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Posted: Saturday, Jun. 16, 2012

Building the Bobcats: Study shows finding stars harder than imagined

By Rick Bonnell
Published in: Building the Bobcats
  • There are some positive pieces to the Charlotte puzzle

    The Charlotte Bobcats’ greatest assets right now are the No. 2 overall pick in the June 28 draft and as much as $21 million in space under the salary cap come July. There isn’t much else to salvage from a 7-59 season, if you make the reasonable assumption the Bobcats are a minimum of two, and probably three, seasons away from contending for a playoff spot.

    There are four players from last season’s squad who are young enough to be part of the next playoff team – Gerald Henderson (three seasons experience), D.J. Augustin (four seasons) and Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker (both coming off their rookie seasons).

    The only other possibilities are big men Byron Mullins and DJ White, who came over in trades from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Of those four, only Henderson made the Observer’s ranking of the top-100 players, and he was at No. 96. Augustin is a restricted free agent who has already turned down a contract extension, so his future with the Bobcats seems uncertain. The Observer’s research into top-100 NBA players suggests most established themselves by the end of their third season. Augustin hasn’t yet reached that level.

    The Bobcats have two younger players in Biyombo and Walker who were drafted in the top 10 a year ago. Both played extensively, but they have flaws to be addressed: Biyombo needs shooting range and Walker needs consistency in his jump-shot delivery.

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    Two months removed from the worst season in NBA history, the Charlotte Bobcats are at a critical point.

    They have a rare opportunity to improve with the No. 2 pick in the June 28 draft, likely high draft choices the next two years, plus as much as $21 million in salary cap space to spend on free agents.

    Their plan, as spelled out by owner Michael Jordan, is to build through the draft and add a star through free-agency or a pivotal trade. He expects that to lift the Bobcats to become an Eastern Conference contender and to eventually compete for an NBA championship.

    An Observer analysis shows how difficult it will be to build the team Jordan seeks. There are rarely opportunities to sign free agents strong enough to build a franchise around. Plus adding all-star talent through the draft takes luck to get the top picks in the lottery and success in targeting players destined to become stars – something the Bobcats have failed to do in their nine-year history.

    The Observer analyzed the top 100 players in the NBA to see how top players were acquired and championship teams assembled. The study is a potential indicator of how the Bobcats might build their team.

    The top 100 rankings were put together with input from two NBA player-personnel executives. Rankings were based on the players’ performance so far, not projected performance. Allowances were made for some players, such as Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford, who spent much of the season out with injuries.

    Research shows:

    •  Impactful players are almost never available on the open market.

    Only seven of the top 100 players signed with their current teams as free agents and none were franchise players when they signed.

    Seven other players moved to new teams via trades either after becoming free agents or by saying they didn’t intend to re-sign with their current teams, including top 20 players LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony.

    Getting a franchise player to build around like Jordan envisions will be even harder for the Bobcats than other teams because they can’t offer the chance to contend quickly or the appeal of a major media market.

    How important is it to get a franchise player? The two NBA finalists – the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder – have two of the 10 best players in the league and all four semifinalists had at least three players ranked among the league’s 36 best. The Bobcats are the lone team in the league with only one player - Gerald Henderson - in the Observer’s Top 100.

    •  When you get a Top 5 pick, you better make it count.

    Eleven of 15 franchise players were drafted within the top five picks. With the No. 2 pick, the Bobcats have a rare opportunity but face a tough decision with no player the obvious choice behind Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, the expected top pick. And even if the Bobcats have poor records the next two seasons, the lottery system means they might not pick this high again.

    Based on the sample the Observer studied, a team’s chances of acquiring an impact player with a pick outside the top 10 appeared somewhat random. Choosing 11th was no more likely to result in a top-100 player than drafting 30th or even 60th, based on this sample.

    •  Second-round picks aren’t as inconsequential as they’ve often been portrayed – particularly as a means of banking European big men who can develop overseas.

    Eleven of the top 100 players were drafted in the second round and five are big men from outside the United States who played in Europe.

    The potential to find an NBA player drops dramatically in the second round: About 80 percent of players drafted in the first round between 2006 and 2011 are still in the league compared to about 35 percent of players drafted in the second round in that same time period.

    The good news for the Bobcats is they have the first pick in the second round of a particularly deep draft, making that pick more valuable.

    •  Star players usually have their breakout seasons within the first three years.

    Unlike the NFL and Major League Baseball, where quarterbacks and pitchers often take several years to develop, 80 percent of the top 100 NBA players had breakout years within three seasons. That suggests it’s harder to find an undiscovered gem in free agency or for players on the roster to later emerge.

    Of the 20 players who had breakout seasons in their fourth year or later, only three are ranked among the top 30 players.

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