Two years ago, the Charlotte Bobcats won seven games. Granted, it was a lockout-shortened season, but 7-59 still really stinks.
This year, the Bobcats are headed to the NBA playoffs. They assured themselves of that qualifying offer by beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in overtime over the weekend. It will be just the second postseason appearance in the franchise’s nine-year history.
So how did the Bobcats do it? Well, it’s not exactly some sort of magical secret. It’s not like owner Michael Jordan suddenly turned into the Michael Jordan of 1992, ripped off his expensive suit, stepped on the court and started slamming home wins.
Instead, Jordan and his staff plucked some dazzling players out of the NBA Draft lottery — players who were proven winners from big-name programs. The most notable of those: Point guard Kemba Walker (Connecticut), small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Kentucky) and shooting guard Gerald Henderson (Duke). Last summer, the Bobcats drafted Cody Zeller (Indiana), a rookie power forward who fits their mold and has come along nicely.
Oh, and the Bobcats also signed free-agent center Al Jefferson. He entered the regular season as a really effective player. He’s exiting it as a potential all-pro.
And we can’t forget the coach. Steve Clifford, after all, has gotten the most out of this bunch in his first season with the Bobcats — and his first season as a head coach anywhere since leading little Adelphi (N.Y.) College in the late 1990s.
Clifford is also the Bobcats’ third coach in three years. He not only stands a great chance to be their third in four years, but considering this season’s developments, you have to think the possibility of a Coach of the Year honor exists too.
Clifford stresses defense and scrappy play, but not at the expense of the offense. The Bobcats bend their knees, shuffle their feet and move the ball. They play hard, they play together. It’s not just some fancy marketing-inspired motto. For the Bobcats (39-38 through Monday), all-for-one really is the way they handle their business.
"This is a significant accomplishment for our group of guys, and it puts us in a different place in the league," Clifford said after their playoff-clinching win. "The guys in the locker room are excited — and they should be — because we’ve got a good group of guys and a group of guys who are truly deserving."
Jordan has taken a lot of flak for his failures. It seems all anyone has ever wanted to discuss was how he oversaw a front office that selected floppy-haired flop Adam Morrison with the No. 3 overall pick in 2006. Or that seven-win nightmare. Or how the Bobcats finished 21-61 last season.
But instead of overreacting and caving to loudmouthed (and typically uneducated) skeptics, Jordan stayed the course. Little by little, he built a roster through the draft. He refrained from making any panic-induced major trades. He shuffled coaches in and out until he found the right fit. And clearly, landing Clifford was coup. It appears Jordan hit another game-winner at the buzzer with that one.
As for the players, Jefferson is the rare big man who is very effective underneath or from mid-range, a great teammate who doesn’t need to dominate the ball to dominate. Through Monday, he was putting up averages of 21.7 points and 10.6 rebounds.
Meanwhile, Walker is having a career season in his third year. He’s never been a great shooter, but he’s made improvements there, and in every area. It’s hard to find people in this league with Walker’s determination and winning mentality.
Then there are the dudes on the wing. Kidd-Gilchrist is developing into a Shawn Marion-type, an athletic and hustling defender who can slash to the basket. And Henderson may be the most underrated player, particularly at his position, in the NBA.
The result? No one is laughing at Jordan and the Bobcats anymore.
They’ll be called the Hornets again next season, getting back the nickname from the first team in Charlotte that left for New Orleans. (Jordan was behind the name change, too.)
But whatever you call them, it may not be a bad idea to say it with some respect. As Clifford indicated, this is a group of guys that is truly deserving.
"This means a lot, individually and as a team," Henderson said. "I thought we would be good, but I think we’ve exceeded everybody’s expectations — even our own."
— Unrestricted free-agents who appear unlikely to return to their current team next season: Ray Allen (Miami); Boris Diaw (San Antonio); Luol Deng and C.J. Miles (Cleveland); Marvin Williams (Utah); Luke Ridnour (Charlotte); Kris Humphries (Boston); Devin Harris (Dallas); Jimmer Fredette (Chicago); and about 85 percent of the Lakers.
— It should be noted that many league insiders think if LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade all remain with the Heat next season, Allen could be offered a smaller deal to stick around, too. He turns 39 in July.
— Heat forward Shane Battier is retiring at season’s end, and while a lot of folks think he’d make an exceptional TV analyst, several teams are expected to contact him about a front-office or player-development role.
— New Orleans guard Brian Roberts is blowing everyone away at the free-throw line, where he has knocked down 120 of 127 attempts for a scorching 94.5 percent. Roberts will be a restricted free agent, and his all-around solid season may force the Pelicans to ante up.
— Roberts is 28 but in just his second NBA season (both with New Orleans). He went undrafted out of the University of Dayton in 2008, then bounced around Israel and Germany before landing in the NBA. His productivity has several league sources believing that second-year guard Austin Rivers could be dealt come summer.
— Steve Kerr has expressed an interest in returning to the NBA as a coach, with his name repeatedly linked to New York and team president Phil Jackson. But if Kerr (currently employed as a TNT analyst) doesn’t land with the Knicks, expect several others to reach out. Kerr supposedly prefers to coach, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see several teams try to recruit him to run their basketball operations, sources said.
— You can also expect former Memphis coach Lionel Hollins and 2013 Coach of the Year George Karl (Denver) to be mentioned as possibilities to fill every opening this summer. Ex-Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy, Indiana assistant Nate McMillan, Phoenix assistant Jerry Sichting and Atlanta assistant Quin Snyder are others to keep an eye on.