My faith shaken, my emotions stirred, I may have watched the effective end of this Bobcats season well before I thought I would.
Every team has the stretch that defines them. This year's Bobcats team entered the holiday season with a chance to show that they could hang with respectable teams. They had .500 well within their grasp and had one of the better defenses in the league. Kemba Walker had a hot streak going, and the team fought in every game; scrapping for respectability in a league that has none for them.
Among NBA fans, the Bobcats-Hornets have been a joke. They have had no traction near the top of the league in decades. When they do get semi-coveted players, those players either leave the team to chase success and more pay or languish beside spotty rosters before being traded away. Drafts came and went under several coaches and general managers with little to no fanfare. No No. 1 picks, no obvious future all-stars. Sure, there have been some good picks, Walker being one of them, but no franchise player has come into the hallowed halls of Time Warner Cable arena. Not once.
All that had to change this season. The team did everything essentially right. They focused on getting better offensively via the draft and free agency. Gone were the "project picks" like Bismack Biyombo, in comes proven collegiate player Cody Zeller. Gone were the "gamble signings" like Brendan Haywood, in comes Al Jefferson. Gone were the paper tiger coaches, in comes defensive-minded Steve Clifford.
The team shifted the philosophy after losing the most games a team could lose without being the worst in history. This season, with teams in the East seemingly in a scramble to lose, would feature a Bobcats-Hornets team that would surface as a conference upstart.
They started fairly well, flirted with .500 and even gave good teams real struggles both at home and on the road.
All that hope lays itself bare now, exposed as fraudulent. The Bobcats-Hornets delivered a season-altering stretch starting just before Christmas. They are 1-8 since Christmas, those eight losses dropping them to eight games below .500. They are 4th in the Southeastern Division and fading hard in the playoff chase. As good teams cruise through a particularly tiresome part of the season and some struggling teams make their move, the Bobcats-Hornets have played the worst basketball of the season.
Worse yet, they've proven that nothing they did this offseason could bring them relevance.
In this week's losses to Chicago without recently traded Luol Deng, a Wizards team who endured recent struggles themselves and a blowout loss in Minnesota, the team gave their fans so little to cheer about that announcers Steve Martin and Dell Curry practically begged those watching on television to stick around and see if the team could reach 90 points - a harbinger of half-priced Papa John's pizza.
At least the fans could gorge themselves at the trough of dismay for half-price.
Like the losses, the excuses have begun piling up. The team recently lost their best defender for an extended time and then immediately lost his backup for the season. The team, already struggling to score, could ill-afford to lose their defensive leader as well. Those bad breaks would hamstring so many teams.
Plus, the dearth of talent at power forward has haunted the team throughout the season. A rotation of Josh McRoberts, Anthony Tolliver and Zeller, a rookie, could not hold all season. While we wait to see if Zeller proves himself as an upgrade on the position, the team's forwards continue to suffer through a tough season.
The most important question I can muster after this absolutely miserable couple of weeks dangles like the sword of Damocles over this Bobcats-Hornets team: Is all lost?
The answer, of course, depends on the schedule. The team will face a reprieve in scheduling - a delay of that hangman's noose if you will - when they return to the Eastern conferences dredges. Four of the next five games involve teams with losing records, though the Knicks have won a few in a row.
The gallows built, the will of the fans irrevocably shaken, Charlotte must prove that they belong amongst the middle of the pack.
Otherwise, the final season as the Bobcats will swing slowly, the neck stretched and the neck cracked, with few onlookers reminded that a playoff team once seemed possible.