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Monday, February 24, 2014

The Era of Mediocrity's first-half season: What we've learned

Posted by on Mon, Feb 24, 2014 at 1:13 PM

Charlotte arrived at the all-star break with their mission still intact: remain in the hunt for the playoffs. Just the fact that that mission remained a possibility made this half-season a remarkable success.

Since the destruction of the Gerald Wallace-Tyson Chandler era, Charlotte spent several seasons at the bottom of the league including recording the worst season (in winning percentage) in the history of the NBA. Bobcats-Hornets fans know that. But it bears repeating, since basketball fans and experts cannot deny that a largesse of losses can improve teams just as much as free agency and a playoff berth with the upcoming draft.

The Virginia Slims approach to this season - "You've come a long way, Bobcats" - assumes the fans are happy with a losing record so long as the team no longer plays the worst basketball in recorded history. Fan reactions on message boards and on websites have a generally positive vibe. Most comments hold specific weak points - like the power-forward position - accountable instead of institutional weakness.

This shift should have been the point of the Michael Jordan regime all along. Jordan's control of the team should have ushered in an era where decent free agents and middle-round draft picks made for a consistently watchable team. Charlotte may not have been championship material by now, but certainly we would not be cheering mediocrity as though it were a step in the right direction.

That said, history's concreteness spurns the fans. They cannot change the worthlessness of the past three or so seasons, and they have every right to look toward a brighter future.

The Bobcats-Hornets 23-30 record places them 8th in the Eastern Conference - a half-game ahead of Detroit for a playoff berth. While 23-30 seems feeble, the team played without one of its two best offensive players for long stretches of the season. When fully intact, the team showed a solid defense and a below average offense meshing to challenge most good teams and beat most bad teams. Every team has inexplicable losses, and the Bobcats-Hornets have their fair share.

After a phenomenal game against the Mavericks on Tuesday, they put up an awful performance against the Nets on Wednesday. Having the most back-to-backs in the league and playing their worst ball on the second night of those back-to-backs has hindered the team greatly. Charlotte's record on those second nights stands at a horrid 3-12 with an average of 87 points per game. The schedule of those games has been mercifully mixed, but getting the Pacers, Bulls, Heat, Suns and Nets on those nights may as well lead to scheduled losses.

One particularly brutal stretch of games really cemented Charlotte's fate for the first half. After Christmas, the team dropped eight of nine games during a long road trip when the team stood on the cusp of relative respectability. They started the trip with a record of 14-15 only to drop to 15-23. Since then, they have played .500 ball even through the loss of Kemba Walker to injury for a few games.

Without that stretch, this team looked like a contender to make the playoffs and draw a seed favorable to them winning in a series. That's still very possible with a favorable second-half schedule coming their way.

The driving force behind watching this team, despite the scheduling foibles, injuries and that awful post-holiday run, lies in the strength of the players and coaching staff. Al Jefferson's run from January until now has been nothing short of extraordinary. Walker's improvements continued despite early season struggles and an ankle injury. While other young players have struggled with playing time and/or shot selection, Walker and Jefferson have carried the load. They provide a bright spot in a lulling offense. Jefferson leads the team in points per game, rebounds and blocks (20/10/1.2 respectively), and Walker leads in assists and steals. While his assist numbers don't really inspire fans too much, he scores 18 a game as a compliment and remains one of only two players that can consistently create his own shot.

Gerald Henderson's ongoing obsession with fadeaway baseline jumpers hinders my ability to compliment him, but he's scoring 15 a game and has been instrumental in early game possessions when the offense lacks energy. Anthony Tolliver leads the team in 3pt% and 3ptFGs, which speaks both to his role on the team and the team's need for a perimeter scorer. Josh McRoberts has played well in stretches and has developed a game that compliments Walker and Jefferson nicely when they play together. He shoots threes sometimes, but the effects of those threes have been linked to heart defects.

While Ramon Sessions struggled in Walker's absence, he continues to play the backup scoring guard role well. Head coach Steve Clifford uses both guards in a smaller lineup that looks and sounds delightful, but the numbers may say differently. When that Walker-Sessions happens, however, the eye test shows an offense more willing to attack the basket with an abundance of quickness.

That kind of attack has been lacking all season for the Bobcats-Hornets for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, the lack of shooters that can create their own shots consistently keeps defenders from switching or doubling. The aforementioned lack of long-range shooters, allows those same defenses to collapse the lane whenever a player like Walker, Sessions or, to a lesser extent, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist attacks the lane.

While Jefferson commands double-teams from many squads, he cannot command them on every possession and the Bobcats know that. Coach Clifford loves ball rotation. In press conferences, he often mentions ball reversal as a means to an end. That end, of course, being a refusal of the Era of Despair when isolated players often jacked shots with little time left in a possession so often that it became the norm.

Clifford bounces around lineups a lot, though, trying to find the right mixes of shooting and attacking while keeping roles intact. He has repeatedly stranded Biyombo at the end of the bench despite his size and shot blocking ability, eschewing those skills for extra offense.

The need for offense leaves Kidd-Gilchrist's future in mild doubt. He's found himself with less minutes since returning from injury, though not completely castigated from the starting lineup. The team loves Kidd-Gilchrist, but the coaching staff might see a future less bright - something of a bother, even, seeing as how the organization picked him second over Bradley Beal (a need position) and all-star Damian Lillard (though he plays Walker's position).

Halfway through the season, the players expect a rotation that makes sense and a team poised to make a move. Jefferson said exactly that after the Mavericks win last week. The tinkering, though may yet serve some purpose.

Fans often believe they know what a team has before the season, but not too many predicted an eight-seed this far into the season*. Charlotte, despite their many foibles, has a real chance to discover their place in the league for a couple of years to come. No longer does the "are we a punching bag?" question hold merit. I've harped on the team's mediocrity as a plus before, and I'll do it more: This kinda rules.

The Bobcats-Hornets don't win the big ones all the time. They cannot win back-to-backs. They likely won't make a huge splash this year. The nagging and fairly wonderful sentiment remains, though.

You've come a long way, Bobcats.

*-Someone over at Rufus on Fire did, but I cannot remember which writer. For the record, I thought we'd be 10th in the East, which is, ugh, still a possibility.

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