Enemy: Charlotte Bobcats
3SOB Forecast*: 30-52
What’s the story with the ‘Cats?
In a confusing, but refreshing bit of news, the Charlotte franchise will be bringing the newly available “Hornets” nickname back by popular demand. The name originates from the notion of the city as a “Hornets’ nest” for the opposition during the Revolutionary War, so besides getting good ol’ Hugo the Hornet back into the mascot game next year, it bears relevant significance to the city — very much unlike the subliminally gratuitous hat tip to former owner Bob Johnson. While we’re on the topic of mascots, if there is one sad repercussion of the impending change of identity, it is that the totally rad Rufus (pictured above) is going to have to hang up his shades at season’s end.
Looking at the basketball-related side of their summer, the ‘Cats jumped out of the gate bright and early as they hired thirteen year NBA assistant Steve Clifford before the playoffs even reached a conclusion. Clifford has been groomed by coaching under both of the Van Gundy brothers, with Jeff in Houston and Stan in Orlando, while spending this past season under Mike D’Antoni in Los Angeles. In taking the job with the Bobcats, he will serve as the replacement for Mike Dunlap, who was let go after just one season with the team. Dunlap’s departure was reportedly a result of strained relationships with the player personnel.
Charlotte’s roster movement began with an interesting draft. I thought for sure they couldn’t pass up a chance at the flat-topped Kentucky product, Nerlens Noel… and if they did, I did not see them passing up Alex Len. Instead they opted for Indiana’s Cody Zeller, who projects on the high side as a rich man’s version of the seven-footer that they just lost to free agency, Byron Mullens, and on the low side, probably a clone of Mullens, himself.
The real splash that the Bobcats made, however, was joining the group of unlikely spenders this off-season as they shelled out $40 million over three years for former Utah Jazz big man Al Jefferson. When it comes to the level of competition that his teams tend to hold, Jefferson has come up short in his career thus far. He has found himself on some simply dreadful teams, making the playoffs just twice over the course of his nine year career. This must not be eating at him too much, though, seeing as he chose to take his talents to Charlotte, where he is probable to immediately warrant the crown of the top player in franchise history.
Who are they cooking with?
Kemba Walker was on fire to start last season. I would not be surprised as he enters his third year as a pro, if he comes out with an even bigger bang this year. Walker seriously came into his own in 2012-13, stepping up his game over his rookie campaign in every which way. Perhaps the most impressive development of his contributions was that he learned over the summer what it was going to take for him to score at this level. Per Synergy, after shooting a painfully low 36.6% from the field his first year in the league, Walker was able to counter with a far more sound 42.3% in his second go-round. His rise in efficiency comes in direct proportion to a growing comfort level playing the pick and roll. The percentage of Walker’s possessions that stemmed from pick and roll play jumped from 31.5% to 35.8%, while his field goal percentage in said scenarios enjoyed a boost from 36.3% to 43.8%.
The Bobcats’ odds of improving in 2013-14 do not rest solely on the shoulders of Walker, this time. The new post tandem of Zeller and Jefferson has a very good chance to help push them into .500 territory. Jefferson has long been a staple of the league leaders in PER, and has consistently produced on the offensive end with his skillful fusion girth and finesse no matter which city he calls home at the time. If past trends are any indication, this year I would expect little deviation in his performance. If Bismack Biyombo learns how to hone that 7’6 wingspan of his, Charlotte’s post rotation could be (I cannot believe I’m saying this) scary.
Continued growth from swingman Gerald Henderson, who was re-signed in the off-season, as well as his second year fellow wings Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeff Taylor, could help transform this team into a dangerous out on any given night. Coach Clifford said in an interview that the team’s competitive spirit is what drew him most to the job. The aforementioned wing-men have plenty to do with this identity.
How do the good guys stack up?
*Looking back over my notes.* Are you sure I signed up to talk about Charlotte? You are? *sigh* Ok then…
Just kidding. I actually like some of the young pieces on the Bobcats/Hornets/Horncats (Oh yes…Horncats, it shall be) roster. MKG is one of my favorite projects in the entire league to watch. His combination of raw, powerful athleticism and the awkward effort it produces at times gives one a glimpse of the tantalizing talent brimming below the surface, just waiting to be unleashed upon a (largely) unsuspecting viewership. Kemba Walker was must-watch TV in college due to his ability to take (and make) big-time shots — and he still has the swagger needed to do the same in the NBA. Gerald Henderson is underrated by many. I was actually hoping that the Grizz could pry him away from Charlotte this summer. They have a well-known commodity in Al Jefferson to man the low-post. They have a dynamic scoring threat off the bench in Ben Gordon. They drafted what looks to be a solid player in Cody Zeller. On paper, they look like a good, up-and-coming team.
And yet…the flaws are certainly there. They aren’t even hiding, really. They’re young and athletic at most spots, but don’t play the level of defense that you would expect from them. They were 29th in points surrendered per game and dead last in point differential last season. Their offense wasn’t much better, as they lack perimeter shooting. I realize that it is funny for a Grizz-centric blogger to talk about another team not having shooters…but they make Memphis look like the Spurs in comparison when you see that they attempted 448 fewer 3s than opponents (381 for MEM) and made 247 fewer (122 for MEM). I mean, I like Jefferson as well as the next person, but without shooters to space the floor, he will not be all that effective.
The matchups are easy to parse through with the only truly lopsided one being at PF where ZBo is already licking his chops in anticipation of taking on Jon Roser’s new favorite player: Cody Zeller. The bench is where the disparity really shows up (much like it did for Memphis a few seasons ago against the top-tier teams), and that is where the game will wind up being decided, most likely. The quality of depth for the Grizzlies should prove to be enough to garner victories in both games between these two squads.
Well, they’ve gotten rid of Tyrus Thomas. Guess they’re headed for a rebuild.
Sorry couldn’t resist that.
As far as matching up with the Grizzlies, it’s actually a pretty interesting thing. As many Grizzlies fans will remember, Bobcats games have been anything but “gimmes” over the last several seasons for the most part. This season, it should be Kemba v. Conley, Henderson v. TA, MKG v. Prince, ZBo v. Zeller (GIANT RED FLAG IS GIANT), Gasol v. Jefferson. While Walker is strong with the ball and super athletic, Conley’s ever-increasing level of defense should be able to hold Kemba to a dull roar, and Conley, we are led to believe, will let the ball do more of the moving this season, and the Bobcats’ defense overall will not be enough to hold Conley, with the duo of Jefferson and Zeller (with Biyombo a still-growing and quite talented shotblocker with whom the Griz will have to deal) not exactly comprising an iron curtain in front of the rim. The most interesting backcourt battle will be Grizzly X v. Ben Gordon. Players like him will make a great “welcome to the NBA” defensive assignment for Jamaal Franklin, if he’s with the big-league team for the majority of the season, and a stern defensive test for a player like Bayless, who will likely be matched up with him on occasion. Gordon, however, is about to go double-digits as far as years in the league go…and if he can’t hurt the Grizzlies enough to draw attention from Jefferson (with whom he’ll certainly share the court for a fair number of minutes), the Bobcats will have an extra hard time breaking through the Grizzlies’ formidable defensive wall.
I root hard for MKG. That guy has some unreal physical tools, and could surely outduel Prince on a physical basis-but Prince’s wit and wisdom will keep this matchup from tilting too hard toward Charlotte. MKG could actually stand to hold Prince as one of his “goal players”-useful but unremarkable on offense, but a stalwart on D-the hope must be that Mark Price can do his thing with MKG’s shooting and that new coach Steve Clifford proves to be a good motivator for him.
Randolph v. Zeller. Your honor, Mr. Zeller would like to enter a plea of no contest. Except that he’s tall.
Gasol v. Jefferson..now THIS I wanna watch. And have in the past, of course, with Big Al sporting a different uni. As heady and well-studied a defender as Gasol has proven himself to be, Jefferson’s push-shot-jump-hook-thingy from that left block is just deadly against the best of defenders which, let’s not forget, Gasol was voted last season, and against anything less, it’s big big trouble. NO way Jefferson stays with Gasol with the Grizzlies on offense, however. That footwork of Jefferson’s (almost as good as ZBo’s on the offensive end) does not run with him to the other end, unfortunately for him and for the Bobcats. Marc out high at the elbow? Jefferson can’t stay in front. Down low? Can’t stop the up and under. Or the drop step. Or the TA cut by smartly helping but not overcommitting.
In all likelihood, these games will be much closer than Grizzlies fans will want them to be.
But they will be victories nonetheless, I’ll brazenly predict.
Brad Graham (BUCKETS Magazine):
One could make the case that it’s a hard time to be a Bobcats fan right now (except we’re not even sure there are any ‘Cats fans out there to offend). The laughing stock of the NBA is slowly, very slowly, gaining some respect despite a revolving door of Head Coaches — the marginally successful Mike Dunlap was replaced with career assistant Steve Clifford (L.A Lakers (2013); Orlando (2007 – 2012); Houston (2003 – 2007); New York (2001 – 2003)) in what may be the toughest coaching job in the NBA — and although they can’t score (26th in team points per), they don’t locate their misses (27th in rebounds), they’re unable to set one another up (29th in assists) and they can’t stop anyone (29th in points allowed), no one knows exactly what to make of the NBA’s crazy cat lady… and that makes them somewhat dangerous. The Miami Heat are easy to prepare for (because everyone knows where the ball is coming) but that’s not the case with Charlotte. In essence, they’re an endless coin-flip.
The addition of Al Jefferson, who is still just 28 years old, will be a huge boost but unless he can duplicate his 2009 averages (when he tallied 23.1 PPG with 11 RPG for Minnesota over 50 games), his signing will be retrospectively viewed as helping Utah more than benefiting the ‘Cats (and their ultra slim chance of stealing the East’s eighth seed). Again, Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon will each be asked to provide handfuls of priceless jewels, aka veteran assistance, but it’s star-in-the-making Kemba Walker — team leader in Points, Assists and Steals — and fellow young gunner Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who remain the two keys to any chance of success. As one of the more fascinating and promising young tandems in the pros, Kemba and MGK place a sun on the team horizon but in truth, they’re more the poor mans version of what Denver and Golden State have over a ripe and ready two-man renegade.
Unpredictable project Bismack Biyombo and former Indiana standout Cody Zeller (a top ten Draft pick despite sexier picks still available) will either be continually improving support pieces or just another pair of talents who’ll jump ship once their guaranteed contracts expire. There’s no shortage of playmakers in Queen City but their true lack of reliable offensive options / threats means that Charlotte doesn’t have enough on the current roster to off-set their long shopping list of flaws. Given Jefferson and Gordon will be earning a combined $27 million this season, one would expect 20 points per from each of them but that in itself mightn’t be enough. Then again, many experts believe the team’s success hinges largely on Kemba Walker’s ability to take the leap (with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in tow).
Despite finishing with just 21 wins last season, the Bobcats are always capable of claiming a contender scalp or two. How do we know this? They can’t remain the worst team in pro sports forever. They may only win another 20 games this season but there’s a chance the Grizz may be one of their rare W’s – and mainly because they face Charlotte after visiting Chicago and before Portland comes to town. Given the ramifications of this mid-march affair, at a time when Charlotte will be eliminated from the Playoff race while the other three team’s (Bulls, Blazers and Grizz) will most likely all be in the hunt, it’s not unfathomable for the Blue Bear’s to fall victim to Charlotte. It’s not a certainty but it remains a warning. Playing Charlotte is a trap game and after the Grizz won by an average of just 13 points last season, the Jefferson signing should be able to help bridge that divide when the two tango in early 2014.
With Jefferson on board, Kemba wiser (and subsequently better) and the supporting cast expected to slightly improve, one can’t help but downgrade the Grizzlies’ chances from “sure-thing” to “definitely… but”. Michael Jordan’s team isn’t dead, they’re just lost in the NBA wilderness and anything can happen when a hungry cat goes looking for a meal in winter.
When and Where do they square off?
February 22nd: 6:00PM at the Time Warner Cable Arena
March 8th: 7:00PM at the FedEx Forum
For more Bobcats content, check out our TrueHoop comrades at Queen City Hoops.
*3SOB forecast projections are derived from an average of the contributing staff’s predicted win totals.