges: wing depth.
Henderson, Kidd-Gilchrist and Taylor are all serviceable, but Charlotte needs something more than that at such a vital position.
Should the Bobcats actually snag Detroit's pick, the needs won't change. Michigan gunner Nik Stauskas or Michigan State scoring guard Gary Harris would both be intriguing options should Charlotte sneak into the top 10.
"Harris' core strengths center around his ability to play without the ball," Wasserman wrote. "He might not make any All-Star teams, but Harris should have a nice long career as a supporting shooter, slasher and defender."
Shooting, slashing and defense? Where do the Bobcats sign up?
Of course, draft night might not yield a true difference-maker. Should Charlotte get a little tighter with its free-agent spending, that market might not, either.
The Bobcats may have to scan the trade market, an option they're reportedly already examining.
"The rumbles have already begun that a player Clifford is said to regard with real fondness after working with him in Orlando as an assistant -- vet floor leader Jameer Nelson -- as well as current Magic swingman Arron Afflalo will be among the Bobcats' trade targets," Stein wrote.
Nelson has an $8 million salary for next season, but just $2 million of it is guaranteed if he's released by July 15. With the contracts of Luke Ridnour (33 years old) and Jannero Pargo (34) expiring, Charlotte will certainly be seeking a reliable reserve behind Walker.
Afflalo could be a gem—if he's available. The 28-year-old broke out with career highs in scoring (18.2), assists (3.4) and efficiency (16.0 player efficiency rating) during the 2013-14 campaign. With a cap-friendly $7.5 million salary, he's a valuable trade chip for the Orlando Magic, and they know it.
His name generated one of the loudest buzzes at the trade deadline, but the Magic opted to keep him around. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported at the time that Orlando planned to "revisit deals" closer to the draft.
Outside of the external assistance, there are internal improvements to be made as well.
Walker has just three years of NBA service under his belt. He's still figuring out how to score efficiently (39.3 percent field-goal percentage), but he's already shown a knack for making big-time plays. He averaged 3.2 points per game in clutch situations (final five minutes of a five-point game), which put him tied for eighth among all players with at least 25 crunch-time appearances during the regular season, via NBA.com.
That ice water kept pumping through his veins come playoff time.
"He showed that he is not afraid of the moment," Clifford said after Walker finished with 29 points on 11-of-15 shooting in the series finale, via Steve Reed of The Associated Press. "He had a really good year and finished in a good way so we should be happy about him."
Kidd-Gilchrist wrapped up his sophomore campaign by upping both his scoring (8.5) and rebounding (6.5) during the postseason. His defensive prowess is already on display, and a full summer to work with shooting guru Mark Price just might save the 20-year-old's broken stroke.
Cody Zeller contributed in spurts (15 games with double-digit points), but the total package left plenty to be desired (6.0 points on 42.6 percent shooting, 4.3 rebounds). The rookie needs to add functional strength to his 240-pound frame and expand his offensive range (28.3 percent shooting outside of 10 feet).
This was a foundation-laying season for the Bobcats. A focused, productive summer could put the Hornets in position to make their own leap in 2014-15.
Bittersweet Ending, Buoyant Beginning
The Bobcats didn't want their story to end how it did. Their playoff ticket was an opportunity, not the realization of a dream.
Still, their journey was one worth celebrating.
They established expectations in an area of the basketball world that had learned to live without them. They played with a purpose we sluggishly recognized, turning heads all the way through the final step of that process:
LeBron James on the Charlotte Bobcats: "They're a team on the uprise. We saw it with Big Al (Jefferson) and Kemba Waller." #NBAPlayoffs— Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto) April 29, 2014
It was an inspirational ride, but hopefully the first of many steps on the long trek toward relevance.
"This has been a wonderful season," Jefferson said before Monday's loss, via Jonathan Jones of The Charlotte Observer. "We need to continue to build and continue to get better."
What area should Charlotte address over the offseason?
The Hornets should find themselves in a better position than the Bobcats ever reached. Just like that unexpected postseason berth, this must be a means and not an end.
Charlotte is headed in the right direction, but by no means has it arrived. A wasted pick here, a bad signing there, and the Hornets could do undo all the progress the Bobcats made during their swan song.
For the first time in a long time, optimism greets the close of a season of Charlotte basketball. Get this summer right, though, and that will become the norm.
Just like it was the last time the NBA felt the sting of the Charlotte Hornets.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.