Like Michael McDonald said, "This is it." The Washington Wizards host the Charlotte Bobcats and, as Jake details here, this is likely the most important meeting ever between these two teams. This game will have enormous effect on Washington's playoff positioning. If Washington wins, they (probably) own the conference record tiebreaker against Charlotte, strengthening their grip on the sixth seed in the East and helping them to avoid playing Indiana or Miami in the first round. If they lose, Charlotte ties the Wizards in the standings and seizes the head-to-head tiebreaker with an easy schedule down the stretch, so I hope you like watching Roy Hibbert.
In anticipation of tonight's game, I spoke with our sister site Rufus On Fire's Chris Barnwell. I highly recommend checking out the site if you have even a passing interest in the Bobcats and you can find Chris on Twitter here.
1. Al Jefferson is finally starting to get some love from the national media. What's he doing different? Or is this simply a matter of finally being in a situation where he can make the most of his strengths while masking his weaknesses?
I think it's a mix of both. Big Al has always been a player with this kind of scoring potential thanks to his vast array of post moves. Hell, I bet if we threw him into the 90s, he'd fit right in with nobody being allowed to help on him. However, Jefferson hasn't really played that black hole style of basketball he gained a reputation for throughout his career. He passes the ball when he needs to, whether it be to a cutter or back out to the perimeter.
Of course, he still has his moments where he tries to take on a triple team all by himself. Got to take the good with the bad I suppose.
Another common weakness of Jefferson's for a very long time was his defense, but we've definitely seen more of an effort from him on that end this season. He still struggles due to being slow but the effort is there. But again, he still has relapses.
But almost all the credit for why he's gone from high-volume center with terrible defense to potential all NBA candidate is Steve Clifford. Clifford has an offensive scheme meant to get Jefferson the looks he needs and that best work with his skill set. Jefferson is an above-average passer for a center and is a big strong guy that likes to work out of the left block. Using motion from the rest of the team, Jefferson can position himself when and where he wants to be positioned (within the play) and receive the ball at the right time. This would help give him space to work. Of course, the Bobcats are now shooting better than they have in years, finally creating that necessary spacing to allow Jefferson to succeed even further.
Big props to Clifford for getting the best out of Big Al.
2. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist plays some of the most inspirational defense in the NBA. His offensive game seems to have taken a hit. Is he ever going to be able to take the next step on offense and add some refinement to his game?
As the Bobcats enter the national spotlight, this seems to be the question on everybody's mind. I hate to cop out, but I really don't know. The jump shot still needs tons of work. He's a fantastic cutter and is solid when it comes to finishing at the rim, so he has that going for him on the offensive end of the ball. He can make all of the hustle plays.
But he's still too much of a liability on offense. I've said before that I think a better option for his future is to forget that jumpshot and get better at reaching the rim. He shoots 54 percent within eight feet, so he should work on dribbling and post moves, use his amazing athleticism and get the ball near the hoop. He's going to be in an NBA rotation forever thanks to his defense. He'll have plenty of time to work on his jump shot.
In my opinion MKG should perfect where he's already average before he works on what he can't do.
3. Charlotte's young and playing well so maybe the answer here is simply "wait another two years," but what would need to happen for the team to take the next step and contend for a title?
I was randomly thinking this to myself on Twitter the other day. The team can keep improving, but unless Kemba Walker or MKG makes an unexpected jump, I don't think they're going to get too much better. They still only only have two players that we can for sure say would start on other NBA teams. Based on the way the team is going, they'll need some more 3 point shooters and another all star caliber talent.
Walker and Jefferson appear to be around to stay, so that leaves spots 2 through 4. Gerald Henderson is good enough to be a 5th man on most teams but he lacks the shooting touch to be a starter for long, so I believe his days are numbered. As fun as Josh McRoberts is at passing, he's still not a skilled enough player to be a starter, so an improvement at 4 is needed. The jury is still out on MKG.
So we have spots 2 through 4 with needed improvement. They find the all star caliber talent, and then add two long range shooters to go with him. I think that's the ideal starting lineup this team is going for and their best bet at becoming title contenders. The bench also needs to be improved of course, but that comes over time.
4. How do the fans feel about changing the team name to the Hornets?
The fans love it. I haven't seen a single negative reaction towards the re-branding from Bobcats to Hornets. But I do think there are some who are a little saddened we must say goodbye to the kitties.
5. Looking ahead to the playoffs, which teams does Charlotte match up well against and which could be a problem?
We've been dropping possible playoff matchups and what they might look like on Rufus on Fire if you want to see what all of us happen to think. I believe the best possible team for Charlotte to play is the Raptors. They have nobody that can really contain Jefferson and the Bobcats swept them in the season series. Of course, there's only so much you can take from a season series.