The Charlotte Bobcats are two months into their 2013-2014 regular season and they are enjoying their most successful season since making the playoffs for the only time in franchise history in 2010.
After 32 games, the Bobcats have a 14-18 record, which at first glance might not seem that impressive. However, when you realize that record is good enough for the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference standings as of January 1st, 2014, the ‘Cats appear to be a team on the rise in a conference with several below average teams.
Making their record even more impressive is the injuries they have sustained so far this season. Eighteen games into the season, second year small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist fracture his left hand, causing him to miss 4-6 weeks. MKG is close to returning, and should only miss a few more games before returning to the team, but as the team’s best defender, the Bobcats have surely missed him during this stretch.
Hurting the Bobcats even worse was the fact that backup small forward Jeffery Taylor, who took over the starting role for Kidd-Gilchrist after his hand injury, ruptured his Achilles tendon causing him to miss the remainder of the season.
Of course, several teams suffer injuries over the course of the season, but the Bobcats losing their top two small forwards really hurts a team that doesn’t have the deepest wing-depth to begin with. Not to mention, center Al Jefferson missed several games in the beginning of the season due to an ankle injury, however he seems to be rounding back into form and is averaging over 17 points and 10 rebounds per game this season.
Charlotte has been the sixth best team in the Eastern Conference for mainly two reasons. The first and most obvious reason is defense. Only the Indiana Pacers let up fewer points per 100 possessions than the Bobcats have over the first two months of the season. Charlotte has been a top five defense in the NBA all season, thanks in large part to the defensive principles and strategies of first year head coach Steve Clifford.
Clifford runs a very similar defensive scheme to the one the Chicago Bulls have run the last few seasons under head coach Tom Thibodeau, emphasizing collapsing in the paint to make it harder for teams to score easy points close to the basket, as well as stopping the opposing team’s transition game at all cost.
In a conference as historically bad as the 2013 Eastern Conference has been so far this season, having a top five defense is more than enough to place Charlotte firmly in the playoff race through 32 games.
The second reason the Bobcats have gotten off to a good start compared to years past is the emergence of Kemba Walker as a bona fide NBA All-Star candidate. Up until this point in the season, Walker is averaging close to 19 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds per game.
Not only is that stat line impressive, but Walker is putting those numbers up while improving his field goal percentage to over 41 percent and his three-point field goal percentage to over 36 percent. Before the season, Walker had a career three-point field goal percentage below 32 percent. Walker’s offensive efficiency that he has displayed on a nightly basis is desperately needed for a team that struggles to score, averaging the second fewest points per game in the NBA.
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Considering the fan vote is a portion of the NBA All-Star balloting, it is probably safe to assume Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving will take one of the point guard spots for the Eastern Conference team. After Irving, there would seem to be two more point guard spots to fill on the East roster and Washington Wizards point guard John Wall, along with Walker, would probably be the favorites to fill those remaining roles.
Without the all-star caliber play of Walker so far this season, Charlotte’s already below average offense would be brutal to watch and would also be wasting one of the best defenses in the NBA.
The Bobcats still have a long way to go to be considered a contender in the Eastern Conference. However, with only two actual contenders in the East, the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, the Bobcats could easily capture their first playoff berth since 2010.
With the expectation that Kidd-Gilchrist will be back in the next week or two, the Bobcats defense should only get stronger and their wing play will improve as well. This good news, along with the play of Kemba Walker, could lead Charlotte to 35-40 wins this season and a playoff berth, which would in return lead to some much needed playoff experience for their young nucleus years before anyone thought they would be a playoff team.
Two months into the season, one would be crazy to give the Charlotte Bobcats anything less than an “A” on the progress report up until this point and depending on how the rest of the season goes, the Bobcats could be one of the best, feel-good stories of the 2013-2014 NBA season.
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