In the spring of 2010 the Charlotte Bobcats got a fleeting glance at the NBA playoffs.
It was four games against the Orlando Magic, all losses to a Dwight Howard-led team that reached the Eastern Conference finals
Turns out the only participant in that playoff series who ended up mattering to the Bobcats was a Magic assistant coach named Steve Clifford (more about that later).
Over the following 14 months every significant member of that playoff roster was gone: Gerald Wallace was dealt for draft picks in February; Stephen Jackson was shipped to Milwaukee the following June; Raymond Felton wasn’t re-signed.
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And in the ultimate statement that this franchise was starting over, center Tyson Chandler was traded to the Dallas Mavericks in return for Erick Dampier’s unguaranteed $13 million contract: The salary dump-of-all-salary dumps.
These decisions were painful and costly to the team’s relationship with Charlotte. There was rage over trading Wallace, the closest thing to an iconic player. He fanned that fire shortly after the move to the Portland Trail Blazers by saying he felt betrayed by the Bobcats front office.
It all came crashing down in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons when the team went 28-120. The situation looked hopeless.
One season later it turns out the front office knew what it was doing.
The 43-39 Bobcats will make their second playoff appearance starting Sunday at 3:30 p.m. against the defending champion Miami Heat (ABC). They have a star in center Al Jefferson who will draw All-NBA and Most Valuable Player votes. They have a rising star in Kemba Walker at point guard.
They’ll have cap room once Ben Gordon’s salary falls off their books in July. They have a potentially high draft pick owed them by the Detroit Pistons that will be conveyed sometime in the next three Junes.
They have a Coach of the Year candidate in Clifford and a rookie in Cody Zeller who’s made rapid improvement the last two months of the season.
They have a future. It is sustainable. That was always the goal.
“We thought we were pretty careful about the kind of team we were putting together,” said Rod Higgins, the Bobcats’ president of basketball operations. “Both the right skill sets and the right kind of people.”
Finding a star
Successfully recruiting Jefferson as an unrestricted free agent proved to be a coup. They signed him to a three-season contract paying about $13.5 million per season. At the time of the signing the Bobcats were second-guessed about overpaying. Turns out Jefferson – the only player in the Eastern Conference averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds – was a steal.
An Observer study called “Building the Bobcats” in June of 2012 and ’13 illustrated how unlikely it was this team would sign an impact free agent. The Observer ranked the top 100 players in the league to study how those players develop and their careers transpire. Only two of the top 50 players in last year’s model had joined their current teams as a direct result of free-agency.
Jefferson was ranked No. 45 in that top 100.
The rules give teams significant advantages in retaining key free agents. But in this case of Jefferson’s old team, the Utah Jazz was starting over and already had young replacements for Jefferson and power forward Paul Millsap (now with Atlanta).
Walker started recruiting Jefferson all the way back in May on the team’s behalf. Once free-agency started on July 1, Higgins, general manager Rich Cho and Clifford pounced, locking Jefferson down over the July 4 holiday.
This was something team owner Michael Jordan always envisioned: A star talent who would embrace Charlotte as a destination the same way he did Chicago as a Bulls rookie.
Jefferson wanted to play for a winner. They sold him on this being a place he could win. It’s all turned true faster than anyone really expected.
“We’ve been underdogs ever since I got here,” Jefferson said after the regular-season finale victory over the Bulls. “Seems to have worked so far.”
Walker’s rising star
Jefferson is key because he forces the opponents to double-team in the lane, something teams seldom needed to do to guard the Bobcats. But he wasn’t the only upgrade: Walker has improved as a defender and a pick-and-roll decision-maker.
From November through January, Walker averaged five assists per game. From February through the season’s conclusion, he averaged 7.6.
Jordan played a role in the Bobcats drafting Walker No. 9 overall in 2011. Jordan saw Walker leading Connecticut to the national title as representative of his poise in big games.
Not all the recent lottery picks have been so successful. Bismack Biyombo, chosen seventh in 2011, has been hanging on as a backup center with little offensive skill. Small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 pick in 2012, has been a defensive specialist who sometimes doesn’t play in the fourth quarter.
Zeller, picked fourth in 2013, struggled initially as a rookie but has been a better rebounder and shooter in recent weeks.
Getting value from those top-five picks is crucial, based on the Observer’s “Building the Bobcats” study. Twelve of the top 19 players in the top 100 – tiered “franchise” players – were top-five picks. But the Bobcats’ history has not been good in that regard: The team chose not to re-sign Felton (No. 5 in 2005), and Adam Morrison, picked third in 2006, was a bust who’s long out of the NBA.
The Bobcats lost their own first-round pick in June (No. 16) to the Chicago Bulls, completing the Tyrus Thomas trade. They’ll have Portland’s pick (No. 24), completing the Wallace trade. They will have the Pistons pick this draft it if falls outside the top eight in the draft lottery. If not, that pick is protected only at No. 1 in 2015 or unprotected in 2016.
Adding key parts
The Bobcats consider those extra picks precious. They warded off trading either one for quick help in February. Instead they moved Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adrien to Milwaukee in a deal for shooter Gary Neal and backup point guard Luke Ridnour. Neal has been a valuable complement to Jefferson’s low-post scoring. He’s one of several small-but-wise moves that started in February of 2012 when the Bobcats acquired starting power forward Josh McRoberts for Hakim Warrick, who was immediately waived by Orlando.
They signed relative unknowns Anthony Tolliver and Chris Douglas-Roberts, and both have contributed in the rotation.
They put a competitive product on the floor this season without mortgaging future cap flexibility. With Gordon’s and Ridnour’s contracts expiring, they’re on the books next season for about $44 million in salary, roughly $20 million less than this season. (However, much of that future savings will eventually be used in Walker’s next contract).
None of this would have mattered much had the Bobcats not finally found the right coach. Between December of 2010 and last May, they burned through three coaches, firing Larry Brown and Mike Dunlap and not re-signing Paul Silas.
Finally, they arrived at Clifford, a protégé of Jeff and Stan Van Gundy over 13 NBA seasons. He organized the team defensively and established priorities where the Bobcats are last in the NBA in fouls and turnovers.
How important was finding Clifford? “He gave us something as an organization we needed in a big way,” Higgins said.