NBA Season Preview: Bobcats still building

After 28 wins the prior two seasons, the expectations in Charlotte aren’t abnormally high. There’s no owner-mandated playoff push like in Washington or New Orleans. However, the arrival of Al Jefferson has probably given this franchise more hope than they have had since their misnomer 7-5 start to last season.

Jefferson adds the polished, low-post scorer basketball fans in Charlotte haven’t seen since Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson left. Still, a starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and Jefferson appears destined for bottom 10 in the league. That’s the beautiful thing about the Jefferson addition: it gives the Bobcats’ fanbase hope without making them significantly better in a rebuilding job. 

At some point, it can’t be a rebuilding year in Charlotte anymore … but that year can’t be this year. Not with the strongest draft class in years on the horizon. Not with a roster that has a couple young players with promise, but no one that’s emerged as the guy for you to build your franchise around. 
The Bobcats need to keep adding building blocks, and they should be able to do that after this year with draft pieces and cap space opening up from the disposal of Ben Gordon’s contract. 

The biggest question now: how much does the Jefferson addition help? They’ll definitely be more competitive with Jefferson and the maturation of Walker, Henderson, Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeff Taylor and Zeller, but they were abysmal a season ago on defense, finishing second-to-last in the league in scoring defense. They showed improvement there in the preseason, possessing the league’s best preseason defense, but that was largely without Jefferson – an admittedly weak defender. 

Key Player: Al Jefferson

The Bobcats didn’t toss $41 million in Jefferson’s direction for him not to be the face of this franchise. Everything will work through Jefferson with the hope that the inside-out nature of new coach Steve Clifford’s offense will cure the outside shooting woes from a season ago where the Bobcats only shot 33.5 percent (27th in the NBA). He put up 17.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game last season and has been quite vocal since his arrival that no one in the NBA can defend him without help. 

He’s questionable for the season opener (sprained ankle) but immediately becomes the Bobcats best offensive player when he hits the floor. There were plenty that questioned how much money the Bobcats gave him, and Jefferson will have to prove his defense is no longer a liability. 

X-Factor: Gerald Henderson

Who is the real Gerald Henderson? The Gerald Henderson of the final 21 games last season put up 23.9 points per game on 47.5 percent shooting. Those are NBA All-Star numbers. But the Henderson from the other 47 games he played in only averaged 11.8 points and largely blended in on a team desperate for an alpha dog scorer. 

He’s a below average perimeter shooter for his position (33 percent from 3-point range) despite a jump from 23 percent a year prior and needs to make another jump this year to help solve the team’s perimeter shooting woes. Henderson is only 25, so it’s not unreasonable to think the confident Henderson that was banging in mid-range jumpers and attacking the rim the last 21 games is the type of player he can be on a consistent basis. He’s a much better spot-up shooter than he is shooting off the dribble and Jefferson’s presence should allow him more of those opportunities. This is a big year for Henderson.

Rookie Watch: Cody Zeller

Drafting Cody Zeller over the more highly rated Ben McLemore and Nerlens Noel was a risk the Bobcats thought worth taking. The Bobcats think he has all the tools to be the stretch four they need to complement Al Jefferson in the paint. Zeller’s a stellar athlete, posting the highest standing vertical for a player 6-foot-9 and above in the last decade at the NBA Combine, and he’s a legit seven-footer. He ran the floor better than any big man in college basketball last year and that fits with what the Bobcats are trying to do offensively. He was solid in the preseason averaging nine points and six rebounds per game in 23 minutes but only shot 44 percent from the field and 54 percent from the line.

Can he consistently hit a jump shot off of a pick and pop to help Kemba Walker, though? And will he show the toughness and strength needed to defend in the paint and finish at the rim against the league’s big men? The Bobcats seem to think so and he looks like their starting power forward from opening night.

Bottom Line

Even the most optimistic would have a hard time seeing this team as a playoff contender. It’s hard to classify a season a success if you wind up bottom five in the league, but that’s what the Bobcats need in a league where at least five teams are in full-blown tanking for the Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle prizes that await. They’re in a small market with zero ability to go above the luxury tax and need to add another young and cheap asset before trying to challenge. 

This season should allow them to both position themselves for the future through the draft and show the improvement needed to give the fan base hope that this team’s heading towards playoff contention in the near future. Even more ideal would be if Walker, Zeller or Kidd-Gilchrist could establish themselves as the franchise cornerstone, but none look the part at the moment. 82 games could change that.