The Resurrection of the Charlotte Bobcats Starring Al Jefferson

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If you were to look at a list of the most intriguing stories of the 2013-14 NBA season, the resurrection of the Charlotte Bobcats would be somewhere between the reemergence of Isaiah Thomas in Sacramento and one of Dwight Howard’s farts. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Twitter handle of LeBron’s mask has more followers than the Bobcats’ official one.

If you look closer at what’s happening in North Carolina, you’ll see the seeds of an intriguing team being planted.

A savior or saviors for an NBA franchise are found either in the top ten of the NBA draft, or through a big free agent splash. Just look at the top five teams in the league. San Antonio (draft), Indiana (draft, free agency), Oklahoma City (draft), Miami (free agency), and Houston (free agency) have all used these two aspects of team building to construct contending teams. The Clippers (draft and the rare trade ft. a superstar) currently have the sixth best record. There’s a championship case to be made for all six of these teams.

Outside of Dwight Howard in Houston, Al Jefferson has been the best free agent signing in The Association. His presence along with Kemba Walker’s steady play since the turn of the calendar, and the progression of Josh McRoberts into a Marc Gasol lite ball distributer from the high post and wing, has morphed the Bobcats into what Herb Kohl wanted the Bucks to be this season. A seven or eight seed that is nothing more than a confidence enhancer for either Indiana or Miami.

As odd as this may seem, being a doormat for either the Pacers or Heat is better for the Bobcats than once again receiving ping pong balls as a consolation prize. Bobcats’ fans…Hornets’ fans sounds so much better, may not even remember that basketball can actually be played in late April.

It’s been four seasons since the Charlotte Bobcats have finished the regular season with a winning record, so it shouldn’t be any surprise to hear that the factory of basketball sadness hasn’t appeared in postseason play since 2010. The last time the Bobcats appeared in a playoff game, Tyrus Thomas went for 21-9.

In the season after the franchise’s first playoff appearance, Charlotte finished 34-48 and drafted Kemba Walker with the ninth pick. He’s turned out to be the second best player in that draft. Kyrie is the only player ahead of Walker and that will need to be reexamined two years from now. In the 2012-13 lockout shortened season, the Bobcats produced one of the worst teams in the history of the league (finished with a 7-59 record and were screwed missed out on drafting Anthony Davis and passed on Andre Drummond to take Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at two). Last season, the Bobcats finished with the second worst record in the league (21-61) and passed on Nerlens Noel to select Cody Zeller with the fourth overall pick.

In the three seasons since their last playoff appearance, the Bobcats missed out on a super-duper star, drafted a player with a broken shot (Kidd-Gilchrist), took a flyer on a versatile big (Zeller), passed on a dude who has the potential to be the best center in the league (Drummond) and drafted a young exciting option at point guard who could very well turn out to be the second best player on a contender (Walker).

When Al Jefferson signed with the Bobcats this past offseason for $41 million over three years, it felt like a money grab before he would inevitably get tired of the rebuilding nature of the team and then move on to a contender at age 31. There’s still two more years for this scenario to fully blossom, but there is a new scenario that is starting to come into focus. A scenario filled with actual hope.

Barring any major injuries down the homestretch of the regular season, the Bobcats are going to make the playoffs. They’re currently three and a half games up on the Knicks and Pistons and four games up on the Cavs with just under 20 games left to be played. Since 2014 began, the ‘Cats are an even 16-16. If they continue this trend, it seems likely they’ll be steady enough to hold onto one of the last two playoff spots. Atlanta is holding on for dear life, the Knicks and Pistons need to go on a run that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen and the Cavs have fallen back down to Earth after a hot run in February.

While a prolonged stretch of .500 ball sounds mediocre, this season feels like a success for Charlotte. The ‘Cats are seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions (101.6), they were dead last in 2012-13 (108.9). Their win over Denver on Monday was their seventh straight home victory, which matches their entire win total from two seasons ago.

Big Al Jeff is 14th in John Hollinger’s PER (22.79). He’s ahead names such as James Harden, Goran Dragic, Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The praise for Jefferson isn’t going to end their folks. He’s averaged 24.3/8.9 since 2014 began and has been the stable rock the ‘Cats needed if they wanted to start their rebuild.

It hasn’t been all gravy in 2014 though. The Bobcats are 4-12 against current playoff teams (12-4 against non-playoff teams, mmmmmm smells like mediocrity). One of those four wins was a recent thrashing of the Pacers at home, which is a team the Bobcats could face in the first round. It’s obviously unlikely that the ‘Cats will make any sort of real noise, but they could hold their own in a few of the games a la’ Sixers-Heat first round series in 2011.

Who knows, a Kemba Walker playoff buzzer beater is certainly in the cards right now, but more importantly the foundation for repeat playoff appearances is beginning to form.

Follow me on Twitter @Scottdargis

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