Two years ago, the Observer detailed how the Bobcats planned to go from having the worst record in NBA history to a team that not only could make the playoffs, but advance in postseason play.
At the core of the plan: Add assets. And don’t jeopardize future flexibility for smaller short-term gains.
This past season they made the playoffs for the first time since 2010 and have more assets than ever – in current players, multiple first-round draft choices and space under the salary cap to sign free agents or facilitate trades.
At the core of the improvement were two key additions: center Al Jefferson and coach Steve Clifford. They make this year’s list as the Nos. 1 and 2 Hornets’ assets. Among those dropping out of the top 10: Gerald Henderson (No. 6 in 2013) and Bismack Biyombo (seventh in 2013).
Here are this year’s top 10 assets at the Hornets’ disposal:
1. Al Jefferson
Years ago, owner Michael Jordan publicly shared his vision of a star who would wed his future to Charlotte the way Jordan once did to Chicago. That vision became real last July 4 when former Utah Jazz center Al Jefferson agreed to sign wth the Bobcats. He’s the bridge, not only to making the playoffs, but hopefully advancing in the postseason.
Jordan always said he’d pay big for the right player and this was the one: Jefferson is making $13.5 million a season in a three-year deal that he has the option to terminate after next season. To create the cap space to sign Jefferson, the Bobcats waived power foward Tyrus Thomas under the NBA’s amnesty rule. That allowed the Bobcats to stop counting Thomas’ salary under the cap, though they still had to pay him the remaining $18 million on his contract.
Jefferson consistently was good for 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. He played through injuries and was the driving force in the Bobcats unexpectedly making the playoffs. With Jefferson carrying the load offensively, first-year coach Steve Clifford could build the rest of the team around defense and minimizing mistakes (the Bobcats finished the season last in the NBA in turnovers and fouls committed.)
Jefferson repeatedly has said how much he enjoys playing in Charlotte for Clifford. He was named All-NBA third-team, the first time he has received such an accolade during his 10-season career. He clearly enjoys being the centerpiece of a team on the rise.
The Hornets believe Jefferson’s presence will help recruit other free agents, and he has become active in that process, spreading the word to players on other teams how much they would enjoy playing for Clifford.
2. Steve Clifford
This franchise burned through three coaches – Larry Brown, Paul Silas and Mike Dunlap – within the span of 29 months. Finally they got it right hiring Clifford, a longtime assistant who spent most of his NBA career working for Jeff and Stan Van Gundy at New York, Houston and Orlando.
Clifford quickly installed a system that placed the Bobcats among the top defensive teams in the league. It was based on some non-negotiables: Always get back in transition, always protect the rim and always minimize fouling. By the end of the season, the Bobcats were best in the league in defensive rebounding.
3. Abundant salary-cap space
When Jordan bought majority control of the Bobcats, he installed Curtis Polk, his longtime financial advisor, as vice chairman of the franchise. Polk advocated a heightened sense of strategic planning in the basketball operation.
That specifically meant managing the salary cap so that opportunities years away wouldn’t be squandered by random signings and trades.
That approach now gives general manager Rich Cho abundant cap flexibility. Even with the slotted salaries the ninth and 24th picks will receive, the Hornets can be $13 million or more below the cap when the NBA’s fiscal year turns over July 1.
Combining the cap room with the Hornets’ draft picks offers Cho all sorts of creative opportunities to find a shooter, a backup point guard and the front-court depth he has described as team needs.
4. Kemba Walker
The Bobcats selected Walker ninth in the 2011 draft, hoping what he did in leading Connecticut to the national championship would translate to him excelling at point guard in Charlotte.
Walker has flaws – he shot 39 percent from the field and 33 percent from 3-point range last season. But he’s dangerous in the pick-and-roll, an improving passer and he has a knack for making big shots at the end of close games.
Walker personally recruited Jefferson to the team last spring before front-office officials were allowed to approach him. Clifford and the front office value that leadership.
5. The Hornets brand
Adopting the Hornets name and colors looked wildly popular when the Bobcats did polling of the marketplace. So far the franchise has sold a ton of T-shirts, hats, etc., with the new/old logos and teal-and-purple color scheme. The team hopes the nostalgia connected to the name and colors widens the team’s audience, generating more revenue in sales of tickets and merchandise.
The rebranding fortuitously coincides with the upswing in the on-court product.
6. The No. 9 pick
The Bobcats paid Ben Gordon $13.2 million last season not to play after they swapped him for Corey Maggette nearly two years ago. The real purpose of that trade was acquiring a minimally protected future first-round pick from the Detroit Pistons.
The now-Hornets got lucky in the draft lottery when the Cleveland Cavaliers jumped from the ninth spot in the draft to the top spot. That pushed the Pistons down to ninth, outside the protection negotiated into the trade. Hence, the Hornets received Detroit’s pick.
This is a good pick in a good draft. It could get them a shooter such as Creighton’s Doug McDermott or Michigan’s Nik Stauskas. It could get them a power forward such as Arizona’s Aaron Gordon or Kentucky’s Julius Randle. It could be the conduit to a trade for a veteran.
7. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist/Jeff Taylor
These small forwards are at the practice facility nearly every day this offseason. Taylor is rehabbing from a ruptured Achilles tendon and appears well ahead of schedule to be ready for training camp. Kidd-Gilchrist is working constantly with assistant coach Mark Price to fix a jump shot with multiple flaws.
They were selected in the same 2012 draft (Kidd-Gilchrist second and Taylor 31st). They’re above-average defenders who played in the SEC. Taylor is a much better jump-shooter, Kidd-Gilchrist the better rebounder.
8. The No. 24 pick
This is the pick the Hornets received from the Portland Trail Blazers to complete the Gerald Wallace trade. They lost their own pick (16th overall) to the Chicago Bulls, completing the Thomas trade.
Picks in the bottom third of the first round aren’t historically locks to succeed, but this is considered a deeper draft than most, so adding a rotation player is a reasonable hope.
Maybe a shooter such as former North Carolina player P.J. Hairston slips to this spot. Maybe they get lengthy Syracuse small forward Jerami Grant. Or perhaps the 24th pick becomes a commodity in a trade at a time when the Hornets could use some quick help to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
9. Josh McRoberts/Cody Zeller
Power forward Josh McRoberts would be higher on this list if the Hornets had him locked into a contract. He chose to void the last season of his current deal and become an unrestricted free agent in July.
The Bobcats got something for nothing in February 2013 when they sent Hakim Warrick to the Orlando Magic for McRoberts. Warrick never played a game for the Magic, or anyone else in the NBA, since the trade. Meanwhile, McRoberts became a starter for the Bobcats, the player Jordan calls the team’s “connect-the-dots” guy.
McRoberts is by Cho’s description “a great passer, a connector and great teammate.” Cho was firm in saying the Hornets want to re-sign him.
If McRoberts does leave, the Hornets have an alternative in Zeller, who they drafted fourth overall a year ago. Zeller started slowly but made significant improvement over the season’s final two months. He was named second-team All-Rookie by the NBA.
10. Playing in the Eastern Conference
A glance at last season’s final NBA standings tells a tale: At 43-39 the Bobcats won five fewer games than the Phoenix Suns. The Suns missed the playoffs in the West. The Bobcats were the seventh of eight seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
For whatever reason, the bar has been higher in the Western Conference for several seasons. Winning 54 games last season out West got the Houston Rockets home-court advantage in the first round. The Toronto Raptors received home-court in the East for 48 victories.
Jordan is on record as saying this franchise’s short-term goal is being one of the top four seeds in the playoffs. That’s far easier in the East than it would be in the West.