The most clinical way to look at any NBA team is to scan the roster — the players, their ages, their salaries, their contracts, the coaching staff — and ask how close that team is to a point at which it could realistically win 55 games, a rough benchmark for title contention.
That simple exercise applied to the Charlotte Bobcats raises some thorny questions about the past, present, and future of the NBA's resident punch line — a struggling, small-market franchise only now emerging from a morass of bad draft picks, questionable trades, management confusion, sad lottery luck, and a teardown that has lasted longer than a Hank Schrader bowel movement.1
The Larry Brown Bobcats peaked in 2009-10, when they won 44 games, sported the league's stingiest defense, and ended the season as roadkill in a lopsided sweep. It was an expensive, punchless group for which the Bobcats had mortgaged draft picks and cap space, and after a disastrous start the following season, the brain trust decided the best way to win 55 games was to start over. They dumped, in order, Tyson Chandler, Gerald Wallace, Stephen Jackson, and Boris Diaw in a series of transactions that returned only three things of real value: two first-round picks from the Blazers for Wallace, and the right to jump 12 spots in the 2011 draft — the key concession Charlotte won in the three-way Kings-Bobcats-Bucks deal that is perhaps the most inexplicable trade (from Sacramento's position) in recent league history.2
The Bobcats were getting worse on purpose, just as Boston and San Antonio did in the lead-up to the Tim Duncan lottery, just as the Sixers and Jazz are doing now, and just as other teams will do as long as the league uses a reverse-order lottery to determine draft order. It's a choice for which the organization won't apologize. "Our players then were only so good," says Rod Higgins, the team's president of basketball operations. "We went to the playoffs, and we were swept four straight. We had to move on."
The lottery odds defied Charlotte after the 2011-12 season, when the Bobcats went 7-59 and set the all-time record for lowest winning percentage, and again after last season, when they were nearly as bad. Instead of Anthony Davis and Victor Oladipo, the Bobcats ended up with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller. Neither figures to make a meaningful impact on the team's win total in 2013-14, ahead of the deepest draft in a decade — a draft in which the Bobcats could end up with a star-level player even if the lottery gods defied them, as is customary at this point.
Charlotte could have been terrible again, and hoarded more than $10 million in cap space to use at the trade deadline as a third-party trade facilitator or a dumping ground for unwanted salary. The Sixers want an unprotected first-round pick in order to absorb your dead money? Slap top-10 protection on that bad boy for a year or two, and we'll happily take your sunk cost! Plop another future asset in the basket and we'll eventually use it to either nail a high draft pick or bundle it in a trade for a disgruntled star — the tactics everyone seems to agree are necessary for this team to reach 55 wins in the next decade. The path was staring them in the face, and waving at them in the rearview mirror. "Of course, we had discussions about those options," Higgins says. "We could have just sat on that money. But we've had a lot of losses over the last two years. We've gotten to the point now where we just want to compete. We have to send that message to our fans."
And so they used all that cap space to sign Al Jefferson to a three-year, $40.5 million deal with a player option in the third season. Skeptics around the league will tell you the Jefferson signing might represent the perfect "best of both worlds" endgame for Charlotte — that Jefferson's post-up efficiency could remove the stench of historic awfulness, a must for any franchise wishing to attract even quality midlevel veteran free agents, without pushing them out of the top five in the 2014 draft.
Higgins and Steve Clifford, the Bobcats' well-respected new head coach, scoff at that notion. They view Jefferson as a building block who will make things easier for their young perimeter players by drawing constant double-teams, and who will work as the pick-and-roll partner Kemba Walker desperately needs. "Al instantly helps the development of everyone else," Clifford says. "Or at least he should, if we are organized the right way and execute the way we need to."
Charlotte, in other words, patiently pursued a "one step back, two steps forward" strategy, but lost patience with it right before the draft class that represented pay dirt. That may be wrong in the eyes of the calculating strategist thinking about those 55 wins, but not every franchise approaches team-building that way — at least not on every step of the team-building journey. Owners can lose patience if things still look bleak after two years of rebuilding; Michael Jordan, the team's majority owner, is famously competitive and impatient, and executives around the league still aren't sure who makes the final calls among Jordan, Higgins, and Rich Cho, the team's GM. Multiple lotteries might fail to produce a franchise-level star, damn near a must-have for any true title contender, an unfillable hole that leaves a franchise in a non-glamour market like Charlotte with a question: continue to go all-out in pursuit of one, or see if we can build to something "pretty good" over the long haul? The media views the Joe Johnson–era Hawks, built from the ashes of a 13-win catastrophe in 2004-05, as a boring failure, but a lot of executives around the league think of them much differently.3
Charlotte, of course, isn't giving up on the idea that this insanely young core could one day grow into a 55-win contender, provided that it gets the right veteran help. It certainly pursued Jefferson aggressively. He didn't meet with any other teams, save for the Jazz, who politely told Jefferson at the start of free agency they had no intention of re-signing him, he says. "They called me on July 1 and told me they wasn't gonna go in my direction," Jefferson recalls, adding that he wasn't surprised. "I told my teammates all season, 'Utah would be a fool to bring me back, with Enes [Kanter] and Derrick [Favors]. Them boys are gonna be the truth!"4 Utah offered to sign-and-trade Jefferson to a better team lacking cap space, but Jefferson short-circuited the free-agency process early after Higgins, Clifford, and other officials wooed him over dinner. Higgins says the team had been talking about Jefferson for several months, and they offered him big money early in free agency, even though there do not appear to have been any other serious suitors.
"It made me feel so good that there's a team out there that has so much belief in my game," Jefferson says of his dinner with Higgins and Clifford. "I was like, 'Done deal.' And then when they started talking money, it was like, 'Oh my god!' It was icing on the cake."5
Walker emerged as a more efficient scorer last season, and the Bobcats hope Jefferson will provide him with the kind of pick-and-roll partner the team just hasn't had. Walker and Clifford have already watched film together for hours, and, Clifford says, Walker began one session with a plaintive question for his new coach: "Why can't I ever hit the roll man?" Walker's game probably leaned too far in the "score-first" direction last season, but that was understandable given the sub-replacement big-man contingent on hand — and the spacing issues that cramped Walker's passing lanes.
One reason for those spacing issues: Kidd-Gilchrist, the Davis lottery consolation prize, cannot shoot at all. The Bobcats have hired Mark Price to work with Kidd-Gilchrist on his jumper, but they know it is going to be a long process. Clifford wants Kidd-Gilchrist focusing on his strengths — defense, cutting, and crashing the offensive glass. Having a wing chase rebounds like that can be dangerous for a team's transition defense, but the Bobcats will have rules in place allowing for Kidd-Gilchrist to attack the glass, the coach says. Clifford was an assistant with the Rockets under Jeff Van Gundy, and Houston during those years made allowances for Steve Francis's above-average offensive rebounding, Clifford says. The rules were simple: If Francis sensed an opportunity for an offensive board, at least one of the team's big men was to sprint back in transition, along with the other perimeter players.
Clifford is also working with Kidd-Gilchrist on his post game and some isolation moves from the elbow area, he says. Kidd-Gilchrist is probably the wild card here — the young guy with the best chance to become that franchise-changing All-Star. Walker still has room to grow, but he's 23, and he hasn't flashed the passing skills of a franchise-lifting point guard. Zeller projects as a nice complementary starter, and the team is already growing impatient with Bismack Biyombo. Gerald Henderson finished the season strong, flashing an improved 3-point stroke and taking on more ballhandling duties, but he's almost 26 and might peak as a league-average wing starter.
If Kidd-Gilchrist tops out as a fringe All-Star with a defense-first game (Gerald Wallace 2.0?), it's hard to see 55 wins from here — especially since the front office seems content to let this core grow as their rookie contracts creep toward expiration. The coldest long-view move would be to use Walker as the Sixers just used Jrue Holiday — as a young piece of surprise trade bait for future assets, including a 2014 first-round pick.6 But a trade in that vein doesn't appear to be in the team's immediate plans, though Higgins, of course, cannot rule it out. "If there are opportunities to make this team better via trade, we will do that," he says. (He also denied that the Bobcats ever seriously discussed trading the no. 2 pick in the 2012 draft, which became Kidd-Gilchrist, to the Thunder for James Harden.)
Those 55 wins recede further into the distance if Charlotte wins just enough games this season to fall outside the top five in the 2014 draft. Depending on health, luck, and player development, sticking within that range might be tight. Orlando and Philly are gunning for the top of the draft; Utah and Phoenix are in similar developmental stages; Sacramento is always a good bet to malfunction; and Boston wants a shot at a high pick. Toss in one or two injury- or trade-ravaged disappointments, and the Bobcats could suddenly be looking at a pick in the lower half of the top 10. And they won't seem to care.
"You just can't predict what's going to happen in the lottery," Higgins says. "We've been in the top three spots going in the last two years, and we've moved back both times. What does that tell you?"7
In the meantime, Clifford, a defense-first guy, faces the challenge of repairing a sieve that now features Jefferson at center. Jefferson's teams have always failed on defense, and the big man knows his issues against the pick-and-roll have often driven those struggles. He's a bit plodding in space, and has struggled badly to corral opposing point guards. "It ain't no secret around the league that I struggle with my defense," Jefferson says. "My pick-and-roll defense is my weakness. And that's mind over matter. I just gotta suck it up, get my ass out there, and do it."8
Jefferson is confident he can be better, and working within a more consistent scheme might help him. The Jazz were constantly asking their bigs to do different things against the pick-and-roll, switching almost possession-by-possession from schemes in which Jefferson hung back around the foul line to strategies that demanded he lunge to contain the ball handler 30 feet from the rim.
Clifford won't say what sorts of scheme he'll use, and some game-by-game tweaks are always necessary. But he's a proud Van Gundy acolyte, especially in terms of shot selection. "We want to take away layups, defend without fouling, and take away 3-point shots from better shooters," Clifford says. The flip side: hoping opponents fire away from midrange.
Jefferson might manage better in a system that allows him to hang closer to the paint on nearly every pick-and-roll, similar to how the Pacers and Bulls use Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah, respectively. Such a scheme might also help the Bobcats clean up the defensive glass, a big Clifford goal; only Sacramento rebounded a lower percentage of opponent misses last season, and flying around in blind chaos to contain all those second chances contributed to Charlotte's very high foul rate — a major Clifford no-no.
One thing neither Jefferson nor Clifford is worried about: Jefferson hogging the ball on the left block on offense, stunting the development of his teammates. Clifford promises to keep Jefferson moving around the floor in unpredictable ways and to stretch his pick-and-roll skills. Jefferson is working on his game from the right block, and he still laments that the Deron Williams deal happened just as he and Williams were developing a pick-and-roll chemistry. He also says he is past the point of wanting to dominate the ball, a maturation he credits to his time with the Jazz.
"They used to call me The Black Hole, and that's really who I was," Jefferson says. "But going to Utah just matured me in so many ways. I'm past the stage in my career where I feel like I have to take all the shots."9
And Jefferson doesn't compromise the Bobcats' cap space much after this season. Charlotte could have about $13 million in space this summer, assuming Portland conveys the second Wallace pick the Blazers owe, and Jefferson and Henderson have options that would allow them to come off the books after the 2014-15 season. (The Bobcats could potentially receive low lottery or mid-first-round picks from both Portland and Detroit in the 2014 draft, though both picks might not come until 2015 or later if Detroit and Portland struggle.) In other words: The path is clear for Charlotte to re-sign any or all of its lottery picks to heftier veteran contracts without obliterating future cap flexibility.
And maybe that's one version of an endgame here — to start building a renewed culture around a group that may never win a title, but also won't carry championship-level salaries. The Thunder won't ever have cap flexibility, since three of their draft picks — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka — now make between $43 million and $50 million combined every season. The Bobcats don't have any players at the Durant or Westbrook level, and there's no obvious path now to getting one.
And that can be OK. You can slowly build into something like the Nuggets of the last couple of seasons — a very strong team constructed around a bunch of sub-stars making between $6 million and $11 million per season. Amass a solid group of assets like that, and you're a killer trade or high-risk free-agency signing away from being the Pacers or the Grizzlies — a ho-hum bunch that suddenly finds itself a few wins away from the ring.10 Not every team can draft a top-10 overall player, or trade for one, and the Bobcats certainly aren't getting one in free agency. There isn't one such player for every team, and there won't be anything close to one per team as long as the league has a cap on individual player salaries.
There are other ways to compete, and to compete seriously. The problem is that it's unclear whether Charlotte's collection of young pieces can reach the required level for this path. There's no way it could be clear at this point, given the age of some of the key guys. But the early returns don't suggest a two-way force like Paul George, Hibbert, or Marc Gasol lurking among the youngsters here — not yet, anyway.
But the Bobcats at least have some options, and they should finally begin the recovery process from two years of almost unfathomable losing. The ceiling of the present group probably isn't as high as it needs to be, and the Bobcats likely could have pushed that ceiling higher by swallowing another awful season and maintaining cap room in the process.
They might still do that, minus the cap room; this is still a clear lottery team. But it's easier to suggest a third straight year of languid losing from the outside than to experience the corrosive effects of all that losing from the inside — on players, coaches, the front office, and on fans of a small-market team with so little history of success they are moving to reclaim the nickname of the team that bolted town.
They may only be headed for mediocrity, but mediocrity is a step up — and a step that doesn't preclude Charlotte from trying lots of other things.