In the second quarter of Thursday night's game between the Charlotte Bobcats and the Detroit Pistons, the Fox Sports Carolinas sideline reporter introduced New York Giants wide receiver and Charlotte native Hakeem Nicks. "You obviously are a sports fan," she said to Nicks, who was sitting courtside at the Time Warner Cable Arena. As I watched, some more plausible opening lines ran through my head:
You obviously want to get hooked up with a Jordan brand endorsement.
You obviously are a self-loathing masochist.
You obviously are lost.
Because as a sports fan, watching the Bobcats drop their 14th straight game and fall to a 7-50 record against a Pistons team that is fast becoming the face of NBA mediocrity is probably the last place on earth you want to be. The sports fans of Charlotte, North Carolina, seemed to understand this, as hardly any of them appeared to be in attendance. Around Nicks, three- and four-seat clusters of empty seats blighted the NBA's cherished courtside real estate. Maybe half of the reported attendance of 10,828 people were actually in the arena. This setup, of course, was ripe for inclusion in Grantland's Fate Worse Than Death series, which chronicles unwatchable NBA games. While most of the basketball universe was tuned in to a potential Eastern Conference Finals preview between the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat, I watched the league's least efficient offense (Charlotte) take on the second-least efficient offense (Detroit). When everyone else zigged, I zagged — and I paid dearly for doing so.
Will someone tell the Bobcats they can stop tanking already? With nine games left in the season, Charlotte is 6.5 games behind Washington, the NBA's second-worst team. Unless you can imagine Charlotte finishing their season 7-2 (which would include winning two out of four against Miami, Chicago, Boston, and Memphis) while the Wizards lose all their remaining games, you might as well pencil in Charlotte for the numerically best 25 percent shot at landing Kentucky's Anthony Davis. Aside from convincing Michael Jordan to grow a unibrow and hiring Al B. Sure to sing the national anthem at the 2012-13 home opener, Charlotte has done all they can to give themselves the best possible odds of landing Davis.
So if the Bobcats are assured of reaching their inglorious goal of being the NBA's worst team, why don't they try to win a couple games down the stretch, just to see if they can? If this week is any indication, Charlotte is not taking that approach. The Wizards beat them by 28 points Monday night in a game that Charlotte reserve Matt Carroll said "we had circled" as one to win. The Bobcats lost by
23 13 in Cleveland Tuesday night and announced before Thursday's game that leading scorer Corey Maggette would miss the rest of the season with a strained Achilles tendon in his right ankle. Tyrus Thomas was out with a sore knee.
Watching the Bobcats play is kind of like prying open a manhole to look in on the NBA's sewer and see what kind of scum is floating around. There are players like Maggette and Thomas, who make you think, Oh, that's where they are! There are guys like Carroll and DeSagana Diop, who make you think, They're still in the league? And there are guys like Derrick Brown, D.J. White, and Byron Mullens, who you probably need to Google and who make you realize how little you know about the NBA. Charlotte's two first-round picks, Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo, have had credible first-year campaigns, but neither should make the All-Rookie first team, and if Walker makes the second team it will have more to do with his name than with anything else.
This team can't stop losing because they were built to tank. There has been much recent discussion of lottery teams resting veterans and having few incentives to win down the stretch, since losing could improve teams' chances of landing a top-three pick or just bump them up a slot or two in the draft. ESPN's TrueHoop blog has launched a war on tanking in the past month, and, quite appropriately, searching TrueHoop for posts tagged with "Charlotte Bobcats" yields more than 6,000 words on tanking before any other coverage of the team. But Charlotte's quest for the worst began long before March. Depending on how you want to look at it, the tanking began when the Bobcats trotted out this roster for their first game of the season (a win, actually, over Milwaukee); or it began last summer, when Charlotte hired Rich Cho to be its GM and green-lit his plan to rebuild by stripping the team of veteran talent and becoming terrible enough to improve through the draft; or it began at the trade deadline in 2011, when they sent Gerald Wallace to Portland for Joel Przybilla, Dante Cunningham, and two first-round picks.
Against the Pistons on Thursday, the Bobcats faced another team without much to play for. Detroit is also out of the playoffs and will likely end up with the eighth or ninth pick in the draft. They began the season 4-20 and seemed on pace to challenge Charlotte for the league's worst record, but since then coach Lawrence Frank has led the Pistons to an 18-16 record that seems more fitting for his roster full of veterans like Rodney Stuckey, Tayshaun Prince, and Ben Gordon, who never made the leap to consistent stardom, and young players like Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight, who appear to be cut from the same good but not great cloth.
Recently, Frank has been dropping anti-tanking one-liners like "Do you make the days count or do you count the days," while Bobcats coach Paul Silas has spent a lot of time crinkling his nose and brooding on the sidelines during games, then explaining his team's losses with chuckling resignation at postgame press conferences. Considering the coaches' verbal and unspoken messaging, it probably should have been no surprise that Detroit ran roughshod over Charlotte Thursday night.
It started with the first possession, where Jason Maxiell made a spin move to the baseline, sealed Mullens's noodly frame away from the ball, and then scored. But Maxiell had more than just his Zangief game going; on the Piston's next possession, he banked a hideous-looking 18-footer from the top of the key and a couple minutes later scored over Mullens with a turnaround jumper. The Pistons jumped to an 8-1 lead, but Charlotte hung around to close the first quarter down 22-18, which Bobcats announcer Steve Martin deemed promising. "The Bobcats spot Detroit an early lead," he said before cutting to commercial, "then came flailing back." I'm not sure I've ever heard a comeback described that way, but "flailing" seems about right for the Bobcats.
The Pistons built a 19-point lead in the second quarter, thanks in part to a couple of turnovers forced by Will Bynum, whose quickness and strength bottled up Kemba Walker and eventually led to a frustrated Walker earning his first career technical foul. Bynum's pièce de résistance against Walker was a steal off a sideline inbounds play. Bynum denied the initial pass to Walker, so the Bobcats had to inbound the ball to D.J. White on the wing, instead. Walker tried to seal Bynum and call for a lob out toward half court. White hesitated, then finally tossed the lob, at which point Bynum yanked Walker in the opposite direction, collected the ball, and coasted for an uncontested layup. Charlotte scored the last seven points of the half to cut the Pistons' halftime lead to 12, but the Bobcats' run felt like fool's gold, and it was.
In the third quarter, Maxiell, Greg Monroe, and the emaciated remains of Tayshaun Prince's emaciated former self started dunking all over Mullens, Biyombo, and the rest of Charlotte's front line. This forced the Bobcats into a zone, which led to three Brandon Knight 3-pointers and a 15-point third quarter for the rookie point guard. Detroit led 92-62 going into the fourth, which could only mean one thing — since this game was essentially meaningless from the get-go, we were about to witness the garbage time of garbage time. Folks, prepare to step through the looking glass.
As it turns out, in a game between one horrendous basketball team and one pretty bad one, garbage time looks a lot like regular time. Detroit paraded a lineup of Damien Wilkens, Jonas Jerebko (looking like he's ready for a cameo in the Zoolander sequel), Walker Russell Jr., Austin Daye (who has managed to regain the 10 pounds he lost playing in Russia during the lockout, and is back to a ruddy 6-foot-11', 210-pound frame thanks to doing push-ups), and Charlie Villanueva (who saw action for the sixth time this season; for those counting at home, that means Charlie V. has earned about $1.25 million per game so far this season). The Bobcats closed with Mullens, Derrick Brown, Reggie Williams, Cory Higgins (whose father, Rod, is the Bobcats' president of basketball operations), and Matt Carroll (who made his first 3-pointer since February 11; cheers to that!). With 2:23 to play, a stat flashed across the bottom of the TV screen: The Pistons' Monroe, Maxiell, and Knight had shot 27-34 from the field for the game, while the entire Bobcats team was 29-66 up to that point.
The Bobcats lost, 109-85. After the game, I looked back through the notes I'd jotted down while watching. There was scarcely a mention of the Bobcats. They didn't play defense, didn't rebound, didn't make shots. Aside from showing up at the Time Warner Cable Arena, it's hard to figure out what the Charlotte Bobcats did Thursday night. They are a team with one gear — losing — and they were blown away by a team with a second gear — barely competing.
Yet even though the Bobcats are clearly the worst basketball team in the NBA, I'm not sure which franchise I feel worse for: Charlotte or Detroit. Charlotte, at least, embarked on a season-long mission to tank their way to a high draft pick, and they succeeded miserably. Can anyone explain what's happening in Detroit? First, they signed Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to five-year contracts worth around $60 and $40 million, respectively, in July 2009. Then, last summer, they inked Rodney Stuckey, Tayshaun Prince, and Jonas Jerebko to three- and four-year extensions. Detroit didn't overpay badly in these deals, but what was the team hoping to accomplish? To lock up the core of a team that when healthy can compete for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs?
Bobcats fans are pretty much nonexistent, as Thursday's attendance in Charlotte indicates. They'll remain so until the team strikes NBA draft gold. If they strike gold, that is. Detroit fans are real. They saw their team win a championship eight years ago and play in Game 7 of the NBA Finals a year after that. They see this Pistons team, with its decent young core and guys like Prince and Bynum and Maxiell, who all seem like they could succeed in more limited roles, and they wonder: What if we could land a bona fide star? Unfortunately, this line of wishful thinking tumbles swiftly into delusion, which is what you find in the team's official Pistons Mailbag. Here are some recent questions for Pistons.com writer Keith Langlois:
To me, Markieff Morris is the next Rasheed Wallace. He looks capable of playing tough defense and has range for a big man. He should be the priority for the Pistons this off-season to pair with Monroe. What are your thoughts?
The Pistons need to grab either Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Thomas Robinson in the coming draft. Robinson would be a great fit in our offense and be able to guard Dwight Howard. Do you agree?
If the Pistons get lucky enough to get the No. 2 or 3 pick, what do you think it would take to get the No. 1 pick? Would a trade of Daye or Singler and the draft pick be enough?
The questions range from optimistic to charming to jejune to bewildering, but most of all, they make me sad. Langlois plays the straight man perfectly, finding a nugget of solid reasoning in each query and responding to it, but no matter how sturdy Langlois's facade appears, he can't hide the grim picture of passionate fans grasping for an iota of hope.
What's more depressing than that? Well, for starters, how about tonight's Bobcats game? They play the Heat in Miami.