It’s safe to say that going into the 2012-13 season, there was no bigger underdog in any sport to even be passable than the Charlotte Bobcats. At the risk of depressing everyone by looking back to the dark dark past, last year they had the worst record -- not just for the season or as a franchise -- but in the entire history of the NBA. If you watched them -- or even glanced at their roster -- you could easily conclude that they were on the short list for “worst professional basketball teams ever assembled”, with their closest competition probably the Flint Tropics or Pittsburgh Pythons. Other than the occasional Bismack Biyombo block, they were wretched defensively, problematic not just because “defense wins championships”, but because they also couldn’t score to save their lives. It was hard to think of them climbing out any time soon from the dark abyss that is last place in the Southeast division.
However, even just a few games in, the Cats look like a different team. They appear (surprisingly) competent, winning more than half as many games in 3 weeks than they did in the entirety of last season while jumping out to a 5-4 start. Sure, one of those wins against a Wolves team so injury ravaged they were down to eight players by the game’s end, but considering their Wolves overall record, the team that had come to personify losing is looking -- if not yet “competitive” -- feisty. This can be credited to several things: Kemba Walker’s shooting, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s competitive fire, Ben Gordon’s scoring, and Ramon Sessions not playing like Ramon Sessions. Where or not that’s sustainable is the question they’ll have to answer next.
On the surface it seems about as likely as Demarcus Cousins win a sportsmanship award. It’s only been nine games and if you're reading a piece on the Charlotte Bobcats after less than a dozen games, you're likely familiar with "regressing to the mean" being not just a rule of thumb but a fact of life. Kemba’ll start clanking shots, MKG will begin playing (and acting) like a rookie or Ramon Sessions will look in the mirror. Maybe they’ll find a way to eek out 30 wins, but there’s no way they could sneak into the playoffs, right?
With the Pacers are struggling without Granger and the Sixers just casually floating along without Bynum, things have changed. Could both teams still get in? Yes, but they are hardly the locks they were less than a month ago, leaving two playoff spots up for grabs. Who could take them?
Obviously not the Wizards (without Wall) or the Magic (without talent) or the Pistons (without the ability to win). Milwaukee's looking good -- or at least as look as good as they have since the “Fear The Deer” days of 2010 -- which leaves two others: the Raptors, who have struggled even when Kyle Lowry was healthy, and the Bobcats.
With such a stereotypically weak field in the Eastern Conference, the Bobcats really do have a shot at one of the last two seeds, or, at least, that’s how it seems right now. Maybe in a few weeks -- when they're 7 games under .500 -- we will all look back at me as an idiot for even considering this, but for the team being it’s a fun thing to think about.
What would it mean for that franchise, for that city to come back so strong after such a miserable year? The Bobcats have never really been accepted by Charlotte fans, who still long for the days of Larry Johnson and Glen Rice.
But if a frisky young team, who no one expects to do anything, makes a legitmate run at the post season people would have to take notice. The Bobcats may already have the core (or part of the core) of a very solid team. With Kemba Walker -- who was the king at UConn and MKG -- the heart and soul of last year’s Kentucky team -- they have two young players who won titles in college; relentlessly competitive athletes who are only going to get better as they go along. Behind them, they have a solid cast of role players with Gordon, Sessions, and Brendan Haywood. If Bismack Biyombo can channel his intense athleticism into actually learning how to play basketball, they could go even farther.
But even if the Cats don’t manage to grab what is a now a wide open 8th spot, they don’t necessarily have to get into the playoffs to make a statement. If they can just compete all year long, and get a few wins against quality opponents, that would send enough of a message: that the Bobcats are not a laughingstock anymore, that the fans have reasons to show up. It’s still too early to tell if they can they make that much of a leap. For the sake of professional basketball in North Carolina, we should be desperately hoping they can.