Making these playoffs matter -

Making these playoffs matter

In 2010, the Charlotte Bobcats were good. They had the league’s best defense, and just enough offense to scrape together 44 wins and a playoff berth. Gerald Wallace earned the team’s first and only All-Star appearance. At that time, it was easily the best season in Bobcats history — and because of the pending change back to the Hornets name, it’ll always be the best season in Bobcats history.

But for a lot of people, myself included, that year is defined by the way it ended: a four-game beating in the first round of the playoffs, at the hands of Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic. It was a blunt reminder that superstars run this league, and being good only counts for so much.

That 0-4 sweep was Charlotte’s only real success in its first nine seasons.

It turned out that team had peaked. After starting out the 2010-11 season at 9-19, coach Larry Brown quit. The team limped on to a 23-31 record, then the rebuild started in earnest: Gerald Wallace was traded for two first-round picks, cash and cap space in the form of Joel Przybilla, Dante Cunningham and Sean Marks.

Do we need to talk about the two years that followed?

This season’s Charlotte Bobcats are good. They have one of the league’s best defenses, and just enough offense to scrape together 43 wins and a playoff berth. Al Jefferson seems poised to earn the team’s first and only All-NBA recognition.

But barring one of the biggest upsets in sports history, things won’t look as rosy after at least 192 minutes of uppercuts and suplexes from the Miami Heat. Flaws are easier to see when they’re being exploited by the game’s best, and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will inevitably wipe away some of the shine from what has been an enjoyable season.

Despite that, there’s still a sense of optimism about this team. Even if they don’t have a star on the magnitude of Howard, this team is young and has room to grow. Steve Clifford is a talented, steady coach that should have a long-term future in Charlotte. Spotty draft record aside, the front office is capable, nailing nearly every trade and free agent signing since the addition of GM Rich Cho.

That makes this series feel so important and not important at all.

On the one hand, this is the first real referendum on the last few years of rebuilding. As great as Jefferson has been, his signing more or less locked the Bobcats into this core group.

After stripping the team to start fresh, this was the hand they were dealt. They move forward without a budding superstar like Anthony Davis, or even a player with the obvious potential of John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard or Andre Drummond. This series feels doomed from the tip-off, and that puts a spotlight on the team’s ceiling.

On the other hand, who cares what happens against Miami? This will still have been a terrific season, and the roster is stocked with exciting, genuinely likable guys.

The players especially deserve this success after a few years in the wilderness, and losing to an all-time great like this era’s Heat wouldn’t be a crime. If they’re able to compete, even steal a few games, they’ll enter the offseason knowing they made the best of a bad beat. That’s something you can build off of. When you’re this big of an underdog, there’s no real way to lose.

What ultimately matters is where things go from here. The 2010 season lost most of the significance it had because it was a dead end — four years later, Gerald Henderson is the only player left from that squad.

The context for this year’s team is still being written. It’s up to the players, the coaching staff and the front office to make sure it’s just the first step instead of another false start.

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