- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Five burning questions and answers on the future of the Charlotte Bobcats after their first-round playoff elimination Monday night with a 109-98 Game 4 loss to Miami:
1. How likely is it that Charlotte will be back in the playoffs next season?
The bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff race can't possibly be as friendly in 2014-15 as it was this season.
It just can't.
The Bobcats, though, generally believe next season has to be better, so unsavory was their first-round experience against the Heat after Al Jefferson hurt his left foot.
For starters, they won't be the Bobcats anymore. And pretty much anyone you speak to in Charlotte will tell you that the excitement surrounding the return of purple and teal and the "Hornets" nickname is already palpable around town.
There are reasons for on-court optimism, too. Jefferson had an All-NBA-worthy season and hushed every critic who said owner Michael Jordan was spending foolishly when he awarded Big Al that three-year, $41 million contract last summer. Kemba Walker grew into the point guard role and improved his assist average every single full month during the regular season. And the unheralded Steve Clifford was an instant hit as a rookie on the bench, finishing fourth in NBA Coach of the Year voting largely because he did what many said couldn't be done: He fashioned a defense ranked sixth in the league in defensive efficiency despite the fact that Jefferson -- widely perceived a sieve -- was at the heart of it.
2. What issues did the Miami series expose?
The answer is somewhat skewed by Jefferson's physical limitations during the series, but the need for a third scorer to help Jefferson and Walker, as well as more weaponry on the perimeter, is indisputable.
Gerald Henderson, Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour don't quite provide the needed punch to supplement Clifford's two go-to guys, as we saw when Miami attacked the smaller Walker to get the ball out of his hands.
The fact that Bismack Biyombo scarcely played in this series only raises the volume on questions about the 21-year-old big man's future with the franchise, given Jefferson's compromised health. Biyombo will be a $3.9 million player next season and has to make some real progress to get to passable offensively in order to justify the faith of Bobcats general manager Rich Cho, who acquired the 2011 No. 7 overall pick on draft night in a deal with Sacramento.
3. So what does Charlotte need to put around cornerstones Jefferson and Walker to be able to field a more well-rounded team?
Wing scoring. Wing size. Wing shooting.
A quality 3-man, if you add all that up.
The buzz around the soon-to-be-resurrected Hornets is that a dependable small forward will surely be their top target in free agency ... and MJ will again have money to spend, if he can find a willing taker.
Or Charlotte could certainly opt for trades to fill its nagging holes at both small forward and backup point guard if it fears the usual chilly summer chasing players on the open market. The rumbles have already begun that a player Clifford is said to regard with real fondness after working with him in Orlando as an assistant -- vet floor leader Jameer Nelson -- as well as current Magic swingman Arron Afflalo will be among the Bobcats' trade targets.
Nelson, 32, is entering the final season of his contract at $8 million, but only $2 million of that is guaranteed if Nelson is waived by July 15. Afflalo, 28, is due to earn $7.5 million next season and has a player option for 2015-16, also valued at $7.5 million.
4. What else is on the offseason agenda?
Charlotte naturally hopes to re-sign frontcourt newcomer Josh McRoberts, who is widely expected to decline his $2.8 million player option for next season to become a free agent after finding a playmaking niche alongside Jefferson.
You'll also hear and read no shortage of hopeful noises about shooting guru Mark Price straining, as he's done all season, to find the teaching breakthrough that helps defensive ace Michael Kidd-Gilchrist develop at least a semi-reliable stroke. (A useful summer of offseason development from big man Cody Zeller would be welcome, too, after a modest rookie campaign.)
The Bobcats also figure to be busy sorting through all of the renewed interest from sponsors who have been staying away for years and -- caught up now in the sort of fever reminiscent of when the Hornets put the city on the pro sports map -- want to do business with the new Hornets.
Of greatest interest here, however, is watching how Clifford, Jefferson and Walker function as a recruiting triumvirate.
Walker gave the hard sell to Jefferson last summer to convince him to make the splashiest free-agent arrival ever seen in Charlotte. Jefferson and Clifford have since been lauded for infusing the team with a measure of credibility the city hasn't seen since the early 1990s glory days.
Now? Jefferson realistically ranks as the Bobcats' only true untouchable, as much because of his age (29) and annual salary as his outstanding 2013-14 production, but those three sure give off the vibe that they're operating as a triumvirate these days.
5. Can we get away with saying that the Bobcats, as His Airness clearly believes, have unquestionably turned a corner?
Can't see how you could argue.
The Bobcats have a couple of core pieces in Jefferson and Walker that not only snap together pretty, but more importantly, they are on the same page with their coach.
It looks like the team won't be getting Detroit's top first-round pick in June, barring a surprise in next month's lottery that bumps the Pistons out of the top eight, but Charlotte has other assets available to cement itself as a playoff contender with some staying power in the East, including a late first-rounder on the way from Portland.
After going 28-120 in the previous two seasons, Charlotte simply wanted (and needed) to establish itself as a viable NBA franchise. On that front, even though the "Bobcats" identity is about to be retired with only two first-round playoff sweeps to show for these first 10 campaigns, rolling the dice on that expensive win-now swoop for Big Al promptly launched them to viability.
Which means the most famous North Carolinian of them all can finally leave the house again.
Five burning questions and answers on the future of the Charlotte Bobcats after their first-round playoff elimination Monday night with a 109-98 Game 4 loss to Miami: 1.