The Last Year before the First Year: A Charlotte Bobcats Season Preview
This year, for the first time, Hickory-High will be tackling the challenging of crafting season previews for all thirty NBA teams. Beginning today we’ll be rolling out these previews, one each day, leading up to Opening Night. This was a task of considerable size and complexity and it required the help of every member of our staff. The only guidelines given were that each writer approach team by staying true to their own style and the result is season previews of a difference sort. We hope you enjoy!
“Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
A few months ago Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban wrote a blog post that provided insight into how the Mavs have been constructed over the years and some rationale around the team’s decision-making-process. It was unique in that it gave fans a level of insight to which we’re rarely privy. The theme that was most memorable to me was Cuban’s repeated references to culture. The team culture was built around the Hall-of-Fame talent and work ethic of Dirk Nowitzki. With Nowitzki as the team’s North Star, Cuban built a championship team and refused to deviate from that plan. It’s an approach dependent on two key pieces:
- An owner with the vision and steadfastness to identify and stick to culture as a core value.
- An owner with the ability to surround himself with people who can execute on that vision.
- A player of Dirk’s caliber around whom you can build.
- Again, see #1 above as it would’ve been very easy over the years for Cuban to pull the trigger on any number of deals for his cornerstone.
But this isn’t about the Mavs, it’s about the Charlotte Bobcats. To consider the Bobcats of 2013-14, you have to at least take a rear-looking view into the decisions and events that led to the formation of the current team: the city’s vexing relationship with the NBA and its owners, the failing cronyism employed by owner Michael Jordan, the inability of the front office to learn from its mistakes, and the eventual identity shift from the Bobcats back to the Charlotte Hornets.
30 Previews, 30 Days
9/29 – Orlando Magic
9/30 – Charlotte Bobcats
10/1 – Cleveland Cavaliers
10/2 – Phoenix Suns
10/3 – New Orleans Pelicans
10/4 – Sacramento Kings
10/5 – Washington Wizards
10/6 – Detroit Pistons
10/7 – Minnesota Timberwolves
10/8 – Portland Trail Blazers
10/9 – Toronto Raptors
10/10 – Philadelphia 76ers
10/11 – Milwaukee Bucks
10/12 – Dallas Mavericks
10/13 – Boston Celtics
10/14 – Utah Jazz
10/15 – Atlanta Hawks
10/16 – Los Angeles Lakers
10/17 – Houston Rockets
10/18 – Chicago Bulls
10/19 – Golden State Warriors
10/20 – Brooklyn Nets
10/21 – Indiana Pacers
10/22 – New York Knicks
10/23 – Memphis Grizzlies
10/24 – Los Angeles Clippers
10/25 – Denver Nuggets
10/26 – San Antonio Spurs
10/27 – Oklahoma City Thunder
10/28 – Miami Heat
I felt compelled to start out with a reference to the Mavs because the Bobcats, by clear contrast, have nothing resembling a culture or continuity or consistency – unless you point to MJ’s decisions to surround himself with friends, former teammates, and UNC connections. There are plenty of other areas that separate the ownership aspects of the Mavs from the Bobcats, but the cultural piece stands out to me not like any sore thumb, but more like a sore penis dangling from a healthy hand where one would expect to see a thumb.
The following will lay out Jordan’s first full off-season with the franchise when he set the off-key tone for the owner he would become; then I’ll touch on a series of poor management trends that have led to the directionless environment and resulted in a losing culture and unengaged fan-base. Finally, the current state of the Bobcats and what can happen when a franchise attempts to reclaim its identity.
A sad timeline:
- On June 15th, 2006, Michael Jordan joined BET founder Robert Johnson as an owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. In one of his first moves as owner/Managing Member of Basketball Operations, Jordan sat at the helm while the team drafted Gonzaga All-American Adam Morrison third overall. Even this pick is subject to some debate by current Bobcats’ President of Basketball Operations, Rod Higgins who claims former coach/GM Bernie Bickerstaff made the call. Morrison’s career as a pro is well-known, but worth noting are players Charlotte passed on as draft ineptitude will be a recurring theme we’ll see in the Bobcats front office. In 2006, the Bickerstaff/Jordan leadership missed out on Brandon Roy, Rudy Gay, and Patrick O’Bryant (more on this later).
- On May 25th, 2007, Jordan removed Bickerstaff from the head coaching position and brought in his former teammate, Sam Vincent. At the time, Vincent had a single year of NBA coaching experience as an assistant, but had spent the majority of post-playing career coaching in lower levels of pro ball. The hiring of Vincent was Charlotte’s first exposure to Jordan’s cronyism. Hiring a coach with little-to-no on-the-job experience isn’t the worst thing a new owner can do, but for Jordan, it foreshadowed what was to come.
- On May 31st, 2007, less than a week after Vincent was hired, Jordan hired another former teammate and good buddy/ping pong partner, Rod Higgins as General Manager. At the time, Higgins’s résumé likely made him a qualified candidate, but far from overwhelming: he cut his teeth in the Wizards’ front office as an Assistant GM (while Jordan was a player and partial-owner of the franchise). He used his experience in DC to cross the country and take the reins as Golden State’s GM. In three years in the bay area, he presided over a single playoff team – the “We Believe” Warriors that upset the Mavs in the first round. In six years as either an assistant GM or GM, his teams won 41% of their games and made the playoffs once. He was part or privy to draft war rooms that selected Kwame Brown, Jared Jeffries, Ike Diogu, Andris Biedrins, and, of course he used a lottery pick on Patrick O’Bryant the same year Jordan/Bickerstaff picked Morrison. (To be fair, Higgins did nab Monta Ellis in the 2nd round in 2005 and Jeffries/Biedrins have had their moments.)
- On June 7th, 2007 Jordan continued to surround himself with familiar faces. In and of itself, the NBA is a league where connections and networking span across decades, franchises, and varying roles. Where Jordan differs in this world of high-stakes networking is his insistence of gifting jobs of great responsibility and visibility to men who have neither the experience nor ability to handle them. This time, the front office tabbed former UNC player and assistant coach, Phil Ford. Ford’s hiring was one of the least notable of Jordan’s decisions, but it preceded one of the more bizarre.
- On June 18th, 2007, long-time Jordan buddy and former college roommate, Buzz Peterson, was hired as Director of Player Personnel. The Bobcats did a decent job of rationalizing this hire: Peterson was a long-time college coach who would be responsible for scouting. Maybe it makes sense, but Peterson’s basketball experiences had been made up exclusively of playing and coaching at the collegiate level. One only has to close his eyes and imagine the 2007 Bobcats war room where the team drafted 8th overall. Players are falling off the board … there goes Horford, then Jeff Green, Yi Jianlian was interesting, but Milwaukee took him. The Bobcats, in need of some frontcourt help, are staring at two-time NCAA champ Joakim Noah and 19-year-old prospect named Brandan Wright from …. Would you believe it? UNC. High fives all around and yes, we can light up stogies in a Jordan war room.
Coaching Carousel: Each of the questionable hires outlined above occurred in Jordan’s first full off-season. He built a leadership team made up of friends who were either inexperienced or unproven and the decisions that stemmed from these hires were far from surprising: Vincent didn’t even last a calendar year as coach and was wisely backfilled with another Tar Heel alum, Larry Brown. Brown delivered the team’s only taste of success, but even he lasted less than three full seasons and was eventually replaced by Paul Silas who was more caretaker than long-term solution. Silas was replaced with yet another inexperienced coach in Mike Dunlap. And like they had done with Buzz Peterson four years before, the Bobcats touted Dunlap’s skills in player development and teaching, but gave him less than a full calendar year to teach or develop – he was fired after his first season. The latest coaching decision appears to be at least a step in the right direction in terms of hiring someone with plenty of experience coaching in the NBA; albeit as an assistant: Steve Clifford hired in May of this year.
Draft Inconsistency: Across that same coaching carousel timeline, the team has bumbled its way through one crappy draft after another. I’m willing to give the franchise more leeway with drafting as each of us has eyeballed a young prospect and convinced ourselves he’d be a great pro only to have our scouting self-confidence tumble down a well of doubt when this youngster’s skills prematurely plateau. But for Rod Higgins, it seems to be an annual event. Above, I referenced his Wizards and Warriors missteps, but his Bobcats picks haven’t fared much better. D.J. Augustin over Brook Lopez (who knew Lopez would be this good, I agree). Gerald Henderson over Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, and Jeff Teague (I know it, they already had their PG in Augustin). Kemba Walker over Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard (Yeah, they already had Augustin … wait, what?). Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was the consensus #2 in 2012, but has some gaping holes offensively. And the Cody Zeller pick this past summer came with higher-rated players still on the board. To be completely fair, Kidd-Gilchrist and Zeller have the appearances of being quality picks, even if they were far from home runs. At just 20-years-old, Kidd-Gilchrist has plenty of time to develop (assuming the Bobcats give him that chance) and has a reputation for being a quality kid with a strong character (the possible beginning of a cultural definition?). While all-star accolades epitomize subjectivity, it’s worth noting the Bobcats have never drafted an eventual all-star.
Cheap or Directionless?: I fully support unconventional approaches to running a business or a sports team, but at some point it becomes painfully transparent that there’s something festering beneath the unconventionality – the most obvious guesses are a lack of direction and a lack of financial commitment. In the case of coaches (Clifford will be their sixth coach in ten seasons. Counting 2013-14, the league average for coaches in that duration, not counting interims, is 3.6 – so Charlotte’s nearly double the league average), it’s fair to ask if the front office is trying to cut costs by hiring inexperienced guys with low price tags. Jordan’s position in the 2011 lockout as a vocal owner arguing for a greater piece of the NBA revenue pie lends more credibility to this question. As for the scouting; is Jordan directly involved? Is Higgins calling the shots? Are the Bobcats saving money by scraping by with lesser quality or inexperienced scouts? Given the high turnover rate of coaches and players, it’s not a stretch to wonder if other areas of the organization are being let go before they ever have a chance to establish a culture or show progress.
Cho steps forward, Larry steps back?: Chronologically out of order was the hiring of Rich Cho as GM in 2011. Cho came well-respected for his ability to navigate the nuanced world of player movement and contract negotiation. But before everyone starts wondering if the Cho signing was a hopeful salvo against the long-running cronyism so prevalent since Jordan joined, any hope or goodwill was erased in a fell swoop on July 16th, 2013 when MJ promoted his older brother Larry Jordan to Director of Player Personnel – the same position previously occupied by Peterson; a position so integral to the Bobcats that it had remained vacant for three years after Peterson departed. The elder Jordan’s résumé is less-qualified than that of Peterson’s as the only references to his basketball experience include a vague role with the Bobcats as “Director of Special Projects” and a stint with a pro team in 1988 called the Chicago Express. To suspect Michael didn’t have a hand in hiring his brother for what appears to be a token position in the franchise is to willingly participate in self-deception.
I’m exhausted from wandering through the old-timey nepotistic and cronyistic elements of Jordan’s front office. It’s almost like Jordan is Boss Tweed and the Bobcats are his Tammany Hall except there’s no corruption, no constituency, no votes, just Jordan hooking up and hanging out with people he’s known over the years. Despite a lifetime of achievements, Michael Jordan didn’t invent nepotism. Some of our most successful sports teams and franchises are run as family businesses. The Yankees and Lakers and Wal-Mart come to immediate mind so I’m not calling MJ out based on nepotism alone, but rather the trend of hiring unqualified and inexperienced men to run his basketball team.
Against this mistake-ridden backdrop, the Bobcats enter the 2013 season with Al Jefferson as the highest-profile free agent in the team’s short history. Jefferson provides a post-presence on the offensive side of the ball that Charlotte fans haven’t seen since the Alonzo Mourning/Larry Johnson days. As mentioned above, the team also added Zeller in the draft; a young man who’s most frequently compared with Blazers all-star LaMarcus Aldridge – a suspect comparison given Zeller’s lack of outside shooting in his two years in Bloomington as a Hoosier. More of that classic front office spin (somewhere, Mike Dunlap and Buzz Peterson are in agreement)? Skepticism aside, this is a young team with a projected group of starters that average 23-years of age being led by a coach who’s never had his own team at the pro level. This can’t be viewed as a season for winning, but a season for developing and shaping a cultural identity. But the major concern has to be how Jordan, Higgins, and Cho see this season as they’ll ultimately determine if this current group is granted the opportunity carry the franchise’s legacy back to the Hornets; as this is their last year as Bobcats.
The most intense scrutiny will rightly be on the development of Zeller and Kidd-Gilchrist. The team has used 2nd and 4th overall picks on these guys over the past two drafts and while it’s too early to expect them to contribute with the same regularity as Walker, Jefferson, or Henderson; Zeller, who was selected ahead of the higher-rated Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore, has a lot to prove. By pointing out similarities to Aldridge, the Bobcats front office is doing little to help Zeller. Rather it unfairly drives the expectations higher-than-necessary and appears to be a front office trying to sell their pick to fans or league cognoscenti. Kidd-Gilchrist must show a maturation of skill and become a more reliable player for the Bobcats. His jump shot is the obvious focus, but for a young team that shouldn’t be focused on winning a ton of games this season, he needs to offer more reasons to keep him on the court.
Beyond Zeller and Kidd-Gilchrist, the team is depending heavily on the leadership of Walker who’s taking over the role as a team leader by recruiting Jefferson, setting up optional pre-season workouts, acting as a surrogate coaching staff until camp officially begins, and saying all the right things; including acknowledging some of the Bobcats’ shortcomings:
“We’re trying to change the culture around here…I’ve been losing for two years now. I’m sick of it. I’ve been winning my entire career and I want to get that feeling back.”
Walker reminds me of a more electric version of Jameer Nelson – the vocal point guard who can lead, but likely doesn’t have the talent to drive the team on his own. The addition of Jefferson and development from Kidd-Gilchrist and Zeller should remove a lot of the pressure Walker felt last season when he led the team in scoring. Walker, Jefferson, and Henderson are guys the Bobcats can depend on. They’re not all-stars and most likely will never be, so the emphasis should be on consistency and leadership. For Jefferson that means scoring in the post, rebounding, and showing improvement on the defensive side of the court. For Walker, it’s steady playmaking and leadership with better shot selection and decision making. Henderson re-signing was a step towards cultural improvement as a symbolic gesture just sticking with the team despite a series of losing seasons and a revolving door of head coaches.
The five guys above are the core of this team. They’ve been hand-selected by the current front office. Four of them were drafted and one acquired as a free agent. Every player from the original Bobcats group is gone – moved on to other teams, other leagues, other careers. And along with them, the franchise hope will go the memories of their losing habits. The team has pressed the reset button in nearly every way possible with Jordan and Higgins as the only survivors of the executioner’s oft-used axe – easy for Jordan to do when he’s judge, jury, and executioner. Any premature firings or trades or decisions not to re-sign guys becomes yet another stain on the already-blemished Jordan ownership legacy.
By changing the franchise back to the Hornets, Jordan is given the chance to change a culture by changing an identity. The 2013 season shouldn’t be about the playoffs, but about creating something that the players and fans can value. From an execution perspective, the Bobcats were wise to start that process by committing $40-million to Jefferson. By showing players and fans a commitment to improving the roster, cultural change can finally begin. This means resisting the urge to tank, which brings along with it a cancerous culture of losing that eventually has to be removed in the form of roster purges. It means giving young players and a new coach a wide berth to succeed, fail, and grow. The NBA doesn’t allow teams to operate in a state of stasis. In a perfect world, these young Bobcats would have years to grow together and achieve their potential as a group. The fine art to managing an NBA team, particularly one that’s being rebuilt and redefined from the ground up, is found in the balance between patience and progress. The on-court effort and style, the domain of Clifford and the players, can go a long way in rebuilding a connection with a community so passionate about its basketball that they led the league in attendance in nine of their first ten years. Former owner George Shinn did little to endear himself to that community and it showed over their final four years in Charlotte when attendance dropped by an average of 400,000 people/season. The hangover from the Shinn era has been easy to hang onto with the lack of a quality product on the court, but based on nostalgia alone, the new Hornets could see an uptick in interest. The rest – the player moves, the coaching moves, the draft, the hiring of family members – is for Jordan, Higgins, and Cho to figure out.
For a struggling franchise (next-to-last in the latest Forbes NBA franchise valuation) that has so consistently lacked the characteristics of any identifiable traits or values, re-becoming the Charlotte Hornets has to be a good thing, right? It’s like taking a cheese grater or steel wool to a tattoo you hate and just disfiguring any memory of that terrible decision. The team name change is something more than opportunity, but I struggle put my finger directly on it. Is it lipstick on a pig? A Hail Mary reaching back to some sort of teal-colored memory of Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning selling out the Charlotte Coliseum over and over? I don’t know what it is, but for a team so desperate for positivity that it clutches to the fabrics of a Gerald Henderson jersey, it’s some damn thing. Most likely it’s just hope. I agree with the Nietzsche quote at the beginning of this piece, but in the case of sports, maybe there’s room for delaying the inevitable Jordanian torment.