Monday, October 14, 2013

2013-2014 Season Preview: Charlotte Bobcats

The Bobcats could absolutely be one of the most intriguing teams in the league…next year.  By October of 2014, the team will have reverted back to its former, popular ‘Hornets’ nickname.  Al Jefferson could be coming off an All-Star year.  Kemba Walker could be coming off a breakout season (thanks in large part to his chemistry with Jefferson and rangy rookie Cody Zeller), and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could be ready to break out himself after a season in which he demonstrated new-found shooting prowess.  Bismack Biyombo may be beginning to live up to his billing as Serge Ibaka 2.0.  And, perhaps mostly importantly, with a little bit of luck the team could have three lottery selections in the fold from what is widely regarded as one of the deepest drafts ever. 

Of course, all of those are best case scenarios.  But potential scenarios like those are why Charlotte fans can have hope that brighter days are ahead.  They will want to cherish that hope for now, because this season, the Bobcats will once again be a very bad basketball team.

Additions: Al Jefferson, James Southerland, Anthony Tolliver

Subtractions: DeSagana Diop, Byron Mullens, Tyrus Thomas, Reggie Williams

Without a doubt, the biggest acquisition for the Bobcats over the off-season (and perhaps in franchise history) was Al Jefferson.  Jefferson has never been popular among “smart” basketball fans because of his ball-stopping tendencies on offense and frequent ineptitude on defense.  Many of those same fans no doubt thought that the Bobcats overpaid (at 3 years, $40 million) for the services of the 10-year veteran.  But the Bobcats have struggled to score (28th in offensive rating last year), and Jefferson is a prolific scorer whose PER hasn't dipped below 20 in the past three years.  Additionally, his salary isn't much of a concern because the Bobcats won’t even sniff the salary cap this year, and by the time they are ready to pay big money to all their young stars (Walker, Kidd-Gilchrist, whomever they draft next year, etc.) Jefferson will be expiring or off the books.  In the meantime, he can help the “shooters” on the team by drawing plenty of double teams, and hopefully sell a few tickets with his decent name value.  Sounds like a win for the ‘Cats to me.  The team also brought in Anthony Tolliver, a veteran shooter and glue guy who will soak up some brief spot minutes.

Elsewhere, the Bobcats shed some dead weight by letting go of largely unessential role players like Diop (to Cleveland) and Thomas (to Oblivion).  Mullens actually had his moments last year (weirdly reinventing himself as a stretch four in his fourth year in the league), but he was still wildly inefficient overall, and thus banished to L.A. where he will no doubt be the victim of countless piercing glares and exasperated sermons from Chris Paul.

Jeffery Taylor

Taylor was a pleasantly surprising contributor for the Bobcats last season.  In his rookie campaign, he ended up starting nearly 30 games for the team.  The issue for Taylor (aside from, like most of his teammates, his awful shooting) was that he was dependable overall, but unremarkable in any one facet of the game.  And unfortunately for him, Taylor basically plays the same position as MKG, and will have to potentially deal with an Andrew Wiggins or another player coming in next year to take his minutes as well, so “dependable yet unremarkable” will likely not be enough to secure his spot in the rotation in coming years.  However, there are signs that Taylor could be more than just another role player.  For one, he has underrated athleticism (as demonstrated here).  Secondly, he seems to have a great work ethic.  He showed up at Vegas Summer League and looked like he didn't belong there (in a good way), finishing third in scoring.  He also proved he could shine on a big stage, leading his native Sweden in scoring at the Eurobasket tournament and, in a very good sign, shooting the ball at an above average clip (42% on three-pointers, 47% overall).  There will be a lot of ink spilled about the potential of Walker and Kidd-Gilchrist this season, but Taylor could be quietly headed for a breakout himself.

Kemba Walker

He has shown plenty of promise thus far in his career, but this is the season in which Walker must definitively establish his ceiling.  Does he top out at that stratum occupied by the Ty Lawsons and Jrue Holidays of the world?  Or is he capable of challenging players like Tony Parker and Chris Paul for NBA point guard supremacy?  Encouragingly, Walker had a much improved sophomore run.  His shooting, while still poor, wasn't historically bad as in his rookie season.  He improved in particular in the mid-range area from the right side of the floor, but actually settled for less jump shots in general (a good move for him considering his skill-set).  Nonetheless, Walker has to continue to improve his shooting and eventually become a legitimate threat from three, something he hasn't been in either of his first two seasons.  As the season begins, teams have no reason to respect the Bobcat shooters, and as such will likely double down on Jefferson often.  It will be up to Walker to keep defenses honest and capitalize on the numerous wide-open looks he will have as a result.  Furthermore, his new teammate Jefferson is one of the most deadly weapons in the league in the pick-and-roll, and Walker would be wise to focus on improving his familiarity with that particular action; it could eventually become his bread and butter in the league (at least for the next couple of years).

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has one of the more unconventional playing styles for a high lottery pick in recent memory.  He has the athleticism and raw tools to become an absolute lock-down defender someday, but to say his offensive game is a work in progress is an offense to the world “progress”.  Kidd-Gilchrist’s shooting numbers are not bad, but he avoided missing a lot of shots last year by often simply refusing to shoot the ball.  In ’12-‘13, MKG took an astounding 63% of his shot attempts from the area right around the basket and, in fact, he attempted only nine three-pointers all of last year;  an unforgivable offense for a perimeter player in today’s NBA.  Of course, you can’t blame him for being a little embarrassed to let it fly: the rook easily had one of the worst shootings forms in the entire NBA.  The Bobcats hope that will change this year as they have employed former Cavs star Mark Price (career TS%: .586) to “rebuild” the shot of the University of Kentucky product.  For MKG, his rookie year wasn't a total loss (he sported impressive per-36 minute averages of 8.1 boards, 1 block, and 1.2 steals), but he is at somewhat of a disadvantage because he is playing in a low-expectation environment with teammates (and fans) that are used to lots of losing and lots of disappointment.  He still has a ton of potential, though, and should be careful not to let the malaise surrounding the Bobcats organization stop him from remaining hungry and seeking avenues for improvement as an NBA player.

Most exciting (coach) to watch: Steve Clifford

There are a lot of coaching retreads in this league, so it’s always exciting to see a new face, especially one with a pedigree like that of Clifford.  A former player, Clifford has been an assistant in the NBA for over a decade and cut his chops as an assistant to both Van Gundy brothers.  Considered a defensive specialist, Clifford was on the staff of the Rockets (’03-’07) and the Magic (’07-’12) when they were annually among the elite defenses in the entire league.  He has also been compared to Bulls maestro Tom Thibodeau, which is a very good sign for a Bobcats team that has employed five head coaches since 2010.  The Bobcats are a team loaded with young, developing players that could use some consistency at the top for once, and Clifford could finally be that guy.  To his advantage is that he actually has the horses to field a strong defensive team at some point in the near future.  MKG obviously has the makings of a World Peace-esque presence on that end, and Biyombo’s block numbers are good (2.4 per 36 minutes).  Walker was 4th in the league in steals last year.  If Clifford can manage to get those guys playing somewhat up to their potential (and beyond their years), the Bobcats could be a surprisingly entertaining, if ultimately losing, team next year.

Prediction: 27 wins

All signs indicate that Charlotte should be better than they were last year.  Jefferson, for all his faults, is a legitimate scoring threat and focal point on offense.  Walker, MKG, and Taylor should all take another step forward.  And Clifford will bring fresh energy and a solid game plan.  But they are stuck in a division with the Heat, an overlooked Hawks squad, and the improved Washington Wizards. And then there is the question of just how dedicated the Bobcats really are to winning right now.  In all honesty, the team could use another high lottery pick next year (and hopefully the good fortune to finally land a bona fide superstar this time).  In the meantime, the best Bobcats fans can hope for is that the kids are entertaining en route to piling up a ton of losses, and actually demonstrate some improvement along the way.  And, of course, that Detroit and Portland are good enough to play themselves out of the draft picks they potentially owe to the Bobcats.  If that happens, the Buzz will most definitely be back in Charlotte next year.   


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