The so-called “Thunder model” of NBA team-building was never really a discrete, original thing. It had existed before; Oklahoma City was not the first team to bottom out and rebuild around draft picks. And it can only exist as a success if you nab a franchise-changing star with one of those picks.
The Thunder did something almost impossible to replicate in drafting an all-time great player in Kevin Durant at no. 2 and then remaining bad enough in the next two seasons to snag two more top-four picks. They famously nailed them all, with Sam Presti tossing in the Serge Ibaka selection at no. 24 just to taunt everyone else.
That’s not a model. That’s an unsustainable hot streak, and one that required some major luck.
The Bobcats watched from afar while their aging, expensive playoff team maxed out as first-round roadkill, and they hired Rich Cho, once of the Sonics/Thunder, to take his own shot. They traded away almost every relevant veteran, held back in free agency, and went an unthinkable 28-120 combined over the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.
But they suffered the inverse of Oklahoma City’s lottery luck, falling backward in consecutive drawings, including a slide from pole position into the no. 2 slot in 2012 — a draft with one clear foundational superstar in Anthony Davis and a muck of unknowns after that. Close your eyes and you can still see Cho on television, taking the gut punch and wincing when the second-to-last envelope revealed the Charlotte logo.
So, Charlotte entered last summer with a choice: stink again and play for the 2014 draft, allegedly the richest in a decade, or accelerate the process by signing a quality free agent. Al Jefferson was the Bobcats’ target, and the choice his signing would represent inspired serious debate. The discussion wasn’t just about basketball. The Bobcats weren’t sure if they could afford to be terrible again. “It’s always in the discussion,” Fred Whitfield, the team’s president and COO, says of the role of revenue in free-agency decisions. “We felt Al Jefferson could help us win now, and that would clearly improve our business.”
Charlotte had lost tens of millions in both 2011 and 2012, per Forbes estimates,1 and ranked among the bottom half-dozen teams in attendance. Being bad was hurting the Bobcats’ ability to attract sponsors for various in-arena promotions, a lucrative niche that can net even a small-market team north of $10 million per year, according to league sources.
They pulled the trigger on Jefferson, and the Bobcats, at 34-37 after Monday’s loss to the Rockets, are among the happiest stories in the league. They’re going to make the playoffs, they’ve played well above .500 over the last 30 or so games, and the transition back to the Hornets moniker next season has reinvigorated the fan base.
Hell, they’ve even found a way to sponsor the transition from the Bobcats back to the Hornets, says Pete Guelli, the team’s executive vice-president and sales chief. Mercedes-Benz paid an undisclosed sum to brand the process, and it is exactly the sort of blue-chip sponsor that wanted no part of the Bobcats when the team was in the dumps, Guelli says. “A large number of companies that just didn’t want to talk to us previously are in dialogue with us now,” he says.
The Bobcats, then, serve as a useful reminder amid the heated debate over tanking and rebuilding: There are already enormous incentives driving teams toward short-term wins, even at the expense of idealistic long-term team-building. There may be a time limit on sucking, from both a financial and a morale perspective.
The Bobcats sold about 2,000 new full season-ticket packages during each of their down years, Guelli says. That’s a solid number for a bad team. They’re going to blow that away this season, with projections of about 3,500 new packages sold for next season. Sponsorship money will be up both this season and next, and the team is working on some playoffs-only sponsorship packages for the minimum two home postseason games it will get this season. “The dialogue around all these kinds of deals is at an all-time high for us,” Guelli says. Hornets merchandise is breaking sales records, even though the team can’t yet produce Hornets T-shirts and jerseys with the names of current players.
The league’s beefed-up revenue-sharing system will also help the bottom line. The Bobcats are expected to receive just north of $20 million in revenue-sharing payouts, the highest figure in the league, according to a half-dozen sources who reviewed a memo the league sent out recently listing revenue-sharing projections. Several other small-market teams could receive about $15 million apiece.
The team can now plan for such payouts, and it has shown a willingness to reinvest some of that money in talent — both on the floor and in the front office. The Bobcats have nearly a half-dozen people working on analytics after being relatively late to the party, and Jefferson was a big-ticket item. On the flip side, knowing all that cash is on the way would have provided some financial cushion for another rebuilding year. It is not inconceivable that revenue-sharing might one day prolong a small-market tank job, though there are some fail-safes in the system designed to prevent this.2
Professor Al has been even better than expected. He is the fulcrum of Charlotte’s offense, which has quietly played at about a league-average rate since late December. The uptick corresponded with Jefferson’s return to health after he missed much of training camp and several early games with ankle issues.
Jefferson commands a double-team on the block against almost any defender, and that has made life easier for his teammates.
Josh McRoberts, an NBA vagabond, has found a home in Charlotte as an entry passer, floor-spacer, and sometimes captain of an vulnerable second unit that now includes Chris Douglas-Roberts, Luke Ridnour, and Gary Neal. Jefferson isn’t a killer pick-and-roll player, but he’s leagues better than anything Kemba Walker had to work with last season. Gerald Henderson, overstretched in prior years as a top wing option, has learned to scavenge for buckets by cutting in very specific ways off both Jefferson and McRoberts.
“That’s what you get a guy like Al for,” Henderson says. “The cuts are gonna be there.”
(Side note: I love the cut Henderson makes in that clip, and it’s a calculating move he’s tailored to that particular play on this particular roster. When Walker and McRoberts run a pick-and-pop, McRoberts’s man will sometimes drop away from him to contain Walker’s drive. If Walker kicks the ball back to McRoberts, a third defender nearby on the perimeter might slide over to contest a possible 3-pointer. Henderson is often spotting up one perimeter slot over from McRoberts, meaning help duty on McRoberts will often fall to Henderson’s guy. As soon as that defender turns his head toward McRoberts, boom, Henderson is gone. “It’s almost like I become the roller,” Henderson says.)
The revelation, of course, has happened on the other end, where Steve Clifford, the team’s first-year head coach, has helped turn the Bobcats into a top-10 defense. They’ve been in that stratosphere since the first week of the season, and I predicted during that first month they would fall off at least a bit. I’m going to end up wrong.
As detailed here, Clifford has installed a basic system designed to minimize Jefferson’s limitations and provide clear roles for everyone. The results have been stunning. Charlotte has been the league’s stingiest transition defense by almost any measure, following Clifford’s demands to get back on defense immediately upon the release of a shot instead of crashing the boards. “Year in and year out,” Clifford says, “offensive rebounding is not a big factor in which teams win big.”3 That goes for McRoberts if he happens to be on the outside, and for every perimeter player save the bouncy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — though Henderson admits to breaking the rule now and then. “I hope nobody gets jealous,” Kidd-Gilchrist says, laughing. “I’m just trying to help us win.”
Jefferson hangs back in the paint on pick-and-rolls, an easier system that addresses his lack of foot speed. “The scheme works more to my advantage,” he says. “And the biggest reason is really that Coach just demands it more out of me.” Henderson is a solid wing defender, Walker has improved on the pick-and-roll, and Kidd-Gilchrist has the tools to be an all-court stopper:
“When he’s locked in,” McRoberts says of MKG, “he’s one of the top defenders in the NBA.”4
The Bobcats rarely foul, and they all crash the defensive glass. Charlotte tops the league in defensive rebounding rate after finishing 29th last season and 25th the year before, per NBA.com. Clifford has put off the fancier stuff to spend Year 1 on the basics. Turns out, the basics alone are pretty powerful. The Bobcats have constructed a very good defense with so-so talent, a liability at center, and almost zero rim protection. The other stuff — situational game-by-game coaching, the building up of the offensive playbook — can come later.
The Bobcats are, finally, looking up — including at the standings as we reach the stretch run. “I could tell you I don’t look at the standings,” Jefferson says. “But you can’t help it. You want to see where everything falls, with those two teams at the top. We have a chance to get to no. 6.”
This is where you catch yourself: The team is three games under .500 in a conference that flirted with historic levels of awfulness before settling in as run-of-the-mill bad. Year-over-year attendance is flat, though it’s up a bit of late. “They’ve been through some tough times,” McRoberts says of the fans. “You can understand why they might be reluctant.” Cody Zeller has looked steadier after a harrowing start, but he’s still shooting just 41 percent. Walker has improved, but he’s still a score-first pull-up guy at heart, and his size will always be an issue on defense.
Bismack Biyombo has fallen to the edge of the rotation, and though he can be a real deterrent at the rim, he’s inconsistent with his defensive fundamentals, and such a poor offensive player as to make it appear Charlotte is playing 4-on-5.
And then there is Kidd-Gilchrist, the on-court manifestation of that televised Cho gut-punch wince. He’s rangy and tenacious, with a herky-jerky off-the-bounce-and-cutting game that can earn a heap of free throws. But he’s a disastrously bad shooter, and factoring in his drop in accuracy from the line, he has somehow gotten worse this season. Nobody guards him, which compromises Charlotte’s spacing and explains why he’ll often log 20 or fewer minutes — including very little time in the fourth quarters of tight games. If the jumper remains this bad, Kidd-Gilchrist tops out as a taller Tony Allen.
Mark Price works one-on-one with Kidd-Gilchrist at every practice to make sure that doesn’t happen. When Kidd-Gilchrist broke his left hand earlier in the season, Price used the injury as a chance to work on one-handed righty shots — drills that would at least get Kidd-Gilchrist’s shooting elbow lined up the right way.
But as soon as his left hand healed, Kidd-Gilchrist reverted to the same unwatchable form in which he folds his left hand over the top of the ball instead of keeping it to the side. “Once he got his left hand back,” Price says, “he reverted right back to what he’s used to doing. That left hand causes all the problems. It’s going to take concentrated time and effort this summer to get rid of those bad habits.”
Kidd-Gilchrist remains the swing guy. If he can make the impact teams expect of a no. 2 pick,5 the Bobcats nudge their collective ceiling a bit higher. “I don’t think like that,” Kidd-Gilchrist says of the potential pressure that comes with being picked so high. “I don’t let it get to me. It’s just a number. It’s just where I was picked.”
That was the trade-off in the Jefferson signing: It lifted the short-term ceiling, but likely did nothing for the team’s long-term pursuit of championship contention. Jefferson isn’t a championship-level franchise centerpiece, and his contract is short, expensive, and unappealing as trade bait — not the best combination. Using all its cap space last summer on Jefferson prevented Charlotte from using it in-season to acquire more tradable assets. What the Sixers did with their cap space suggests the Bobcats might have netted only second-round picks in any such auction.
The incremental gobbling up of second-round picks and other small goodies can matter, especially if your overarching goal is to somehow net a superstar — either through the top of the draft, or via trade. Going for .500 this season might not have compromised the trade or free-agency routes to a massive talent upgrade, but it killed the draft route, and it didn’t boost the odds of hitting via the other two avenues.
Charlotte still has some assets in the bag — a first-round pick from Portland that will likely fall in the early 20s in this draft, and a juicy first-rounder from Detroit that could come in at about no. 9 this season.6 The trade cupboard is far from bare, though none of Charlotte’s younger players have jumped up in trade value.
And the Bobcats are an unlikely superstar trade destination, anyway. Such players typically become available only in the final year of their contracts, if even then, and any team trading a pile of assets for them must have airtight confidence those players will re-sign. Charlotte’s history suggests such confidence would be misguided, absent an outright assurance. That’s why finding a star in the draft is so crucial.
That leaves free agency, where Charlotte has never been anything close to a superstar draw. But the Jefferson signing suggests the Bobcats are willing to overspend to acquire B-level talent — the markup any midmarket, non-glamour team must suffer. They’re set (for now) with max-level cap flexibility every year going forward, and overpaying for a very good free agent isn’t so bad if you overpay the right guy — the right skill set, the right roster fit, the right attitude. In other words: Get Al Jefferson when you need a post scorer, avoid Josh Smith when you’ve already got two.
Charlotte didn’t get its franchise superstar at the top of the draft, and it punted the chance to make a run at one again this year. That makes building a championship-level team difficult. But not every team can aspire to championships at all times. Some must first reach profitability and watchability.
The Bobcats have gotten there, at least. Nail a pick or two in the next couple of drafts, find another free agent to supplement Jefferson (or transition into a post-Al era), and, who knows, the Bobcats could find themselves at a level where some injury or matchup luck could get them into the conference finals. Few predicted two or three years ago that Memphis and Indiana could fight for the title, or that Denver’s hodgepodge of “pretty good” players could win 57 games under the right coach and with the right free-agency boost in Andre Iguodala. Sometimes stuff just comes together.
Charlotte doesn’t yet have a Ty Lawson, Marc Gasol, or Paul George, with the last two having developed (when healthy) into top-20 and probably top-15 overall players. But the Bobcats are a fun story with some pieces in place, and some interesting paths before them. Those paths may not lead beyond mediocrity, but at least they’re interesting. “Regardless of what happens from here on out,” Jefferson says, “we made a step forward.”
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. The Drew Gooden Experience
It’s just insane that the Wizards’ new go-to bench unit features Drew Gooden, Al Harrington, and Professor Andre Miller. The Gooden experience has been delightful. He’s chucking everything in sight — nearly 16.5 shots per 36 minutes, the highest rate of his career. He still has crazy facial hair. He says crazy things like, “I’m still Drew Gooden, that’s what I do,” after high-scoring games.
He cannot defend anyone, anywhere on the floor; the Wiz bench unit has been flammable on both ends. He almost got Nick Young with an MMA takedown over the weekend. Drew Gooden is hypnotic.
2. Arm Grabs
Speaking of arm grabs: Check out Dwight Howard blatantly yanking Robin Lopez’s left arm to prevent Lopez from rotating toward a Jeremy Lin drive in a recent game:
This isn’t new, and I’ve admittedly, with tongue in cheek, praised Andrew Bogut for his ability to get away with this kind of chicanery. But it’s getting out of hand. The league and media have rightfully spent lots of time trying to eradicate flopping, but there are very obvious bits of cheating that happen more often and have a more tangible impact on the game. The baseline arm grab is one such thing. It needs more policing.
3. John Wall’s 3-Point Shooting
Wall is on fire in March, and he’s up to 36 percent shooting from deep on the season — a tick above league average, on way more attempts than he jacked in his first three seasons combined.
It’s not just the accuracy. Wall is calmly sinking the kind of 3s that organically emerge for him, and not forcing too many others. He has hit off-the-bounce 3s when opposing guards go under picks or simply laid back in one-on-one situations, fearing his driving speed. He will launch spot-up 3s, including the occasional corner bomb, when Bradley Beal handles the rock and defenses tilt away from Wall.
This is a very encouraging development for Washington. Kudos to Wall for putting in the work.
4. Caron Butler Isolations
Butler has the potential to fit well in Oklahoma City, though we still have to see how all the pieces fit. But the Thunder are already calling too many of these hybird post-ups/isolations:
Unless Butler has a massive size advantage — which he’ll have at times playing shooting guard in ultra-big lineups — Scott Brooks needs to excise this.
5. Tim Duncan’s Overhead Outlet Bounce Passes
A delightful bit of old-school Duncanism. Short-range bounce passes are easy; you can throw those babies chest-pass style. But when Duncan snares a board under the rim and wants to hit Tony Parker running out beyond the 3-point arc, he’ll lift the ball over his head for some extra oomph and launch a bouncer that leads Parker to half court. Long live Timmay.
6. The Rise of Amar’e
A nice story amid a weird and ultimately disappointing season in New York. It was not long ago that Stoudemire appeared washed up. He has never been able to defend much, but the other parts of his game were deteriorating. A lack of explosiveness killed his awkward post-up game, as he spun into charges, dribbled out of bounds, or flat lost the ball. His midrange jumper was gone.
But Amar’e has rediscovered some of his old game, and his ability to score in a variety of ways has enlivened a Carmelo Anthony–Tyson Chandler–Stoudemire trio that has never really worked otherwise.
Stoudemire’s turnover rate on post-ups has dropped over the last two months, he’s drawing an insane amount of fouls on the block, and he’s hitting the midranger at a decent rate. The Knicks as a whole have been playing with more offensive versatility, all the pieces interacting in pleasing and even unpredictable ways. It might be too little, too late, especially after New York’s disastrous fall-from-ahead job against Cleveland on Sunday, but Stoudemire’s resurgence has been a nice story.
7. The Fall of Carlos Boozer
Boozer’s contract and defensive ineptitude have sometimes unfairly overshadowed the value he has brought to a punchless Chicago offense — efficient post play that draws double-teams, shot-making, a facsimile of spacing, and underrated passing.
But it’s all falling apart now, and he barely plays in the fourth quarter. Boozer is shooting just 44.6 percent, by far a career low, and his ability to draw help and pass out of it has suffered as a result. Taj Gibson is probably a better post player at this point. This version of Boozer just isn’t a very helpful NBA player, and Chicago should amnesty him if Jerry Reinsdorf is willing to swallow the financial hit.
8. Sacramento’s Floor Balance
I’m beginning to wonder if the Kings are fated to be among the league’s worst transition defensive teams in perpetuity — if it’s something in the water out there. They are just bad, every season, even as most of the personnel and coaching staff turn over.
One reason: Their floor balance is too often out of whack, with four or even five players below the foul line — and sometimes below the dotted line — as a King either shoots or drives into traffic. Just two of the many, many examples from recent Sacto games:
Add a big man who likes to argue with officials, the team’s overall youth, all the new parts, and a couple of guys who like to jump for steals instead of getting back on defense — and you often end up with a bloodbath.
9. Current Injured Players on the Broadcast
Memo to teams: Do this more often. It resulted in the epic Dirk Nowitzki moment below, and injured guys just seem more candid during the free-flowing TV broadcast. Quincy Pondexter had a nice segment during a recent Memphis game, too.
10. The TNT Slot Machine Score-Changer
When you live in the NBA, you grow to appreciate (or loathe) the small fringe things. Example: On TNT games, when one team scores, the broadcast doesn’t just add to the total on that little scoreboard in the corner of the screen. They have the point total spin vertically, display the team’s logo for a split second, and then spin vertically again to report the new point total. It mimics a slot machine, and I like it far too much.