The Charlotte Bobcats exceeded expectations this season by doubling their win total from the previous year and making their first playoff appearance since 2010, all under a rookie head coach. At 43-39, the team finished seventh in the Eastern Conference. In spite of a first round sweep by the Miami HEAT, the Bobcats had one of the most dramatic turnarounds in the league this season and have positioned themselves as a playoff contender for the future.
The pieces are in place to move forward. Steve Clifford quickly proved he can turn around a team in just his first year. His 43 wins are second only to Larry Brown’s 44 for most in a single season by a Bobcats head coach. Captains Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson provide leadership that will push the team to continue to improve.
When the Bobcats officially become the Hornets next season, they will look to keep their new-found winning ways as part of their identity.
Get Big Al Healthy
Al Jefferson is the centerpiece of the Bobcats. He infused a new intensity into the team when signing last summer and is the driving force on the court. In his 10th season, Jefferson averaged 21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 25 minutes per game. His performance earned him numerous honors throughout the season and he finished eighth in MVP voting.
The only thing holding him back is his health. Jefferson suffered a torn plantar fascia (connective tissue) in his left foot in Game 1 against the HEAT. He toughed it out through the next two games (averaging 35 minutes) before he was eventually sidelined for the decisive Game 4. The injury was so severe that Clifford told reporters Jefferson most likely would have been out multiple weeks had it happened during the regular season. Said Jefferson, “This is the worst pain I’ve dealt with in my career.”
Jefferson will turn 30 years old next January. He has already logged 21,800 minutes and that number will continue to rise as he plays a key role on the team. The Bobcats have Bismack Biyombo locked in for next season, needing back up bigs to give Jefferson rest when possible. If the team plans to be regulars in the playoffs, they will have to do everything possible to keep Jefferson healthy for the long haul.
Continue to Develop Walker
Kemba Walker’s talent is undeniable. After three seasons in the NBA, there is still plenty of room to grow on both ends of the floor.
He averaged 17.7 points this season, the exact same as last, 6.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds in 35.8 minutes per game. His free throw shooting improved from 79.8 percent to 83.7 percent while his field goal percentage dropped from 42.3 percent to 39.3 percent. Does he have a breakout season coming?
His defense has been critiqued, an area of his game that Clifford has been emphasizing strongly. Walker quickly embraced Clifford’s new leadership when he was hired last summer. His coach pushed him throughout the season in a relationship that should get stronger as time goes on.
Clifford holds the 23-year-old tri-captain to a high level of accountability. Walker has areas to improve in, and his coach will be one of his toughest critics/biggest supporters during the process.
Fill the Roster
There is little time for rest of this offseason. While their core is under contract, nearly 10 players will become unrestricted free agents: Chris Douglas-Roberts, Josh McRoberts (player option), Jannero Pargo, Luke Ridnour, Jeffrey Taylor, Anthony Tolliver, and D.J. White. Determining who to bring back and who to bring in will be a process throughout the summer.
The look of the bench also changes when it is a contending team. Veteran experience becomes invaluable for in-season leadership. Bringing in those who have been through playoff battles will help throughout the regular season. Depth is more critical as well when preparing play beyond mid-April. A team needs more than a starting five to compete, and x-factors who embrace their reserve roles can make impacts on the court.
The Bobcats will have to be active in the free agent market to fill their roster. With $41,156,697 in guaranteed contracts next season, there is room for additions.
Don’t Be Complacent
Yes, this season should be considered a success for the Bobcats. But as soon as that final buzzer sounded against the HEAT, all they accomplished was in the past.
It is hard to imagine the Eastern Conference being as uncompetitive again as it was this season. Forty-three wins were enough to earn the seventh seed; what will it take next year? (In the Western Conference the Dallas Mavericks needed 49 wins to grab the eighth spot.)
There are plenty of teams that will be looking to right their wrongs and get back to the playoffs, leaving the Bobcats little wiggle room to let up on the gas. They laid the foundation this season. The next step is continuing to build upon that and establish themselves as an annual contender.
The potential is there; it’s up to the Bobcats to make it a reality.