By Drew Vandemore
It's no stretch to say that all 10 seasons Charlotte's basketball team played under the monicker Bobcats were tough for the city and its fans. From their opening game against the Wizards in 2004 to their final playoff game against Miami in 2014, Charlotte ran through the gauntlet most new franchises must face. But there just might be a light shining brightly at the end of the tunnel.
This article is Part 1 of a two-part series that will look at how the Charlotte Bobcats failed and succeeded in recent years to reach the position it is now in today. Part 2 will look to the future of the Charlotte Hornets, how they fared in the 2014 NBA draft, and some ideas for the 2014 free agency period, which starts on Tuesday.
Kemba Walker had to expect something different.
Coming off of a national championship run at the University of Connecticut in 2011, Walker skyrocketed up NBA draft boards. Teams loved his pure athleticism and ability to create his own shot, and that made up for what he lacked in the height department (Walker is barely over 6 feet).
"I told him it’s time to move on," said then UConn head coach Jim Calhoun told NBA.com. "He’s ready to move on as a man. He’s ready to move on as a basketball player- emotionally and physically."
The Bobcats, who were coming off of a 34-48 season and were led mostly by then interim head coach Paul Silas, selected Walker No. 9 overall. But with talented players on the roster such as D.J. Augustin, Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson, and Gerald Henderson, the Bobcats seemed poised to be able to remain competitive while undergoing a minor rebuilding job for the next few seasons.
Instead, Charlotte chose to go the complete opposite direction and totally empty the cupboards. The Bobcats traded Stephen Jackson to Milwaukee in what was a three way deal between Charlotte, Milwaukee, and Sacramento. That landed the Bobcats SF Corey Maggette and the No. 7 overall pick in the 2011 draft, which the Bobcats used to select big man Bismack Biyombo from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (On Biyombo's resume is the only triple double performance in the history of the Nike Hoops Summit game, so he seemed as good of a place to work into some rebuilding as any.)
Still, in the 2011 offseason, the Bobcats made absolutely zero effort to improve their roster outside of Kemba Walker. Majority owner Michael Jordan tried to warn the fan base of what was about to happen, but even he could not have envisioned where the upcoming season was heading.
Herein lies the issue with this decision making: Not only was the season shortened due to a lockout that lasted until Christmas Day (Thank goodness for Charlotte's sake), but because of the inefficiencies of the Bobcats front office – and the old CBA – Charlotte was perfectly content with sucking until they had enough “pieces” to try to contend.
At one point in this absolute embarrassment of an NBA season, the Bobcats had a starting lineup as follows:
- D.J. Augustin
- Gerald Henderson
- Corey Maggette
- Eduardo Najera
- Desegana Diop
In his first NBA season, Kemba Walker won about 22 percent of the number of games that he won in his final season at UConn. The 10.6 winning percentage is the worst in NBA history and the seven wins is the fewest by any team if you exclude the 1948 Providence Steamrollers, who were also apparently a professional basketball team.
The Bobcats began to show some competent signs the next offseason despite what the fan base may have thought. GM Rich Cho (The mastermind behind the Biyombo and Walker picks) had a full year on the job and was beginning to show some of the savvy that he had become known for in Oklahoma City, where he established a record as an elite decision maker by drafting Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka.
Charlotte traded Corey Maggette’s expiring contract to Detroit for two years of Ben Gordon’s monster contract and a future first round draft pick. In that draft, Charlotte selected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist No. 2 overall (*cough* After the lottery was rigged so the league could entice a high bidder to buy the league owned New Orleans Hornets *cough cough*) before then getting a steal with Vanderbilt’s Jeff Taylor at No. 31 overall.
Charlotte then let Augustin sign with Indiana in free agency to clear the way for Walker to take control of the team. Paul Silas resigned (Fired? Resigned? Forced out? Same thing.) and the team Hired Mike Dunlap, who was an assistant on Steve Lavin’s St. John’s Red Storm team at the time.
"Mike Dunlap absolutely elevates every player and team he comes into contact with," said Karl to the Charlotte Observer. "He will take you from good to great. Name any top-level, elite coach in the game – the only difference between Mike and them is their address."
This is what attracted him to owner Michael Jordan at the time due to the fact that the Bobcats had one of the youngest roster’s in the NBA. Jordan felt that this hiring would help progress his young guys while motivating whatever veterans were stuck on this God-forsaken team to give their all.
While the season started well – the Bobcats were a surprising two games over .500 after the first 12 games of the season – the tide turned quickly. Charlotte finished the season an improved 21-61, but only won 14 of their last 70 games en route to tripling their win total from the previous season.
Despite this improvement (No NBA team had ever tripled their win total before), the Bobcats fired Mike Dunlap after just one season due to what Rich Cho said was “not a great fit”. Dunlap had become unpopular with a majority of the roster due to his tendency to micromanage and bench veteran players for long periods of time.
The 2013 offseason then brought a renewed spirit to an absolutely beaten up fan base. Not only did the city of Charlotte manage to acquire the Charlotte Hornets name back for the 2014-2015 season, but the organization made the biggest signing, maybe both literally and metaphorically, in team history: Al Jefferson.
Big Al has been a dominant low post scorer in the NBA for 10 years, coming straight from high school in Mississippi to the league. Signing a player of Jefferson’s caliber signaled that Charlotte could become a popular destination for free agents if the right pieces were put into place.
Steve Clifford, a long respected NBA assistant and a disciple of Jeff Van Gundy, was hired as head coach and made an immediate impact on the team. The Bobcats were able to acquire Josh McRoberts at the 2012 trade deadline for Hakim Warrick in what seemed to be a minor deal at the time. However, McRoberts ended up almost being the perfect pairing with Jefferson and Walker, essentially becoming a second point guard on the floor: He averaged 4.3 assists per game from his power forward spot while knocking in a respectable 36 percent from 3-point range.
In the 2013 draft, Charlotte selected PF Cody Zeller out of Indiana with the No. 4 overall pick. Despite the weak draft class, the Bobcats were able to find arguably the best player selected in the top seven picks. This led to optimism for the upcoming NBA season in Charlotte for the first time since Larry Brown led the way.
But something changed midseason in Charlotte. Jefferson got the rest he so badly needed for his ankle and was able to use his All-Star snub as motivation. The team came out blazing in the second half of the season winning their first four games out of the break. In March, the Bobcats beat both the Pacers (Top seed in the East) and Blazers (No. 5 seed in the West) by 30 points. The team went 20-9 after the All-Star break and finished with a record of 43-39, good enough to earn the Bobcats their second ever playoff appearance.
The Bobcats earned the No. 7 seed in the East, drawing a first round matchup with the two-time defending champs. In the first quarter of the first game against Miami, Al Jefferson tore the plantar fascia in his right foot with the Bobcats leading 21-14. The Bobcats never really stood a chance in the series to begin with, but the injury to Jefferson all but sealed Charlotte's fate. In Game 4 at Time Warner Cable Arena, the Bobcats gave a valiant effort without Jefferson in their final game under the infamous moniker, but ultimately fell to the Heat 109-98.
Now having the ability to judge these decisions, it is obvious where the Bobcats began their misfortunes. Not only has Biyombo failed to turn into anything remotely close to an efficient player in his three full NBA seasons, but players drafted in the same range as him such as Klay Thompson, Alec Burks, and 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard have proven their worth all while doing things that the now Hornets desperately need in order to advance to the next level.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, while a fan favorite, has a long way to go as an offensive player to live up to the hype of a No. 2 overall pick despite being one of the top young defenders in the league. Zeller struggled heavily in the first part of the 2014 season but seemed to progress nicely after the All-Star break, finding his groove by playing closer to the basket and finding garbage baskets and making hustle plays.
There may be some well-justified buzz surrounding these new Hornets, but whether the moves in recent years have indeed set Charlotte up for success still remain to be seen.