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Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Season Previews: Charlotte Bobcats

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New Bobcats coach Steve Clifford poses with his new frontcourt (Getty Images)

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

I think we can all agree that this is getting pretty ridiculous.

The Charlotte Bobcats made a splash over the summer in signing the biggest free agent the team has ever paid to have known. The franchise glommed onto former Celtics, Timberwolves, and Jazz center Al Jefferson to a three-year, $41 million deal. This, combined with another middle of the road lottery pick (last draft’s fourth overall pick, let’s be honest, is an eight or a nine in any other draft) along with the usual hoped-for internal development and yet another head coach is being banked on to …

Ah, forget it. It’s the same as it’s always been. Team owner Michael Jordan also hired his brother as Director of Player of Personnel. Because of course he did.

New coach head Steve Clifford comes with a strong pedigree, he’s done fine work on some very good teams as an assistant coach and he appears far more gregarious and communicative than Mike Dunlap, the rookie coach that the Bobcats used as a scapegoat of sorts for cobbling together a 21-win roster that eventually won 21 games. Clifford and associate head coach Patrick Ewing will once again look to work with a raw set of big men (minus Al) that may or may not ever pan out. This is the Bobcat way.

Which is unfortunate, because as a loving recent oral history of the first Hornets season in Charlotte (one that ended with 20 wins but also a parade from excited locals) documents, this should be a basketball-mad town. The issue here is due to a combination of bad lottery luck, questionable draft choices, inconsistent coaching and out and out parsimony the Bobcats will struggle to even hit 30 wins this year. That would mark just one winning season in the first 10 years of the Bobcats franchise.

Jefferson will help. He’s quite self-aware, very talented on that low left block, and signed through his prime. It’s true that the undersized Jefferson, some four and a half years removed from an ACL tear, could have some issues as he enters his 30s, but Al has been scoring over bigger foes for years, and his production should sustain.

The real issue is the rest of the lottery also-rans. Kemba Walker had a fantastic and encouraging second year in the pros last season, but Michael Kidd-Gilchrist looked startlingly raw in his rookie year. He’s still a fascinating player to watch because of his wingspan and instincts, but his offensive skills were severely lacking last year, and nothing but a complete turnaround on that end will leave him as anything somewhat approaching an average offensive player. Gerald Henderson is solid, little else, and signed to an appropriately average salary, and it’s just about time to give up on Bismack Biyombo.

All of this leaves us dubious about Zeller, who was not particularly dominant down the stretch of his final season at Indiana. Were Zeller to trade places with, say, Alex Len as the first draft choice of the analytics-driven new Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough, our take might be cheerier. But because we still have no clue as to who has the final say in Charlotte – between GM Rich Cho, the two Jordans, and President Rod Higgins – we’re left to fall back on history. And outside of Walker, with MKG still coming around, history has not left us with much to get excited over.

All Bobcats fans want is stretches of competence, and not the 14-56 swoon that finished last season, or the record-setting 7-59 turn that the team came through with in 2011-12. There is reason to tune in this year – Jefferson will have his way despite the team’s iffy outside shooting, Kidd-Gilchrist’s drive and unique style could turn into something special, Walker could be a starter or third guard on a very good team, and Zeller could follow through on his promise – but by and large the ceiling is still very, very low. With a rookie coach. And an owner that seems to meddle too much in between fits of parsimony and free spending.

Bobcats basketball, basically. Something that will probably carry over even after they change their name.

Projected record: 25-57

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Kemba Walker turned the corner. (Getty Images)


Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

Tune into the Bobcats for … the breathless pursuit of a not-bottom-10 offense.

This might not surprise you, but it is true: In nine seasons as a thing, the Bobcats have never fielded anything even approaching a league-average offense. They’ve finished dead last among the NBA’s 30 teams in points scored per 100 possessions once (in the historically awful 2011-12 run to 7-59), 28th three times (their first two seasons and last year) and 27th twice (‘06-’07 and ’08-’09). Charlotte’s best single-season finish came in 2007-08, when the Bobcats posted the NBA’s 23rd-ranked offense and a 30-52 record; Queen City residents have not seen middle-of-the-road scoring since the Hornets headed to Louisiana.

They probably won’t see one until after the Hornets return, either, but the Bobcats could make a move toward vaulting out of the league’s bottom 10 and toward respectability, if nothing else, thanks to the offseason addition of organizing offensive principle Al Jefferson. (Provided, of course, he’s able to come back none the worse for wear from a preseason ankle injury.)

Big Al knows all about bad offenses -- he first got major minutes during the Boston Celtics’ tank-tastic 2006-07 season, which Doc Rivers’ squad finished as the league’s third-worst group, and he played on bottom-10 teams in each of his three years with the Minnesota Timberwolves. But he comes east after serving as the offensive focal point of Utah Jazz teams that finished 14th in the league in scoring efficiency in 2010-11, seventh in ’11-’12 and 12th last year. If Jefferson can prove capable of routinely generating scoring opportunities when single-covered in the post -- his calling card throughout a nine-year NBA career -- then opposing coaches will have to choose between staying home on the perimeter and letting Al go to work or bringing help to the post, which creates chances for kick-outs, ball-swings and more open looks for his teammates.

Successfully working inside out figures to be critical for a Bobcats team that doesn’t have a ton of long-range shooting to spread the floor. Only reserve shooting guard Ben Gordon has been a consistently above-average 3-point shooter in his career. There are chances for improvement, though -- both point man Kemba Walker and re-signed wing Gerald Henderson nudged their accuracy north last year, small forward Jeffery Taylor was only a bit below league-average as a rookie, and reserve guards Ramon Sessions and Jannero Pargo (while inconsistent) have shown flashes of long-range proficiency in the past. Besides, those Utah squads weren’t chock full of snipers either, and they were still able to generate spacing and scoring chances with well-executed sets, timely cuts and sound passing.

New head coach Steve Clifford will have his work cut out for him in replicating that functionality, but installing a left-block centerpiece off of whom Walker, Henderson, second-year workhorse Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and others can cut, dive and operate should help. It could also allow for some high-low combinations with deft-passing power forward Josh McRoberts, and maybe open up space for rookie Cody Zeller to showcase his off-the-bounce athleticism and face-up game on the opposite side of the floor.

A Bobcats offense that hasn’t had a go-to player since 2009-10 Stephen Jackson and has never had a legitimate paint presence now has bot; as a result, Charlotte now has a chance to show some signs of life. (Offensively, at least.) Probably not enough to be middle-of-the-pack and certainly not enough to contend for a postseason berth, but maybe, on good nights, enough to actually be watchable. That, sadly, represents progress.

Honorable mentions: Kemba mixing dudes and pulling up; MKG dunking very loudly; Zeller’s athleticism in transition; that classic Pargo-to-McBob magic.

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

The Bobcats have been so bad of late that it’s somewhat difficult to know exactly what many of their players are good at, or how they may fit into a functional basketball team. That is especially true of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the 2012 draft’s second-overall pick and a player who doesn’t necessarily project as a big-time scorer. On last season’s Bobcats, MKG was perhaps saddled with too many scoring expectations, and he responded with middling stats.

Kidd-Gilchrist’s 2013-14 season could be quite different, if only because the Bobcats have added a decent first option in Al Jefferson and should have something resembling an NBA offense. In this system, MKG can at least hope to build an identity without taking on too much responsibility too soon. Ideally, he projects as a player somewhat like what Andre Iguodala has become in recent years: a third or fourth scoring option who contributes in virtually every possible aspect of the game, defending the opponent’s best perimeter scorer and simply outworking most everyone else. Kidd-Gilchrist has a long way to go to get to that point, but the path now seems clearer than it did in his rookie season.

It’s as yet undetermined if MKG can fill that role well enough to justify his lofty draft position, and it’s possible that a lack of gaudy statistics will cast him as a bust very early in his career. However, that designation seems all too theoretical in the context of his budding career. What Kidd-Gilchrist needs, more than anything, is tangible progress, in whatever form becomes available to him.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte BobcatsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz

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