The Charlotte Bobcats-Hornets had a dilemma this offseason. With a chance at a top pick in a stacked 2014 draft, they could have put together another historically bad season. They could have tanked, fixated on the ever-elusive "future." But they chose to get better.
The 2013 draft had a prime candidate for tanking fall directly into their laps. Nerlens Noel looked like the overall No. 1 pick until he tore his ACL during his lone college season. A seven-footer with great defensive skill but a rough offensive game, Noel slipped to the fourth spot in the draft and into Charlotte's laps.
With Noel, the team could have had 1st pick talent and a player unable to play a bulk of the season. If they were hunting for 2014's potential, they found perfection.
Rich Cho and the management team, however, were not eyeing "next year." They decided to improve this year. They signed Al Jefferson, a power forward/center with an abundance of scoring talent. They drafted Cody Zeller, a power forward with the potential to be a running/rebounding big man and developing shooter.
The Bobcats-Hornets, for the first time in years, took an offseason to improve the team immediately instead of position themselves to get better later. They want to win now.
Of course, they won't win now. They lack the talent to push for second place in a weak Southeast division, much less make the playoffs.
The strangest part of the coming season? The fans, maybe more than team, stand at a precipice.
This will be the best Hornets-Bobcats team in years, despite their likely losing record. New coach Steve Clifford preaches defense and rebounding. He will bring a new offensive look to a team that led the league in groans from spectators.
As fans, we have a lot to cheer for in a losing cause. While no one wants to watch a team struggle to be mediocre, Panthers fans do it every game. Eighty two games obviously slogs along compared to 16, but Charlotte embraced the eight-seeded Gerald Wallace teams a few years ago. They loved the LJ/Mourning teams who, albeit exciting, had no chance at a championship. What will it take to have Charlotte love this rag-tag bunch?
The first step to enjoying this team? Letting go of the past three seasons. We should not forgive Michael Jordan and his past management teams for their mistakes. We should, however, praise them for this offseason.
The two aforementioned moves - Jefferson and Zeller - really do compliment this team. Jefferson will create the space needed for Kemba Walker to control the ball. Zeller will give the team needed rebounding and energy from a position that gave us, well, Byron Mullens.
Gerald Henderson, his style aside, can benefit from having skilled offensive big men as well. Charlotte's lack of talent shone on offense. In particular, their abhorrent spacing left them without a chance to make plays. The offseason moves present a chance to solve that problem, at least.
The next step? Embrace head coach Steve Clifford.
His predecessors left us bereft of personality and defense, but Clifford has been an assistant for good basketball teams. He's seen the Finals. He embraces the defensive mindset that left with Gerald Wallace and Larry Brown. He also knows his talent. He's gone on record as saying his team strengths revolve around the lane for the first time since they were, uh, the Hornets.
He loves his depth, too, with decent talent coming off of the bench. Watching this team's rotation could actually be pleasurable for once. The 'Nets-'Cats feature "once in a while" Ben Gordon, Bismack Biyombo, Josh McRoberts, Jannero Pargo, Ramon Sessions, Brendan Heywood's six fouls and Jeffrey Taylor. While they may not have a murderous lineup, the team will have players with experience coming off of the bench and a couple of guys that could develop into serviceable pros.
All this and we get to see how Michael Kidd-Gilchrist improves in his second full season. His potential as a defender already astounds and delights fans, but what will become of his stagnant offensive game? Can he learn to shoot? Another reason to tune in.
Mostly, though, we should watch because the team won't be god-awful. With slight improvement comes great responsibility for fans. While this team might not be season ticket-worthy just yet, they do warrant attention.
Earlier last year, the team started off hot. As their talent began to overtake their inspired play, the crowds laid farther back in their seats, the games got quieter and the announcers searched for ways to fill the void. The 2013-2014 Bobcats-Hornets have more than just a squad. They have a real chance to improve. They have new leadership on and off the court. They have a team that can score just a little bit and will compete on defense.
Charlotte has a chance to win a few games and climb out of perpetual putridity. They could have easily chosen potential over immediacy. Yet, the march to mediocrity begins tonight, and I, for one, will be watching the improvements. I hope I am not the only one.
*A correction from my last post: I mistakenly said the opening night game was Nov. 1 against Cleveland. Obviously, I was incorrect. Apologies. I owe you all a coke.
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