The Charlotte Bobcats finished their tenth -- and final, known as such -- season in disappointing yet expected fashion.
What slim chances they had of providing an upset win or two over the defending champions crumbled with the tearing of Al Jefferson's plantar fascia in the first quarter of Game 1. The odds already heavily against them, they fragmented further as the Bobcats tried to get by with their one-footed star center. As the losses piled up, Jefferson could no longer justify the pain of walking and playing through what he described as "stepping on nails."
Without their best scoring threat, the Bobcats still put up a great effort to make Game 4 tough on the Heat, but to no avail. It was bound to happen, though we had hoped it wouldn't have been so quick.
But this just bookends a rather great season for the franchise, one of transition.
Following two seasons in the NBA's dregs, huge questions about their roster remained. In 2012-13, Kemba Walker had a promising season, Gerald Henderson continued to improve, and they had plenty of cap space, but without much beyond that, the team had enormous holes, not to mention another coaching vacancy.
In a controversial offseason, the Bobcats made huge splashes. They hired former Lakers and Magic assistant coach Steve Clifford as their fifth head coach in the last four years. They splurged their cap space money in a big way, signing Al Jefferson for $41 million over three years, with a player option after year two. Tyrus Thomas was amnestied. Gerald Henderson and Josh McRoberts returned following new contracts, as well.
Jefferson was expected to be a statistical boon, though few thought he would contribute to significantly more wins. With the Bobcats ranking last in defensive efficiency in 2013, Jefferson wasn't expected to move the needle much on that end. Clifford had a reputation for a defensive mind, but when the starting lineup only changes by one person -- especially when that person had the defensive reputation that Jefferson had -- it's hard to expect a complete turnaround.
But a turnaround was exactly what happened.
It was murky in the first few months. The Bobcats hovered around 0.500 thanks to terrific defense orchestrated by Clifford, but they stumbled after while, struggling to get the necessary offensive production to earn the rewards their defense fought so hard for every night. Al Jefferson, following a serious ankle sprain in the preseason, did not impress in his initial games back. Dwight Howard had a dominant defensive showing against him in Jefferson's first game, that earned a particularly scathing review from yours truly.
Their mild start took a rough turn as injuries struck their young wings. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist fractured his hand early in December and Jeff Taylor was lost for the season after rupturing his Achilles tendon. Their wing depth decimated, the Bobcats' defense crumbled and they fell a good bit below the even mark.
The ship righted a bit with Kidd-Gilchrist back a month after his injury and the defense at least got back to normal. Losses eventually became more and more spaced out as the Bobcats began to see their offense make positive moves.
Month by month, the Bobcats improved from the start of the year. They reeled off four consecutive wins after the All-Star break and their offense began to have more balance as role players like Anthony Tolliver and Chris Douglas-Roberts turned in strong shooting seasons.
At the trade deadline, the Bobcats made a last grab to add to their perimeter offense, trading point guard Ramon Sessions and sparesly used power forward Jeff Adrien for point guard Luke Ridnour and shooting guard Gary Neal. Sessions had been the Bobcats' best scoring punch off the bench as a particularly talented slasher with a penchant for draw fouls, but he had a significant weakness without being able to consistently hit three-pointers. The Bobcats sensed a need to maximize their floor-spacing abilities with Jefferson in the post and an already mediocre shooting roster so they made the move, adding the two players onto the floor a few games after the trade.
The Bobcats would finish their season aiming to move out of the 7 seed with the fear of a matchup against the Heat looming. There wasn't much they could do following a slow start, but they gave it a good effort, finishing their season on an 8-1 run. Despite the Pacers doing just about everything they could to lose their hold on the top seed, they kept their spot, dooming the Bobcats to their ultimate fate against the Heat.
It feels like we once again got the Bobcats end of the deal. Not only did we drew the worst matchup against the best team, but we lost our best player -- the one most likely put on a dominating show against the Heat -- to injury. Damn, did he give it a great shot in spite of what must have felt as if his body was being ripped in half through his foot, if my own experience with plantar fasciitis is any indication. It's just a shame that's the way it turned out. I originally thought the outcome would have been the same, but after watching the Bobcats offense hobble still trying to run through him, I think I would have been wrong. And ultimately it just feels like fate took away what should have been an endearing, fun and powerful athletic performance as a large slow-footed man with incredibly agile and quick footwork tore up one of the most aggressive defenses with a wonderful understanding of how to exploit people's bodies and minds. We got to see a good bit of it anyway, watching as Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen all got their turns at finding themselves pulled into the air by a pump fake and trying to swipe at Jefferson now making his real move.
It was all too short-lived and all too unfortunate.
Such has been the existence of being a Bobcats fan amid revolver-door rosters always searching for players worthy of holding onto and searching for teams that can make for long-term competitiveness to draw Charlotte back into loving the highest level of basketball.
The Bobcats made plenty of strides, but there's still much on the horizon for them to address. There are still questions about how well their young players develop as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's offense continues to be a question mark and Cody Zeller performed merely adequately as a role player. Their backup guard spots are open with everyone but Neal off the books this summer. Bismack Biyombo has not made particularly stunning improvements and his future is also in question.
But the Bobcats also have draft picks coming up, some cap space to work with and finally the coach that can provide them the foundation to attract players and to add further to his defense, which he said was limited to mostly basic principles.
And soon, they won't even be the Bobcats, leaving behind the negative associations with misery and incompetence for brighter pastures of the Hornets nomenclature.
The Bobnets had a great start to turning the ship around, but there's still much to do to become a better team for the future. It starts with their young players, but they at least have some pieces in place already to work with while they take on new challenges.