Offseason Grades: Charlotte Bobcats
The Point Forward will grade every team’s offseason over the next few weeks. Click here for the complete archive.
Additions: Al Jefferson, Cody Zeller (No. 4 pick in 2013 draft), Steve Clifford (coach)
Losses: Tyrus Thomas (amnesty clause), Byron Mullens, Reggie Williams, DeSagana Diop, Mike Dunlap (coach)
Other Moves: Re-signed Gerald Henderson, re-signed Josh McRoberts, retained Ben Gordon (player option), re-signed Jannero Pargo, hired Steve Clifford to replace Mike Dunlap as coach
What Went Right: Owner Michael Jordan announced that the franchise would change its nickname to the “Hornets” for the 2014-15 season, the terms of Henderson’s new contract were pretty solid (three years, $18 million), amnestying Thomas could wind up being addition by subtraction and Zeller had a pleasantly surprising showing at the Las Vegas Summer League. Besides that …?
What Went Wrong: Let’s back up to June 2011, when Rich Cho was hired as GM. The plan was to detonate the roster and play the ping pong ball lottery game to build a new core that would eventually be capable of doing real damage in the playoffs for the first time in the expansion franchise’s history.
Two seasons, three coaches, 120 losses and three drafts later, and the Bobcats have only Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker to show for all of that anguish so far. Even Kidd-Gilchrist’s staunchest advocates, and I consider myself one, would concede that his path to stardom is on hold until he completely rebuilds his shot mechanics. The other three are, for now, more questions than answers, leaving the 2011 strategy largely unfinished. Even if we imagine Kidd-Gilchrist and Zeller blossoming into the second- and third-best players on a legitimate playoff team, who is the No. 1 guy? And where is that No. 1 guy coming from, for this franchise, except the draft? And what draft could possibly offer better odds at a franchise player than 2014?
Those straightforward rhetorical questions don’t seem to have been the guiding force for Charlotte’s summer. Instead, it appears as if Jordan’s patience with losing — or the organization’s patience as a whole — ran out, as the Bobcats sank $40.5 million into Jefferson, who should be able to boost the Bobcats’ 28th-ranked offense but won’t do much, if anything, to help their league-worst defense.
Will Jefferson’s dependable low-post game make the Bobcats more watchable? Yes, it should. Does he make them better? Yes. His Player Efficiency Rating of 20.9 with the Jazz last season would place him second in Bobcats franchise history, trailing only Gerald Wallace’s 21.3 in 2005-06, and the 28-year-old Jefferson, who signed for three years, is the most proven player Charlotte has had since Wallace was traded to the Blazers in 2011. Is it possible to imagine a Jefferson/Zeller inside-outside pairing succeeding on offense relatively early in the season? Yes. Zeller showed plenty of versatility and looked comfortable at the high post and with the ball on the perimeter in Las Vegas.
But does Jefferson’s addition move Charlotte into position for a playoff spot this year, or next? The answer to that would seem to be a firm “no.” With that in mind, what was the point? The Bobcats did, after all, have to overpay by 15-to-20 percent and pay off Thomas to create the necessary cap space to boot. The signing amounts to a fairly expensive step toward relevance at exactly the moment in which they should be doing everything within their power to crawl backward with the rest of the league’s paupers vying for Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart and the other top prospects in the 2014 draft. The Bobcats, after what they’ve been through the last two-plus years, should understand this better than anyone. Instead they confoundingly shifted their philosophy.
Grade: D-plus. It’s tempting to rationalize the Bobcats’ summer with the logic that Clifford has the power to ramp up the losing whenever he wants simply by turning over minutes to his youngsters. That option is always there for a talent-deficient roster. But the more important question is whether the Bobcats have a method to their madness. For now, it just looks like swerving madness.
There is a major upshot, though, one that has nothing to do with the moves the Bobcats made (or didn’t make) this summer, and everything to do with past deals and external factors. The Bobcats could very well wind up with three top-15 picks in the 2014 draft: their own, Detroit’s from the Ben Gordon deal and Portland’s from the Wallace trade. The Pistons and Blazers orchestrated trades and shelled out money this summer in pursuit of playoff spots, increasing Charlotte’s odds of cashing in. Still, even if the protections break right (Detroit’s pick is top-eight protected, Portland’s is top-12 protected) and Charlotte does hit the trifecta, Jefferson — and his need for the ball — will face a whole new round of scrutiny next summer.