The Charlotte Bobcats are six games under .500, have lost three games in a row, are 17 games out of first place and just gave up 61 points to LeBron James. (Just a few weeks after giving up 62 to Carmelo Anthony.) They're 25th in the NBA in attendance -- actually down a spot from last season - and they haven't played on national television once all season. They only have one player in John Hollinger's PER Top 50 and the odds are excellent that the only times the casual NBA fan has thought about the Bobcats this season were when LeBron and Carmelo dropped those 60 burgers on them. It's just another Charlotte Bobcats season: full of losses, with no one watching.
Except one thing: The Charlotte Bobcats are almost certain to make the playoffs. They're currently holding the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference, only three games behind Brooklyn for the No. 6 spot. The Hollinger Playoff Odds give the Bobcats a 92.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, which is higher than the Dallas Mavericks, a team that has won nine more games than Charlotte. (The Hollinger odds, amusingly, give the Bobcats a 0.1 percent chance of winning the NBA title, which is only 0.1 percent more than the Boston Red Sox.) The Bobcats have only made the playoffs once in their short history, in 2010, when they were coached by Larry Brown and went down in four games to the Orlando Magic. They haven't had anything close to a winning season since, and it was only two years ago that they only won seven games, setting the record for the lowest winning percentage in NBA history. They've had four coaches in four years. They have an owner who is widely thought to be barely paying attention to his team. They have a smart GM, sure, but one digging out of years of a total mess. This franchise is not anyone's model of anything. And here they are, essentially a playoff lock.
Now, obviously, this says quite a bit about the Eastern Conference's futility. (The Knicks are still ostensibly in the playoff chase, which is a downright sad sentence to type.) But let's not focus on that. Let's focus on the fact that the Charlotte Bobcats are about to make the playoffs. This is a good thing for them, right?
From the very beginning of this NBA season, it was generally understood that this was the season of the tank. Smart, savvy GMs in Boston, Philadelphia, Orlando and elsewhere all understood how deep this year's draft was going to be, and began planning accordingly. It remains to be seen how their plans ultimately turn out for them -- the track record for tanking is truthfully pretty terrible -- but the losing part has gone swimmingly. Five teams in the East have the five best chances at the top pick in the draft -- it would be six, if the Knicks hadn't traded away their pick two years ago as part of the Carmelo Anthony deal -- which means that the Eastern Conference is likely to be stacked for the next decade with the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Julius Randle, Dante Exum, and so on.
When there are that many Eastern Conference teams losing, someone has to fill the vacuum, and that someone has been the Charlotte Bobcats (and the Atlanta Hawks).
There are undeniable positives that come with a playoff appearance, not least of which are two home games and the gate receipts that come with them. (Particularly because they're probably going to be against LeBron James and the Miami Heat.) At the minimum, the Bobcats will make more money this year because of that. There's also the less definitive, more fungible arguments: playoff experience will help a young team; national exposure will shine a light on an oft-forgotten franchise; a few games in late April will give fans something to look forward to after being repeatedly kicked in the face for the past decade. You can make a case as to how much difference any of that will make, but certainly, none of them will hurt the Bobcats.
But is it worth it? The Bobcats are almost certainly going to face either Miami or Indiana in the first round, perhaps the two best teams in the NBA. That's to say: They're going to get drilled. When they get drilled, swept out of the playoffs in four games just like they did last time (the time you forgot they even made the playoffs), they will have had the satisfaction of saying they made the playoffs. But only barely, and only briefly.
Meanwhile, the Bobcats will end up with a draft pick in the late teens for their trouble, outside the lottery. All they will have to show for the difference between their seasons and the Philadelphia 76ers' will be those four blowout losses to the Heat or Pacers. (Oh, and roughly 10 more home wins, if that counts for anything.) This seems like a lot of trouble to go through for something that isn't even that much of an accomplishment; part of the reason the Bobcats will even make the playoffs in the first place is because everyone else in the conference is tanking. (Except for the Knicks, who are doing it by accident, with no real benefit.)
But I can't help but think Bobcats fans want it anyway. It does mean something to be on the national stage, even if it's not very long, even if doesn't ultimately add up to much. The reason tanking only works for front offices and not for fans is that it's unnatural to cheer against your team -- when you watch them play, you want them to win. And make the playoffs. And give the ol' thing a shot, why not?
The Bobcats won't do much with their playoff run this year, but they will be in them. That is something. It might be pointless in the long run. But everything is pointless in the long run; in the long run, we are all dead. The Bobcats, under .500, giving up 60 points to every star who dresses against them, are making the playoffs. Good for them. Shine on you crazy diamonds.
I feel like the last word on this should belong to a Bobcats diehard, who has been through more than someone like me, just popping in and opining. So I asked Ben Swanson, managing editor of Rufus On Fire, the top Bobcats blog, what he thought about all this. He can take us home.
It's a difficult and dividing feeling to see the Bobcats about to make the playoffs for the first time since breaking the record of being the NBA's best loser in league history. Because fans have seen the team make this jump before in 2010, when the Bobcats made short-sighted moves to invest in veteran talent with a limited ceiling, it has more than a few people wary of the ripples this could have. However, to compare these two teams would be a false analogy. This Bobcats team, outside of Al Jefferson, has a good deal of youth to it. The ceiling is higher and there's more room for them to grow. They have more cap space and will be able to add on to this team now that Ben Gordon's hefty $13.2 million contract is off their shoulders. Though they almost certainly won't have their own first-round draft pick this year, they will have Portland's and they could have Detroit's. And if they don't have the Pistons' pick this year, they'll most likely have it next year. They have many more options than they had in 2010.
However, the talent this team has isn't infinite and I think it's very fair to question if they were ready to make the leap from the lottery to the playoffs so soon. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's offense is a huge project that may not pan out due to a jump shot that sometimes resembles a Rube Goldberg machine more than a working jump shot. Cody Zeller's had a rough rookie season that has shown he needs to add a lot of strength to be a capable contributor in the NBA. Bismack Biyombo, same deal: raw, athletic defensive dynamo with offensive shortcomings that limit how much Steve Clifford can play him.
But all that doesn't answer your question of whether it's worth it.
This of course depends on the outlook of individual fans. It's hard for me to say what the general pulse of the fanbase is, having read so many people's comments on our site and reading Twitter and all that. Many people seem to think following the Pacers' method of working the middle will yield better results than the constantly downtrodden path of holding a team down for ping pong balls in the lottery, but there is a vocal minority questioning the foundation the Bobcats are building upon.
In just the general feeling of how much the playoff spot is worth, it's worth a good deal but not as much as trying to turn around the franchise consistently. If the Bobcats can turn this into years of playoff competition and, hopefully, going pretty deep into the postseason, that will add on the greater value. The Bobcats won't be the Bobcats anymore come this summer, helping shed the franchise of word associations that would make the Ford Edsel blush, but even going forward, building a team that competes will give fans the value of following a team that isn't constantly the butt of a joke.
Hopefully this is what they're doing. They haven't made any moves that kills their long-term flexibility at this point (knock on wood) and have a team that could keep them in playoff talk for a little while, but ultimately they will have to draft well and be wickedly smart in adding assets to make something more that will be worth it.