Game tips at 7:30 p.m.
Broadcast: Fox Sports Detroit / 97.1 The Ticket
Big thanks to David at Rufus on Fire for his great insights. Be sure to visit him on Twitter @daviDBWalker and Rufus on Fire's Twitter @Rufus_on_Fire.
While Charlotte raised a few eyebrows this summer, few expected them to be as competitive as they have been. What's been the key to success to this point?
Steve Clifford has really gotten the group to buy in to his defensive philosophy and commit on a nightly basis. The second part of that has been equally, if not more, important for this team than the first. There are games you can steal some nights in the NBA just by giving a little more effort. And obviously that's not exactly a measurable stat but the Bobcats are playing hard every night. One opposing coach said they always played hard, but now they are organized. And that's true as well but the work on the defensive end of the court has been the difference for this team. The Bobcats will still have struggles scoring the ball on occasion and they're not a very good shooting group, so those are going to remain weaknesses for the time being. But you can bring defense every night regardless and so far Clifford has gotten them to do just that.
After a slow start, Kemba Walker's certainly turned it on in December. What should Detroit look expect to see out of Walker?
Walker has always had a knack for the pull up jumper, and he can stop on a dime and explode almost as soon as he halts. Two nights ago against Toronto in overtime was a prime example of how quickly he can get his jumper off. It was also a look at what he is becoming for this team and that's the alpha dog. Walker made a nice jump from his rookie to sophomore season, but the Bobcats were so putrid during those two years that his play was somewhat futile. This year he's benefited from having Al Jefferson in the middle, and I think a lot of his December success has been because Al has gotten into more of a groove, and the team has gotten used to him, after sitting out a good portion early on. But Kemba deserves a lot of credit for taking the reins and being the leader. The chemistry this year is the best it's been in a very long time. This is Kemba's third head coach in as many years and for a point guard entering the league that instability can make an already challenging transition that much more difficult. I certainly think having Clifford and the knowledge of Mark Price hasn't hurt either.
But to finally answer your question, Walker is going to look for his shot and look to push the ball up the court when he can. He's still a good finisher, especially for his size, and his quicks have not gone anywhere. I don't know if he can keep up this pretty amazing shooting streak he's on right now, but with Jefferson in the middle the looks will be there.
The Bobcats seem to have some nice young, talented players in Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Taylor, and Cody Zeller, though they seem to be having mixed results so far. Which of these players look like they'll be part of the team's long-term future?
Well if you believe trade rumblings (and why wouldn't you?) then Kidd-Gilchrist is being shopped to some extent. It's tough for many of us who have watched this team, and his time on it, to really believe that at this point. He's just in his second season. The Bobcats knew what they were getting when they drafted him and knew what they weren't. His jump shot is never going to look pretty. But his shooting percentage is a little better this year. However Rich Cho drafted MKG to guard guys like LeBron James and Paul George, and that's what he's been able to do (as much as anyone can) even as young as he is. Anything could happen but I think there would be surprise from those who pay close attention to this team to see MKG go anywhere any time soon.
It feels like they want to certainly build around that young core of Walker and MKG...Gerald Henderson and to some extent Biyombo and Zeller. Zeller being a rookie they like his versatility but he's struggled to hold his ground at times early on. Biyombo still can't really catch a pass, but he can catch a rebound. Something the team has always needed. Henderson is interesting because he tested the market but didn't get much interest. I think his signing was one of the best values of the off-season, and he's played pretty well so far. Still, if shooting remains a major concern for a team and you're the starting shooting guard who know you still have some things to prove.
Taylor is simply the best value draft pick in the history of the franchise. Picked in the second round, he's been about as pro ready as you could ask through two seasons. He's not the defender MKG is, but he's no slouch and his scoring will keep him in the rotation. For this season I don't see any of the young core going anywhere because the return likely wouldn't be enough to change the season outcome.
What's the early grade for the Al Jefferson signing?
I was a fan of the trade when it happened, yet didn't think it would make the team quite good enough to challenge for a playoff spot. So clearly the team is doing better than I thought it would early on. Jefferson has been so valuable for this team for his obvious play and ability on the court, but also having a veteran leader who's had success and can be a go-to guy. His offensive skill in the low post is something the Bobcats have never even come close to equaling. You can't truly measure what him just being on the court has done for the players and he's been pretty good himself since he's been healthy.
Still, it sort of depends which camp you fall into: the tanking camp or the playoff push camp. Those looking to win as many games as they can have to give this trade an A. Those looking to stay in the lottery of this year's draft are probably a little worried and would give this signing something closer to a C because they see the potential for this team to remain middle of the road.
But the Jefferson signing was important for this franchise so it could start to be seen as a possibility for free agents. They maybe overpaid a little, but he's been so good on the floor and in the locker room that it's been money well spent so far. It's difficult to have watched this team from inception and not give that signing an A. Is that shortsighted? Some would probably say it is but the draft and lottery have never been kind to the Bobcats, so at some point you have to make a move when you can to positively impact your organization and they did that.
Based on the results so far, what is your prediction for the rest of the season out of the Bobcats?
I picked them to not even break the 30-win mark, around 28 I think. So if the Bobcats keep this up and stay healthy they look in great position to obliterate that. However they have made their money largely against the Eastern Conference thus far and the schedule will get more difficult. But winning breeds winning and that Toronto game Wednesday night, on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back was a classic they-wouldn't-have-won-that-game-last-year game.
There is a bit more fight in this current squad than in years past. Some of it will depend on if the rest of the teams in the East can get their stuff together. I do think they will be a threat for the playoffs for the rest of the year. The talent level is much better obviously, but depth is still somewhat of a concern and that annoying shooting thing will continue to be an issue. This team is learning how to win and close games out but they've yet to master it. So ultimately I think the Bobcats are still a year away from grabbing that playoff spot. Youth and relative inexperience are going to be challenges.
That being said no Bobcat team has surprised me more than this one. Clifford has been nothing short of fantastic for this group and they are starting to believe they should win games. I don't think they'll be an easy out.