Beating the Charlotte Bobcats-Hornets use to mean so little that teams would purposefully bench their starters in an attempt to keep them fresh for more important games. In media circles, they called it a "scheduled loss."
During Charlotte's quest for mediocrity, they stumbled headlong into the Era of Despair.
As Charlotte entered one of the toughest parts of the early-season schedule last week - games against perennial contenders and an upstart Suns team - fans learned a little about the Bobcats-Hornets. We exited the Era of Despair, despite our sub-.500 record.
In losses to Chicago (pre-Derrick Rose injury), Miami and Phoenix, fans learned that Charlotte could not beat good teams. In a blowout win over Milwaukee, we learned that bad teams could not compete with us. And, perhaps most importantly, in a win over Brooklyn, we learned that teams could not play without stars and still beat us.
Charlotte does not suck. We have entered the Era of Mediocrity.
Let that sink in a moment while I repeat it a different way: As of right now, the Bobcats-Hornets are a mediocre basketball team.
For most teams, this would indicate a problem. For this team? Mediocrity indicates a considerable improvement. Think about it this way: These past two weeks looked like a horrid set of blowouts on the schedule. Instead, the Bobcats treaded water.
Of course, the Heat did not have to play their whole team and still beat Charlotte. The best team in basketball will do that. Let's call that game an exception rather than the rule.
Otherwise, last week's tough losses to good teams and wins over struggling teams played into the overall narrative the Bobcats-Hornets have built. They have developed into the early-season NBA litmus test. If you own an NBA franchise, beating Charlotte right now means something.
Hornets-Bobcats losses: Rockets, Pelicans, Knicks, Hawks, Heat, Bulls, Suns
Hornets-Bobcats wins: Cavaliers, Knicks, Raptors, Celtics, Cavaliers, Nets, Bucks
With the exception of the Knicks, a team they have beaten once, the Bobcats have only lost to teams at .500 or better. Their wins have come against the NBA's worst early-season teams - all .500 or worse.
This data won't mean anything in a few weeks, but it means this team is exactly mediocre right now. Their inability to beat good teams could improve with a full-time Al Jefferson or could continue to spiral. Certainly, though, they will be playing teams at their full-strength. With a more formidable lineup and a bench that can keep them in games, Charlotte has ensured something more exciting than their record reflects.
Fans get to see them play the best players in basketball again.
The Brooklyn game proved it; without their starting center and point guard, Brooklyn struggled to score against a much-improved Bobcats-Hornets defense. Brooklyn started a team that would have rested against them last year as Celtics. In fact, they did, taking an aforementioned "scheduled loss." Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce played big minutes and struggled mightily. This does not mean Brooklyn will continue to struggle once they get healthy, but it proves the larger point about this Charlotte team improving.
While the struggle for mediocrity still leaves the Bobcats-Hornets with much improving to do and some tough lessons to learn, this improvement provides a better on-floor product. The young nucleus improves every game. Kemba Walker hit some clutch shots in the Brooklyn win, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played solid defense against some of the league's better small forwards though struggling to stop the best player in the world. Jeffrey Taylor's assault on NBA rims continues as he develops a slash-to-the-basket game to compliment his corner three. Cody Zeller continues to warrant more playing time as he crashes the boards.
True, Kemba struggled with his shot over the past two weeks. And Charlotte's abysmal 4th quarter offense showed up often, but close games and tough losses might build a reliable future.
Disgusting as it might seem to lose to the Suns, a road loss to a middling Western Conference squad does not translate as a terrible loss early on. In fact, it looked more like a scheduled loss than anything. Mediocrity comes with multiple boundaries and winning out west proves difficult for the best teams.
Bearing with a bad team - something fans did so often the past few seasons - can take it out of you. Watching other teams take the night off against your squad would frustrate the most ardent fans. So losses to the Suns might turn fans away in other seasons.
This season, though, will be less difficult to watch. The Suns will fade, and so might the near-.500 Bobcats-Hornets. Until then, though, I urge the casual fan (and myself) to enjoy watching the effort this team puts out as well as the effort the other teams must expend to compete with it.
The quest for mediocrity met, the quest for relevance begins.