CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Michael Jordan’s Bobcats set an NBA record for futility two years ago. Now, they’re talking playoffs – albeit in a watered-down Eastern Conference.
That state of the conference doesn’t matter to the Charlotte, not after being the laughingstock of the league following a 7-59 season in 2011-12. The Bobcats’ culture appears to be changing under first-year head coach Steve Clifford and behind the play of Al Jefferson.
Even though the Bobcats (22-28) are six games under .500, they have already surpassed last season’s win total with 32 games still remaining. They have positioned themselves as the No. 8 seed in the East with a three-game cushion in the win column over the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons.
”It’s right there for us,” Clifford said of the postseason.
The Bobcats have only been to the postseason once – in 2010, when they were swept in four games by Orlando.
Now, with guard Gerald Henderson the lone holdover remaining from that team, the new-look Bobcats are talking about returning to the postseason.
”I don’t see why we can’t make the playoffs,” said point guard Kemba Walker, who returned to the lineup Tuesday after missing nearly three weeks a sprained ankle. ”I think we have a great team. We’re playing great basketball right now.”
The 6-foot-10 Jefferson isn’t surprised by the Bobcats improvement.
After signing a three-year, $40.5 million contract this offseason, Jefferson said he saw the team’s playoff potential during training camp.
”I felt like that from day one,” Jefferson said. ”I felt like we could. But saying it is one thing, you have to go out and do it and prove yourself. And we still haven’t done it yet.”
Not even in the woeful Eastern Conference.
Still, Jefferson has done his part to help energize the Bobcats.
He scored 30 points and pulled down 13 rebounds in Charlotte’s 91-75 win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night, helping the Bobcats win three of four on a West Coast swing.
Jefferson averaged 23.4 points and 11.3 rebounds during January – third-most in the East. He had five 30-point games last month and a dozen 20-point outings.
”He’s been unstoppable,” Walker said.
Given Charlotte’s recent struggles – they were 28-120 over the two previous seasons – the Bobcats say they are more eager to improve their playoff position than their draft position.
Jordan told The Associated Press earlier this season that he didn’t believe in tanking games to improve the team’s draft position.
Walker agreed on Thursday, calling that notion ”ridiculous.”
”Personally, I don’t think we need any more high draft picks at this point,” Walker said. ”We have a great team.”
That might be a bit of stretch. The Bobcats still have plenty of holes.
But Clifford said a little playoff experience would do wonders for this young and inexperienced group of players.
”It would be great for this team,” Clifford said. ”You can talk about it. They can watch it (on TV), but until you go through it, there’s nothing like the playoffs. … I don’t think there could be many things that would be more beneficial for our team.”
That said, avoiding a potential first-round matchup with Miami or Indiana wouldn’t hurt either.
Washington and Chicago, the East’s No. 5 and 6 seeds, are both 24-24.
”We have a tough stretch coming up,” Clifford said. ”We are going to have to play our way in. But we have proven on any given night we can play with anybody. So we’ll see what happens in the next 32 games.”