Posted Aug 18, 2013 10:24 AM
Reboot and rebuild. Those words have dominated the conversation about the Charlotte Bobcats in the two seasons Kemba Walker has played for the franchise that made him the No. 9 pick in the 2011 Draft.
Be it coaching or personnel changes, they have always been accompanied by those words and whatever ramifications come with them in a franchise that has for too long used them as staples this time of year.
It feels different this time, though, at least for Walker. The addition of Al Jefferson, a seasoned low-post operator acquired via free agency, presents an entirely new dynamic that Walker can't wait to take advantage of in this latest reboot under new head coach Steve Clifford.
"I've honestly never really played with a dominant big man, a guy who commands the kind of attention he will night in and night out," Walker said. "I don't think people realize how he changes the game for guys like Gerald [Henderson] and myself, the guys who have to work on the edges. I looked back at the way we played last season and some of the shots we took, and the situations we were in was ridiculous. The degree of difficulty was off the charts. It won't be like that with an anchor down low."
Jefferson's addition didn't push the Bobcats into a different category in the Eastern Conference and it didn't inspire the sort of universal praise from the pundits that helps generate the sort of buzz and excitement you usually get with a big offseason move. But internally, and perhaps most importantly in the locker room, adding a 6-foot-10, 290-pounder with the production (career 16.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks) and experience the nine-year veteran brings changes everything.
It takes the pressure off of not only Walker, Henderson and other returnees, but also a young and talented 7-footer like Cody Zeller, the No. 4 pick in the June Draft.
"No offense to the guys we've had in that spot before, but you don't realize how important it is until you play in this league without that kind of presence," Walker said. "It makes all the difference in the world to know that we have Al rolling with us. It changes everything."
If it changes the Bobcats trajectory going forward, then maybe this reboot and rebuild could be different from the others.
2012-13 record: 21-61
Division finish in 2012-13 (place in conference): 4th (14th overall in East)
Offensive rating in 2012-13 (NBA rank): 93.4 (26th)
Defensive rating in 2012-13 (NBA rank): 102.7 (29th)
The Bobcats are trying to rise from the depths of a five-year stretch that has seen them become a staple at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, save for their brief playoff experience in 2010 under Larry Brown, a first-round sweep at the hands of the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic.
Ranking near or at the bottom of the league in the major offensive (28th) and defensive categories (30th) certainly didn't help the cause last season, when the Bobcats went 21-61 in Mike Dunlap's first and only year at the helm. No one was sure what he would bring to the situation after being a surprise pick as head coach before the 2012-13 season. And the Bobcats' uneven showing after the first three weeks of the season proved the skeptics correct.
A leadership void on the roster, bench and some would argue the front office and ownership level, has contributed to the malaise. Having the most famous owner in the history of professional sports (Michael Jordan) does not change the fact that the Bobcats have been a complete afterthought in the Eastern Conference playoff chase in each of the past three seasons.
With Henderson, Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller, Jefferson along with role players like Jeffrey Taylor, Ben Gordon, Ramon Sessions, Brendan Haywood, Bismack Biyombo and Josh McRoberts, the Bobcats at least have the semblance of a roster capable of legitimately competing for a spot higher up the food chain in the Eastern Conference this season.
There is still a considerable distance between them and the playoff field. But at least they will look the part, at least on paper, when training camp begins.
Clifford certainly brings a sense of stability and calm that the Bobcats haven't had recently. His track record of success as an assistant in New York, Houston, Orlando and Los Angeles (Lakers) is a locker room capital that his predecessor simply did not posses.
Clifford inherited a team in desperate need of an identity and has promised to deliver with a combination of defensive accountability and up-tempo offense that suits his young core more than it does Jefferson, who is much better in the half-court set. Melding his vision with perhaps his most important player promises to be one Clifford's greatest challenges.
With some uncertainty in Atlanta and Orlando and the Wizards sitting in a similar predicament, the Bobcats have to decide if they are going to take the patient route and see their young talent develop or chase the quick fix (via trade) and try to fill the void that could exist in the Southeast Division standings behind the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.
It's risky business once you realize that another major roster misstep buries you deeper down the depth chart in the division and the conference. If Jefferson isn't the right fit -- and despite Walker's excitement, there are many who question the compatibility -- this whole thing could come unraveled again.
The Bobcats are still very much a team and franchise in transition. In fact, they'll go from the Bobcats back to the Hornets before the start of the 2014-15 season. They need top-five talents Kidd-Gilchrist and Zeller to mature and come into their own by then as well to avoid becoming a permanent fixture in the lottery discussion.
Both Walker and Kidd-Gilchrist were on the U.S. Men's National Team's mini-camp roster last month in Las Vegas, which is a clear indication of what the league's power brokers think of their talent and potential. And yet it's Zeller who has the highest ceiling of any player on this roster.
He shined in Las Vegas, sticking out among the Summer League crowd the way you need a top pick to in that environment. His rookie season, however, requires him taking his game to another level if he's going to be a true impact player.
"I know rookie year is a big year for learning," Zeller said. "It's a big transition going from college to the NBA. I'm just going to come in, try to work hard, try to learn every day, and try to have an open mind for what the coaches are telling me."
With Jefferson as the immediate answer inside and a potential star like Zeller as perhaps the long-term anchor of the franchise, this latest reboot and rebuild in Charlotte might finally start to take the shape of something other than a lottery regular.
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