In advance of the final Los Angeles meeting between the Clippers and the Charlotte Bobcats (barring a trip to the NBA Finals this season for both teams, stop laughing) I sent some questions to Ben Swanson, the editor of SB Nation's Bobcats blog, Rufus on Fire (my favorite of all the blog names in the network). I also answered some questions for them, which you can check out over there.
Steve Perrin: I'm trying to care about the Bobcats, really I am. But it's not easy Ben. It's just not easy to care about this team. I kind of liked Jeffery Taylor, and now even he's gone. Give me a reason to care about these guys Ben. I want to believe.
Ben Swanson: Aw, shucks Steve. Have you forgotten the American Dream? Do you recall the inscription etched into the Statue of Liberty's plaque? "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." The Bobcats are America's team, in the ABC Family kind of way. They are overachieving and succeeding with a strong strategic coach guiding them despite their past saying they're not worth a whole lot. On paper, Al Jefferson is enough to doom a team's interior defense. This season, he's been solid in Steve Clifford's defensive sets. Kemba Walker is a small man doing huge things as a dynamic player. Josh McRoberts is one of their best passers. Were it not for injuries at small forward, this team would be oddly inspiring and fighting for a good playoff seed somehow.
On the flip side, injuries to two of their best defenders have weakened their defense significantly, and since defense is where they live and die, the Bobcats have lost four of their last five games. Their offense is often a mess and can struggle to find a flow and consistent ball movement. Shooting is a major weakness. Sometimes they play Ben Gordon for the entire fourth quarter.
You don't know what you're going to get with the Bobcats and if nothing else, it's compelling and competitive.
SP: On the bright side, when Ben Gordon comes off the books this summer, there won't be any more terrible contracts (depending on how you feel about Al Jefferson's deal, which really isn't terrible yet). Do you feel like there's a plan in place this time to build something the right way? Does the team have some of the building blocks in place?
BS: It looks like they're going to try to attract talent in free agency in the future and I'm not quite sold on how well they can do that. Jefferson was a decent get but not exactly one in high demand at that salary. With cap space, a lot is possible, so we'll see. Kemba Walker is a terrific young guard and they have some other good young players. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been pretty good but one wonders if he'll become a top-three option on an offense that wants to contend in the playoffs. His defense is there but lacking an outside shot, he's not the hardest player to scheme against.
The plan seems to be to maximize their current talent, attract players in free agency, build a good culture and they have some first round picks still in the coming years.
SP: When the Bobcats become the Hornets again, don't you think it's going to be really confusing? When discussing any franchise history, you're going to have to specify which franchise. Do you have any thoughts on how you're going to handle this? Perhaps a vintage? "The Hornets (est. 2004) all time leading rebounder is Emeka Okafor", that sort of thing? Or maybe we can use a amalgam, the Horcats and the Pelinets, to keep them straight?
BS: I mean, anything can be explained well enough if it's thorough and somewhat concise. "The new-era Charlotte Hornets' all-time leading rebounder is Emeka Okafor, from their days as the Charlotte Bobcats." I'm on board with the amalgam thing though, for sure. "Bobnets" is a favorite of mine. Or maybe the Horcats and Horcans? Never mind.
SP: Steve Clifford has the team playing great defense, despite not necessarily having personnel known as great defenders (like Big Al for instance). What's the secret to the defensive success?
BS: Great gameplanning and scheming with the talent he has. He knows Jefferson is slow-footed and easily exploited in the pick and roll if he plays up and tries to hedge. So Jefferson consistently opts to ease back and never hedge, which does well to defend in the restricted area. Jefferson is a poor athlete in regards to vertical ability and agility, but in the post he's decent enough to hold his own. The problems come against the quicker centers. Dwight Howard and DeMarcus Cousins ripped him apart. For players like Cody Zeller and Biyombo, who are much quicker and can hedge to try to trap ballhandlers, Clifford will let them play up on pick and rolls. Anyway, Clifford is fine to live with giving up the midrange to save defense at the rim. Midrange shots are less efficient and clog passing lanes, which makes for a much improved Bobcats defense. The rotations are also more consistent, which helps.
SP: On the other hand, the Bobcats are 29th in the league in offensive efficiency. Is that just the reality of this roster, or should they be better than that?
BS: A little of both. The roster has very little in the way of three-point shooters, one of whom is out for the season (Taylor). This closes down the court for them in the paint a lot. Also, Al Jefferson's having a rather underwhelming year as a scorer. The major thing is definitely the shooting, though.
Thanks for answering my questions, Ben. Apologies if it all came off a little douche-y. You'd think a Clipper blogger of all people would be sympathetic. But no. It's all glitz and glamour around here these days, can't be bothered with knowing anything about the Bobcats. That's my bad.
Be sure to stop by Rufus on Fire (which sadly will be renamed next season to coincide with the new Hornets name) to check out my answers to Ben's questions.