I realize we're a little past the 41-game point that marks the dead middle of the season (five games past it, to be exact) but I'd like to briefly summarize the season to this point and some of the ups and downs.
Where we at?
19 - 27
The Bobcats' season outlook had no real consensus after making its biggest offseason move in year: the divisive signing of Al Jefferson for $40.5 million over three years. The basic two lines of thought on opposite ends of the spectrum were this: (1) Al Jefferson would be good enough to improve the Bobcats to take them out of the bottom of the East as Charlotte's young talent developed around him to make for a team built with room for improvement; (2) Al Jefferson would not be good enough to improve the Bobcats significantly and the team would have marginally more wins with much smaller cap space.
The reality has been somewhere in the middle to this point. The future impact of his presence remains to be seen, but right now he's playing at or near All-Star level with 18.9 points per game and 10.5 rebounds and even a couple assists. His offense has been invaluable to a team that has to rely heavily on drawing fouls to have offensive efficiency.
The Bobcats haven't exactly gotten the multi-faceted offensive boost that they expected with a player of such caliber with the ball in his hands. In fact, this year's Cats squad is scoring less efficiently than last year's. Despite hopes of a more fluid offense, Charlotte's taking the most midrange shots (between 15-19 feet out) of any team, though they've cut down heavily on the long twos (20-24 feet out). This kind of midrange shots are typically more contested and, more importantly, squeeze the team's spacing, especially because this area is often around the limit of some players' range.
In spite of the mild offensive decline, the Bobcats have been much better on the whole because of a systematic improvement on defense thanks to Steve Clifford and his coaching staff. After finishing dead last defensively last year, the Bobcats got a new coach and have now staked a claim firmly in the league's top 10. Though they started even better than their current sixth-place status, injuries to the Cats' wings took their defense down a peg, especially in early January. Cunningly using his personnel's strengths and minimizing its weaknesses, Clifford devised a defense that strives to take away shots at the rim by doubling down, so to say, to give up more space in the midrange, which clogs opponent spacing. The Bobcats' defense also doesn't foul much or give up many offensive rebounds, which helps eliminate second-chance or bailout points.
The wins haven't consistently been there, however. The defense does give the Bobcats a much better shot to hold onto leads or to at least keep their offense close enough to have a puncher's chance in most games. At times during this season, the defense crumbled (ex. Clippers Jan 1, Trail Blazers Jan 2, Timberwolves Jan 10, Knicks Jan 24) and the offense had no chance to keep up against the offenses of any of these teams without the defense to help keep them in it.
The Bobcats suffered a major loss with Jeff Taylor's season-ending Achilles tendon injury and Michael Kid-Gilchrist's hand fracture took a chunk out of the Bobcats' defensive foundation. Kidd-Gilchrist is back now but the Bobcats are in the midst of Kemba Walker's recovery from a sprained ankle. Walker could return at the end of the week and the Bobcats have surprisingly held their own with a 2-2 record without him, though they've now lost two in a row. Walker is having a rather great scoring season so far and his absence's impact has certainly been felt.
|2013 - Kemba Walker||42||35.7||6.7||16.0||42.1||1.5||4.4||35.5||3.7||4.6||79.9||0.6||3.6||4.2||5.0||2.5||1.4||0.5||1.6||18.7|
All said, the Bobcats are having a season better than people expected them to have. I don't recall the magazine, but before the season began I saw a certain basketball publication predict the Bobcats' win total to be 19. They're at 19 right now and hold a slim margin to keep them in the eighth spot in the East for the playoffs.
Where to go from here?
The Bobcats will reclaim Walker from the bench within a few games, hopefully, but the road to the playoffs won't be easy. The defense will need to hold its elite status to maintain the team's position as the offense continues to try to find its groove from game to game. This team's ceiling isn't very high due to how inconsistent the offense is but it still has the capability to make the playoffs in the East, which is an insult deserving of death in some cultures around the world.
Of Charlotte's remaining 36 games, 19 are on the road and 10 of those road games are against teams currently slated for playoff spots. Detroit and New York are a game back of the Bobcats and the eighth seed. Cleveland is 2.5 games back.
The outcome of these races will also tie into the draft order. Charlotte's own first-round pick could be shipped to Chicago if the Bobcats finish outside the bottom 10 in the league. Detroit's first rounder would be the Bobcats' unless the Pistons are one of the worst eight teams. And I think it's quite safe to say the Bobcats will receive the Trail Blazers' first rounder, barring an act of basketball gods.