This offseason, the Charlotte Bobcats gave highly-coveted free agent Al Jefferson a three year, $41 million contract. This major signing was expected to improve the Bobcats from their abysmal 28 wins over the last two seasons.
After the first five games, the Bobcats are 3-2 and are ranked 4th in the NBA in total defense, giving up only 94.4 points per game. So, one must assume Jefferson is making a major impact on both ends of the floor, right?
In the first preseason game of the year, Jefferson severely sprained his left ankle and missed the rest of the preseason. Jefferson then returned in the regular season debut against the Houston Rockets and played 30 minutes. His opener as a Bobcat was average at best; as it was obvious he was rusty from not playing for most of the preseason, shooting only 31 percent from the field.
With Jefferson out, the starting lineup for Charlotte has been Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Josh McRoberts and Bismack Biyombo. This lineup is pretty much the same one last year’s Bobcats put out on the floor after acquiring McRoberts at the trade deadline a season ago.
Obviously, putting the same starting lineup that only won 21 games a year ago isn’t ideal after signing a big-time free agent and having a top-5 draft pick. However, the Bobcats have seemed to be a better team through the first five games. The main reason for the early season success would seem to be coaching.
The Charlotte front office hired head coach Steve Clifford this offseason after the long-time assistant had been in the NBA for the previous 13 seasons. Clifford also put together a star-studded coaching staff around him, including Hall of Fame player Patrick Ewing and long-time NBA sharp-shooter Mark Price.
Clifford has a reputation around the NBA as a defensive-minded coach, cut from the same cloth as successful head coaches Jeff Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau. As is evident by allowing the 4th fewest points per game, the Bobcats’ players have bought into the defensive intensity of their coach.
One area that Bobcats have shown much improvement so far is transition defense. Clifford noted in the offseason that getting back on defense to prevent opposing team’s easy buckets is non-negotiable. After five games, the Bobcats lead the NBA in fewest fast break points allowed.
Jefferson is expected to miss a couple more games, and should be back sometime next week. Though the big man doesn’t have a great defensive reputation, his offensive ability will immediately upgrade the offense more than downgrade an already good NBA defense.
Ultimately, last year’s Charlotte Bobcats started 7-5 and then ended the season only winning 14 of their last 70 games, so getting off to a fast start isn’t unusual for most of the Charlotte players.
The difference from this year’s Bobcats is that they have a legitimate NBA coaching staff that is committed to making Charlotte a good defensive team. Not to mention the ‘Cats also have one of the best offensive centers in the NBA waiting in the wings to make his impact on this team.
While the Bobcats are obviously not one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season, there is reason to believe this team could finish the season with a record around .500 and compete for a playoff spot. For this franchise, that would be a huge step in the right direction and Jefferson will look to keep the early season success going for the Bobcats when he returns.
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