Jefferson has helped Bobcats change losing culture
Charlotte Bobcats head coach Steve Clifford, center, talks with Gerald Henderson, left, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, March 31, 2014. The Bobcats won 100-94. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Washington Wizards' Trevor Ariza (1) shoots over Charlotte Bobcats' Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (14) and Al Jefferson (25) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, March 31, 2014. The Bobcats won 100-94. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Washington Wizards' Al Harrington, bottom, tries to keep a loose ball as Charlotte Bobcats' Cody Zeller, top left, and Al Jefferson, top right, try to take it away during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, March 31, 2014. The Bobcats won 100-94. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Charlotte Bobcats' Al Jefferson walks to the free throw line with a bandage over his right eye after being injured during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, March 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Al Jefferson isn’t surprised the Bobcats are on the brink of clinching an NBA playoff spot.
And the veteran center doesn’t think this Charlotte team is a one-year wonder.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but we can be one of the elite teams in the East,” Jefferson said.
When Jefferson signed a three-year, $40.5 million free agent contract last July, he insisted he wasn’t coming to Charlotte just to collect a paycheck. He wanted to help change what had become a losing culture.
So far, so good.
The Bobcats (36-38) have the seventh-best record in the Eastern Conference. They’re 4½ games ahead of the ninth-place New York Knicks and can wrap up their first playoff berth since 2010 by winning four of their final eight games.
Jefferson has been an integral part of the turnaround, averaging 21.5 points and 10.4 rebounds per game this season.
Charlotte also has benefited from the maturation of third-year point guard Kemba Walker and some unexpected contributions from unheralded role players Chris Douglas-Roberts and Anthony Tolliver.
The Bobcats are hardly a dominating force, but first-year Coach Steve Clifford seems to have his team headed in the right direction.
“I thought this could happen for us if we worked for it,” Jefferson said. “I couldn’t tell you when I signed that we were going to be here in a playoff run, but I knew that if we locked into what coach wanted us to do and committed and dedicated ourselves to this team, that we were going to have a chance.”
Clifford has preached defense – and his players have listened.
Charlotte is allowing 97.5 points per game, the sixth-fewest in the NBA. That’s a dramatic improvement from the previous year, when the Bobcats allowed the second-most points in the league.
Clifford said the key now is for players to avoid complacency.
Clifford suggested before Monday night’s win over Washington that his players were too busy focusing on what they’ve already done rather than what’s ahead.
“I feel a sense of achievement within our team that shouldn’t be there,” Clifford said Monday night. “I wouldn’t say there is complacency, but we have played with good effort all year and I think right now everyone is telling them what a good job they have done and their minds weren’t in the right place.”
He said that might have contributed to a loss to Orlando last week.
After Clifford’s talk with players the Bobcats responded with a 100-94 win over Washington, pulling within two games of John Wall and the Wizards for the sixth seed in the East.
As much improvement as the Bobcats have shown under Clifford, Jefferson said they could have been well above .500 this season had they remained focused at all times.
“We can be even better than what we are right now if we dedicate ourselves,” Jefferson said.
What’s different about the Bobcats is the attitude.
The culture has changed dramatically from the past two seasons under Paul Silas and Mike Dunlap, when the Bobcats finished a combined 28-120, by far the worst record in the league over that span.
Winning is no longer a nice surprise on any given night. It’s become expected. Losses are greeted in the locker room with disdain rather than acceptance.
“They’re a pesky group, a good defensive team,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said. “They’ve put themselves in a position to make some noise in the postseason.”
What resonates most with Clifford is his team’s fight.
He pointed to the backs-to-the-wall victory over Washington, a game in which the Bobcats overcame an 11-point fourth quarter deficit to win.
“They say you play your best when your best is needed,” Clifford said. “I really like how our guys came out and fought in the second half. ... They had us on our heels and we could have quit. We regrouped individually at halftime and we played a good second half.”