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.
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 didnt 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 cant 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 leagues 36 best. The Bobcats are the lone team in the league with only one player - Gerald Henderson - in the Observers 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 Kentuckys 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 teams 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 arent as inconsequential as theyve 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 its 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.