In the end, the Charlotte Bobcats went out with a whimper. A playoff sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat will be our last memory of the Bobcats before they revert back to the Hornets logo and colors next year, but there's reason for optimism as the change comes, primarily because of the presence of Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson.
And while Charlotte certainly doesn't have enough to compete as currently composed, there's finally a core in place built around two productive offensive players. That's something the Bobcats never had in their whole existence.
Even the 2009-2010 team, the only other Charlotte team to make the playoffs in a decade, was built around the defensive play of Gerald Wallace and the incredible coaching ability of Larry Brown.
Of course, to compare this year's team with that old team isn't exactly fair. The Bobcats had some veteran pieces that didn't factor into the future, as Charlotte Bobcats blogger Ben Swanson told Will Leitch of Sports on Earth:
It's a difficult and dividing feeling to see the Bobcats about to make the playoffs for the first time since breaking the record of being the NBA's best loser in league history. Because fans have seen the team make this jump before in 2010, when the Bobcats made short-sighted moves to invest in veteran talent with a limited ceiling, it has more than a few people wary of the ripples this could have. However, to compare these two teams would be a false analogy. This Bobcats team, outside of Al Jefferson, has a good deal of youth to it. The ceiling is higher and there's more room for them to grow.
The primary reason why Charlotte is in a good position to build off this year's playoff appearance is because there aren't any declining assets on the roster. Virtually every single player on the team should be better next season. Even if Al Jefferson dips slightly, he still has at least four or five years of prime post play left in him.
And from an asset standpoint, Charlotte will be rid of a few albatross deals that have hampered them in the past. Ben Gordon's salary worth $13.2 million will be off the books, and there won't be a single damaging contract on the roster.
As it stands, Charlotte should have right around $45 million in guaranteed salary heading into the offseason, which is enough to offer the max (unlikely) or add two really strong players like a Trevor Ariza or Lance Stephenson to the core of Jefferson and Walker.
While that may have seemed like a pipe dream in the past, it's not hard to see that Charlotte has a few key advantages working in their favor. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have Michael Jordan in free-agent negotiations, but the coaching ability and the stability at that spot with Steve Clifford should be a good sell as well.
"He's (Clifford) done a lot in such short time," Walker said. "We haven't won around here in a while, but he brings a winning mentality. He holds everyone accountable. He expects so much from everyone on this team and in this organization. That's what you need in a coach. He's our leader and we follow him."
Perhaps the most impressive thing Clifford was able to do was to maximize Jefferson defensively. That's an area where he always struggled, but in a strong scheme with some good perimeter defenders next to him, Jefferson was serviceable and the Bobcats were fantastic as a whole this year, posting the fifth-best defensive efficiency in the league, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
And although the offense still struggled to generate points, Jefferson held up his end of the bargain, averaging 21.8 points on over 50 percent shooting. Walker was less efficient as he shot below 40 percent, but his ability to create for himself off the dribble came in handy quite often.
The duo of Walker and Jefferson seemed like an odd match at the beginning of the year, but it's been a solid inside-outside punch. Walker and Jefferson spoke highly of one another to Zillgitt:
"Kemba's a smart kid. He's a natural-born leader," Jefferson said. "If I have helped him, I'm sure it's not as much as he's helped me. I've always been a leader by example. He's showed me how to keep the team together and how to lead by talking."
"I've never played with such a dominant big man like that in my career," Walker said. "It's been a cool experience because he's a lot older than me. He's got a lot more years than me in this league, and I've had an opportunity to learn from him. He just makes things easier for me and everyone else on the perimeter."
With Walker playing well beyond what his rookie-scale salary pays him, the Bobcats have an opportunity in this window to really load up on talent and make a push in a vulnerable Eastern Conference. With a top-one protected pick from the Detroit Pistons on the way next year, Charlotte has a viable path to a star, whether it be through selecting that player or making a big trade and absorbing a salary.
There are options here, and the image change back to the Hornets couldn't have come at a better time. Charlotte is ready to leave the past behind and build around one of the best post scorers in the game and a dynamic young point guard. Help will be needed on the wings and better contributions from high draft picks like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller will be necessary, but with Jefferson, Walker and Clifford, Charlotte has a few pieces of the puzzle already in place.