THE ISLAND OF MISFIT TOYS: Jordan’s Approach to Building a Winning Team in Charlotte

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THE PLAYERS (AKA THE MISFITS):

It starts with the city itself.  Once a shining example of the NBA’s ever-growing popularity in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Charlotte finds itself today as a middle aged divorcee six years into a rebound marriage, unsure if it was ever cut out for this pro basketball city thing to begin with.*

The team’s first All-Star and only remaining original member was a bargain bin castoff selected in the expansion draft.  Young Gerald Wallace was worth less to the Sacramento Kings than shedding $1 million from their bloated payroll.

Even though he is only one of a dozen or so current NBA players who can score twenty points a night while preventing his opponent from doing the same, Stephen Jackson was exiled from Golden State for what amounted to a $5 million expiring contract and a poor shooting, non-rebounding Eastern European caveman.

Once universally revered, hall of fame head coach Larry Brown arrived in Charlotte a tarnished brand.  In a League where head coaching vacancies are filled annually by the same retread Temp Agency, Brown had to practically reach out to an old friend in order to secure a job and begin rebuilding his reputation.

And finally there’s Jordan.  A man who could do no wrong on the court is now the man who can barely do anything right off of it.  Joining the names Ehlo and Russell in the MJ ethos are new ones like Kwame and Morrison.  For the first time in nearly 30 years, Michael Jordan has something to prove in the game of basketball.

A BRIEF, PAINFUL RECAP

Successful small market teams (OKC, San Antonio, Portland, Utah, Orlando) use the same formula and we all know it: BUILD THROUGH THE DRAFT.  Draft stars to cheap rookie deals, treat ‘em well, sign ‘em to big contracts before they hit free agency and keep drafting young talent and signing mid-level free agents to pair with them.  Rinse and repeat.

The Bobcats are currently the worst drafting franchise in the NBA.  It’s not even up for debate.  In six plus years of existence, not once has one of their draft picks sniffed an All-Star game – and the ‘Cats have had more lottery selections than anyone else in that span.  Indulge me for another brief and painful recap:

2004: Emeka Okafor.  GRADE: a solid double. Could have had more picks and taken Big Al or Iggy if Bob Johnson had a clue about running a business, “hmm, buy a pick from Phoenix for $2 million to draft Jefferson, Deng or Iguodala or build a brand new cable sports network from scratch?  What’s the main draw you ask?  Charlotte Bobcats basketball of course!  Brevin Knight every night!”

2005: Ray Felton/Crab Bread May.  GRADE: a sacrifice bunt. Felton a below average starter for a few years, May on his way to hosting Man vs. Food: EXTREME CARBS!
2006: Adam Morrison.  GRADE: whiff.
Not only a whiff but a McGwire Whiff.  The kind where the guy is on ‘roids and whiffs so hard that he blows out both knees in the process.  Embarrassing.
2007: Jason Richardson/Jared Dudley.  GRADE: RBI single. Could have been worse.  At least realized that they didn’t know how to draft and received a couple non-bust assets in return.

2008: Augustin/Ajinca.  GRADE: whiff. Not as bad as the Morrison knee blowout but a close second.  Passed on Brook Lopez and threw away a future first rounder in order to select Freedom Fries.  Jordan was on record as saying that the team sat out the 2010 draft because “Tyrus Thomas was our first round pick.”  No, Michael.  Alexis Ajinca is your 2010 first round pick.  Ugh.
2009: Henderson/Brown.  GRADE: promising single right up the gap.
Henderson looked good in some late season action and is at least athletic enough to belong in the League–although his complete lack of an outside shot scares me.  Derrick Brown has the Gerald Wallace “I’m not intellectually capable enough to realize I shouldn’t be any good” gene – and this is no insult to Crash, look at how the book-smarts have hampered Okatron 2000’s career.  Higher grade for this draft if LB actually plays them next year.
2010: Ajinca by proxy.  GRADE: Freedom whiff.

So there you go folks, somehow with all of this draft day carnage in their immediate past, the Charlotte Bobcats attained a winning record in 2009-2010 and stole the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference.  So how in the hell did they do it?

GIVE US YOUR UNDER-PERFORMING & YOUR OVER-PAID

Nazr Mohammed, Tyson Chandler, Gana Diop, Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw.  What’s the single thread that ties these players together?  Why, it’s the fact that their former teams handed them massive contracts and then immediately realized that they’d made a mistake.  “Oh crap, we just signed Joel Pryzbilla to a nine year $80 million contract.  Quick, get Jordan on the phone!”

So in a silly season which saw half of the League’s teams trade away wins for cap space, the Bobcats “philosophy” of taking on bad contracts to win now was just wacky enough to propel them into the postseason.  While other GMs plotted for future dynasties, Jordan mortgaged the farm on the more modest and attainable goal of simply making the Playoffs.  It worked.  The ‘Cats finished the season as one of the Association’s top 15 teams.

Could it be that MJ and crony Rod Higgins are sharking their peers by making fiscally questionable deals to upgrade the team’s talent pool?  Have the ‘Cats created a new “Freakonomics” meets “Moneyball” model that challenges the importance of the amateur draft and free agency?  Is Michael Jordan stealthily playing checkers while the rest of the League plays chess?  Or will all of these questionable contracts and draft day screw-ups eventually cripple the team, making future trades difficult and free agent additions impossible?**

If Jordan and Higgins are intent on foregoing the tried and true paradigm for small market success and continue with their merry spending ways, then I present to you, without further ado…

THE SUMMER OF 2010’s MISFIT TOY CANDIDATES:

What makes a Misfit Toy candidate?  Simple: you have to be way overpaid and way underperforming.  If you fit this description then I hope you like pulled pork BBQ ‘cause your probably coming to Carolina!

Ben Gordon 4 yrs: $47 million

Y’think Joey Dumars is just a tad bit regretful for signing a 6’3” sixth man shooting guard to a $60 million deal?  Gordon is way overpaid for his production but could be exactly what the doctor ordered on a team like the Bobcats: Electric bench and fourth quarter scoring.  The ‘Cats are desperate for it.  That said, Dumars is notoriously tough to trade with.  Wonder if a combination of Boris Diaw and Gerald Henderson might get this done.

Monta Ellis 4 yrs: $44 million

We’ve been speculating on this one for years.  Ellis hogs the ball and jacks up shots at an unprecedented rate.  Not good on a team with lots of offensive options like Golden State but could be an absolute godsend for the Bobcats, who spent the vast majority of last season spastically passing the ball around on offense like it was a live hand grenade.  Again, wonder if Diaw and Henderson or Chandler’s expiring could get this done.  The W’s are a mess in the front office right now, Higgins could potentially steal something else in return (pick, prospect).

Baron Davis 3yrs: $41 million

A blast from the past, a former home grown product entering the end of his career.  Still has the size and offensive firepower to occasionally dominate a game.  Couldn’t be any worse than Felton and is so overpaid that the ‘Cats could conceivably unload Diop’s longer deal in exchange.

Al Jefferson 3yrs: $42 million

Not sure exactly why Big Al is being shopped so fiercely this summer.  Who knows what goes on in the mind of David Kahn.  If the rest of League’s GMs are playing chess to MJ’s checkers, then Kahn is playing badminton.  Al would be a huge upgrade at the PF spot for the ‘Cats but not quite sure what the T’Wolves would want in exchange.  I’m praying that Kahn would ok a deal that would send out Jefferson and Ramon Sessions (Andre Miller: The Next Generation) for Tyson and Nazr’s expirings (plus a future first rounder).

Emeka Okafor: 4yrs, $52 million

Tied with two others on this list (see below) for the worst contract in the League.  Obviously, it was the Bobcats who signed him to it.  Was such a poor fit in New Orleans that Charlotte actually won the trade by taking back 6ppg/6rpg, semi-crippled Tyson Chandler in exchange.  Hate the contract but could live with ‘Mek’s 16 + 10 if the Hornets threw in Darren Collison.  Diop/Mohammed/Augustin for Okafor/Collison anybody?

Rashard Lewis: 3yrs, $65 million

Sole possession of 2nd Worst Contract in the League.  He’s paid over $20 million a year over the next three.  Yeah, you read that right.  Rashard should gift half his salary to Dwight Howard every season.  Without D-Ho backing him up in the lane, Lewis’s skinny frame and lack of defensive skills would make him an absolute liability.  Don’t think the Magic would trade him (they’re firmly in “go for broke” mode) but his offensive skills and outside shooting would fill a need for the ‘Cats.

Elton Brand: 3yrs, $51 million

Here we go, a good old fashioned back to the basket All-Star power forward.  Only problem is that Elton hasn’t been the same since an achilles injury derailed his career a few seasons ago.  He’s a round peg in a square hole with fast paced Philly but could regain dominance in Larry Brown’s grind it out half-court offense in Charlotte.  Would Diaw/Mohammed (expiring) be enough to get it done?

Hedu Turkoglu: 4yrs, $43 million

We’ve been hearing this rumor for a solid month now.  Hedu and Jack to Charlotte for Boris, Diop and D.J.  Doesn’t make a lot of sense mainly because Hedu can only play small forward, doesn’t defend or rebound well and is essentially not very good.  He’s basically Boris with a worse contract and poorer defense.  Jack and Ray Felton may as well be the same player.  Dud.  Oh and Hedu is one of the other “Worst Contract in the League”ers.  The other one?

Gilbert Arenas: 4yrs, $60 million

I’ve already written about this in length so I won’t rehash it here.  If MJ could swing a deal featuring Diop, Diaw and Mohammed for Gilbert and an asset (prospect or pick) then do it.  It’d be the biggest gamble in MJ’s tenure but he’s shown that he’s most definitely the gambling type.  An Arenas/JAX/CRASH/Tyrus/Chandler core could win 50 games this year as long as everybody stays relatively healthy.  The team would also retain the young talent on the roster and pick up either a pick or a young player like Javale McGee or Blatche from the Wiz for their troubles.

Allen Iverson: free agent.

We couldn’t leave out good old AI.  He’s a free agent and has declared himself ready take on the League again.  The dude has hit rock bottom.  If you’re gonna take a flyer on him then now is the time to do it.  If he would accept a smaller (possibly bench) role and play nice with his new teammates then I can’t think of a better way for him to end his career than with his old coach in the Queen City.  He’d also come cheap.  Think: Flip Murray Advanced.

IN CONCLUSION

Don’t be surprised if Jordan pulls off a deal for one of these misfits sometime between now and the end of next month.  MJ sat out the draft and one gets the sense that both he and Trader Larry are chomping at the bit to make yet another move for an overpriced toy in need of a new home.

Until then, Enjoy the Offseason Bobcats fans…

-ASChin

*I find it ironic that throughout Charlotte’s twenty plus years of NBA basketball history the vast majority of the city’s successful players have come via trade or as castaways: Monster Mash, Eddie Jones, Mase, Vlade Two Packs, Easy E Campbell, P-Whipped Rice, Curry 1.0, Don’t Tell Me No Bogues, Crash and JAX.  Doesn’t that sort of represent how the city’s success was built as well?  Sure, there are some shining examples of homegrown talent but the vast majority of the Queen City’s brain pool came here from somewhere else looking for a new start.  Buffalo, Rochester, Jersey, Pittsburgh, WV, Ohio, represent BABY BABY!  UH!

**The good news is that the team drafts so poorly that they’ll never have to worry about re-signing their own talent on the open market.  “What’s that?  Raymond is an unrestricted free agent?  He might sign with another team?  Huh.  Anyways, so you’re telling me that a poached egg is actually boiled?  I always wondered how they did that…”

Offseason Prescriptions for the Capped-Out Cats (Part 3)

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Chapter III: Prescription B (Not for the Faint of Heart)

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Alright.  We’ve made it this far.  First I stated the problem.  Next was an easy and elegant solution.  Now we go all in.

Quick Recap:
1.    The Bobcats are capped out before re-signing Tyrus Thomas or Raymond Felton.
2.    Team needs more consistent play from the PG position, more scoring from the low post, and more scoring in general.
3.    Team has no draft picks and few assets outside of their core players to trade in order to improve.

On the evening of June 24th, the Washington Wizards will select Kentucky PG phenom John Wall with the first overall selection in the 2010 NBA Draft.  It’s a no-brainer.  After trading away stalwarts Antwan Jamison, Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler during the season, the Wizards are marching confidently along the rebuilding path.  Wall will step in and immediately be the team’s poster boy for the future.  With one timely drop of a ping pong ball, things suddenly look rosy in the District.  There’s just one small, $80 million, gun-brandishing problem.  His name: Agent Zero.

PRESCRIPTION B

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Step 1. Charlotte trades Boris Diaw, Nazr Mohammed and Gana Diop to Washington for Gilbert Arenas, Javale McGee and a first round draft selection (2012).

The Wiz are posturing something ridiculous about having Gilbert move to the off-guard position in anticipation of John Wall.  Uh, yeah.  Does anybody really think that Washington wants The Outlaw anywhere near their new Savior?  Sure, taking on a poo-poo platter of Diaw, Diop and Nazr while giving up a potential star in McGee and a high draft pick would suck but let’s face it, having Arenas anywhere near the Wiz bench pretty much negates any new excitement that Wall would bring to the team.  Gilbert is a 28 year old Point Guard with $80 million dollars left on his contract who was just released from a halfway house and has had three knee surgeries in the past three seasons.  If somebody is willing to take a guy like that off their hands AND save the organization $35 million in the process, you gotta make the move, right?

So why would I propose such a trade for the Bobcats?
First off, let me just say that Gilbert is a PR nightmare for certain but if Charlotte fans were willing to accept Stephen Jackson (y’know, the guy who charged into the stands and attacked fans only to later one up himself by unloading a gun at a strip club), then I think we can deal with a some of the Arenas quirkiness from time to time.

Secondly, well, there’s quite a few positives so let me just list them:
1.    Bobcats get to unload The League’s Worst Contract a.k.a. Gana Diop a.k.a. Black Shrek.
2.    Diaw’s exit clears space for Tyrus Thomas to start.
3.    Team replaces Raymond Felton with an electric scorer (and, when motivated, an underrated defender) in Arenas.
4.    Javale McGee is one of the League’s best offensive prospects at the Center position.
5.    The draft choice that the Bobcats receive would recoup the one that the team traded away in the Tyrus Thomas trade.
6.    The trade would save the Bobcats over $3 million in cap space next season, allowing the team to add depth via free agency.

Obviously, the biggest drawback to the trade is long term money.  Gilbert will be 32 years old when his deal expires in the summer of 2014 (see chart).  He’ll be paid over $22 million for that season alone.  Ouch.  Yeah, the numbers are ugly.  The move is overly aggressive and could either propel the team deep into the Playoffs (if Arenas stays healthy and focused and McGee develops) or could cripple them for the next three seasons.  MJ is known as a gambler, I think he’d be inclined to make the move.

Step 2. Charlotte Re-Signs Tyrus Thomas.

Same as in Prescription A.  Three years, $18 million sounds about right.  A starting spot might pique his interest in returning.

Step 3. Sign a backup Power Forward.

As discussed in Prescription A, possible low-cost candidates include Drew Gooden or Kris Humphries.  I like Humphries potential.

Step 4. Fill out the bench.

Arenas’s scoring abilities sort of negates the need to bring back Flip Murray.  The team could go in another direction here and sign a veteran “pure-playmaking” PG in the mold of Eric Snow as well.  Theo Ratliff has at least another year in him and could serve as a mentor to McGee and Ajinca.

Prescription B Chart

CONCLUSION:

The move is ballsy. Could a volatile nucleus of Arenas, JAX, CRASH, Tyrus and one or two of their youngsters (most likely McGee and Henderson) be enough to propel the Bobcats into contention in the East over the next few seasons?
The risks are HUGE.  Zero could play another stupid prank or blow out his knee(s) again.  Jax could unload one of Gilbert’s guns in a public place.  Crash may wonder openly why he’s the only sane person in the locker room.  The team would be capped out until 2013.
But take a look at the depth chart going into next season:

PG: Arenas, Augustin, Murray
SG: Jackson, Henderson, Murray
SF: Wallace, Brown
PF: Thomas, Humphries, Ajinca
C: Chandler, McGee, Ratliff

If the ‘Cats can win 44 games with last year’s squad then upgrading via Arenas and McGee while having Thomas and Chandler (contract year) for an entire season could very well propel the team to 50 plus wins and home court in the first round of the Playoffs.  The team would also have enough draft picks and young prospects on the roster to make a move for a veteran during the following summer if they so choose and make a run for local favorite (and certain turnstile mover) Seth Curry after he completes his second and final year at Duke in the 2012 NBA Draft.

As for Prescription C, I’ve decided to save that one for later.  Let’s see how the Draft and the early days of free agency play out first.

-ASChin

Offseason Prescriptions for the Capped-Out Cats (Part 1)

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Chapter I: Diagnosis

First Number of Interest: $680,000.

It’s the number you get when you take the Bobcats $69.24 million in salaries for the ’09-’10 season and subtract it from last year’s $69.92 million luxury tax threshold.  Six hundred and eighty K.  That’s approximately how close the Bobcats came to paying the luxury tax last season.  I say approximately as I’m basing the figures on Hoopshype’s excellent salary database — a database that doesn’t included Derrick Brown’s two year rookie contract.  (For the sake of this column, I’m estimating his cap figure to be equal to Milwaukee’s Jodie Meeks, drafted one spot behind Brown in last year’s second round.)

Second Number of Interest: $1.6 million.

That’s how much NBA teams are expecting to come off the cap next year.  You read that right, the Salary Cap will shrink next year and with it the luxury tax threshold.  According to ESPN.com’s Chris Sheridan, the tax line will lower to around $68 million in ’10-’11 which would put the Bobcats at less than $8 million under the tax threshold before re-signing starting PG Raymond Felton (unrestricted), PF Tyrus Thomas (restricted) or valuable role players Stephen Graham and Theo Ratliff (click chart to see a larger image).

BobcatsCurrentCapSituation

Looking at next year’s salary commitments, three things are glaringly obvious:

1. THE CENTERS OF ATTENTION

The Bobcats have $27.5 million (roughly half of their cap space) committed to the center position and the last time I checked, none of those guys were named Howard, Duncan, Ming or Gasol.  Years of poor financial decision making have finally caught up: overpaying Emeka Okafor when they didn’t have to (Chandler), overpaying Matt Carroll when they didn’t have to (Diop) and bailing out Joe Dumars with the expiring contracts of Walter Herrmann and Primoz Brezec (Mohammed).
THE BAD NEWS: With the a possible lockout on the way in 2011, none of these guys are moveable unless the team is willing to take on another equally bad (if not worse) contract in return.
THE GOOD NEWS: Over $19 million will come off of the books for good in the summer of 2011 if the ‘Cats just hold tight and let Mohammed and Chandler play through their contracts.
Somebody take Larry Brown’s mobile phone privileges away pronto!

2. TYRUS THOMAS AND THE POISON PILL

The Bobcats didn’t send Chicago a future first round pick just to rent Tyrus Thomas for three months.  The intention was always to retain him for at least another season but given the Bobcats’ cap situation that might not be so simple.  As a restricted free agent, Thomas could command a salary north of the $6.2 million qualifying offer he’s due based on his rookie deal.  A team intrigued by Thomas’ potential and armed with enough cap space could offer Tyrus big money up front, signing Thomas to the dreaded “poison pill offer sheet” (see Milsap, Paul) during the summer.  Such a contract could offer Thomas $8 million in year one, $6 million in year two and only $4 million in year three.  The Bobcats would have the right to match but in doing so would essentially be “luxury-taxed-out,” unable to sign any other players (including a starting PG) without paying the dollar for dollar tax penalty — which is something Michael Jordan has repeatedly said that he will not do.  With so many teams flush with cap space this summer, the Tyrus Situation could get tricky.  Watch out for it.

3. WHO’S THE POINT?

Ray Felton is the best point guard available in a weak PG free agency class.  Again, it is entirely possible that a team flush with cap space could offer him $18 million or more over three years and in that situation the ‘Cats would have to fold.
Doubt that the team would let it’s starting point guard walk this summer?  The organization fiercely pursued a T.J. Ford trade during February’s trade deadline and weren’t even close to coming to terms on a long-term offer with Felton’s agent last summer.  If Raymond was a better shooter from outside and could finish with a little more consistency inside (not to mention stay in front of Jameer Nelson) maybe the team would go out of it’s way to sign him but I just can’t foresee it happening.  The ‘Cats will most likely have to acquire a starting PG via trade or from the free agency discount rack.

Yes, Bobcats fans, your team is in a major salary cap quagmire.

To further complicate the issue, the Bobcats can’t afford to simply allow their free-agents to walk and replace them with low-cost scrubs or cheap rookies.  The team doesn’t have any draft picks (instead they have Alexis Ajinca) and from a business perspective, the organization must improve their on-court product (or at least repeat last year’s success) in order to expand fan support and capitalize on their inaugural Playoff run.

TEAM NEEDS:

The Bobcats head into the summer with three major needs:

STARTING POINT GUARD
D.J. Augustin is clearly not ready to start and the Bobcats are too capped out to pay Raymond Felton market value.  They’ll need to make a trade or find an undervalued bargain replacement in Free Agency (see Blake, Steve).

LOW POST SCORING/REBOUNDING
Boris Diaw has a few low post moves but plays mostly on the perimeter and doesn’t concern himself very much with the art of rebounding.  Tyrus Thomas (if he’s re-signed) is a solid rebounder but has limited abilities as a post scorer.  The team will need to either trade for or sign a traditional low-post power forward to team with Thomas or Diaw.

CONSISTENT PERIMETER SCORING/SHOOTING
Larry Hughes turned out to be an inconsistent version of Flip Murray.  Sure, Hughes was a better defender but what the Bobcats really needed was offense from the bench.  Murray has said that he’d happily return to Charlotte next season.  If the ‘Cats could bring him back for a similarly low priced deal next season, they should.

THE PRESCRIPTION:

So how does a Capped-Out team retain talent and, dare I say it, even improve heading into next season?

Part II: Prescription A (Simple and Clean) — Coming Soon
Part III: Prescription B (Not for the Faint of Heart) — Coming Soon

-ASChin

Bulls Stampede Bobcats in Chicago

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Charlotte Bobcats @ Chicago 4/3/10

Without Stephen Jackson for most of the second half, the Charlotte Bobcats still managed to lead the game until midway through the 4th quarter but a motivated Chicago Bulls team stormed back from a six point deficit to win the game 96-88 to move just three games back of the Bobcats in the Eastern Playoff race.

AP recap here | Boxscore here

The Undisputed Alpha

Those of you who suffered along with me during the Bobcats Opening Night Massacre in Boston (92-59) will remember how painfully lost and dysfunctional this team looked pre-Captain Jack.  A team of selfless role players was in desperate need of an alpha.  Just a few games after he was acquired, Stephen Jackson assumed that role and the Bobcats never looked back, going 37-27 since November 22nd.  While Gerald Wallace might be the clubhouse leader and an NBA All-Star, there’s no doubting who is more irreplaceable.  During a three game absence in mid-March, the Bobcats beat the OKC Thunder and the Magic in Orlando as Wallace recuperated from an ankle injury.  Tonight against the Bulls, in a tough-fought game with postseason ramifications, the ‘Cats were without their Alpha for the final quarter when they desperately needed some clutch buckets to counter the Bulls run.  But they couldn’t do it.  Captain Jack was sitting on the bench, seemingly wrapped head to toe, nursing a variety of injuries.  Pressure was not made love to this evening.  Pressure had a TV dinner, a half-pint of Häagen Dazs and fell asleep reading a cheap romance novel.

Bullets

  • Just three home games and three road dates remain for the Bobcats.  None of them gimmes.  Home against the Hawks (tough), at New Orleans and Houston (not easy) on a mini road trip and then home dates against the Pistons and Bulls sandwiched by a final meeting with the Nets in Jersey.  Obviously, the Bulls season finale is important but if the ‘Cats win at least three of the next four, they should have their first Playoff birth locked up for good, regardless.
  • Kirk Hinrich torched the ‘Cats tonight with 24 points on 9-12 shooting but this was an aberration — Hinrich is only averaging 10ppg on 39% shooting for the year.  Still, if the Bulls could get Rose and Hinrich to play consistently together as they did tonight, they’d have a hell of a backcourt rotation.
  • Charlotte’s heralded free throw opportunity advantage disappeared tonight.  Chicago won the battle with 21-16 shots from the stripe.
  • If Larry Hughes is supposed to be Flip Murray’s replacement, he did a good job keeping up with him tonight.  Murray: 2-10 for 5 points, Hughes: 4-14 for 14 points.  Hughes won the headband contest as well 1-0.

Enjoy the Loss, Bobcats Fans…

-ASChin

Which Bobcats Reserve Has Been Most Crucial?

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Bobcats Front Office Should Get Credit For The Team’s Deep Roster Talent

The Reserves Have Made The Difference This Season

The Reserves Have Made The Difference This Season

The Bobcats are closing in on their most successful season in team history, headed toward a spot in the NBA Playoffs and operating under new majority owner, Michael Jordan. The success is largely due to the leadership of Coach Larry Brown, and a roster upgraded with a collection of talent far above what Bobcats fans were used to seeing during the club’s first 5 seasons. The combination of Larry Brown’s prodding, Michael Jordan’s gambling, and Rod Higgins’ hard work has pulled this squad from unwatchable to a true Playoff team.

Considering all of the new players on the roster this season, Stephen Jackson has clearly made the biggest impact as a newcomer. Dealing Vladimir Radmanovic and (injured) Raja Bell to Golden State for “Jack” was a gamble and a potential public relations risk but the on-court effect was a huge steal for the Bobcats.  Too often, it seems that we hear Charlotte’s success has been due solely to Jackson’s arrival. It could be argued that the depth of talent on the Bobcats’ bench deserves just as much credit for the team’s consistent effort and defensive presence.

Since last summer, Coach Brown, Air Jordan, and Rod Higgins have all been working on tuning the roster. The latest addition of Larry Hughes shows that the team is still tinkering, filling in the gaps in order to secure their first Playoff bid.

Who Has Been The Most Important Reserve For The Bobcats?

While the jury is still out on 2010 lottery pick Gerald Henderson and the recently signed Larry Hughes, we should take a look at the most important “role players” for the Bobcats so far this season.

Stephen Graham

Offseason Free Agent Acquisition: Signed 1 year contract at $885,000.
Reserve Small Forward

Why He’s Most Valuable Reserve Material:
Undeniably, Graham’s greatest strength has been his professional approach and consistency while dealing with Coach Brown’s erratic rotation patterns.  Lord Stephen Graham has played very well in spot duty throughout the season ranging from ten minute cameos in relief of Gerald Wallace to 35 minute starts during Crash’s week long absence in March.  Graham played so well in that stretch (notching consecutive 19 point performances) that it’s not difficult to imagine the team bringing the veteran back next season to play a similar role.

Baseline Scouting Report:
Stephen Graham’s physique stands out even among NBA players.  When the season started, I first commented, “While other players spend the offseason working on jump shots and post moves, Stevie Graham worked on his delts.”  The dude is a beast.  Fortunately, this extra weight doesn’t seem to hamper his speed while defending opposing threes.  Graham is a solid if not spectacular defender and shows a surprisingly nice touch on the offensive end when shooting from the outside.  Not a great three point shooter, Graham knows his limits and won’t launch many.  Good for at least a couple of highlight dunks every month, Graham can catch defenders off guard around the baseline for a post & spin move to the hoop.  Graham was billed as a “George Lynch” clone early in the season and that’s exactly what he’s been, a solid NBA frontcourt reserve.

Derrick Brown

Rookie Draft Selection (2nd Round): Signed 2 year contract, details undisclosed
Reserve Power Forward/Small Forward

Why He’s Most Valuable Reserve Material:
Although Brown hasn’t been getting much burn during the second half of the season, his early work should (rightfully) raise fans’ expectations going into next season.  The four year forward from Xavier was labeled a 2nd round sleeper on draft day and in spurts Brown has lived up to the billing – his potential was on full display during an 18 point performance against the Suns back in January.

Baseline Scouting Report:
Derrick Brown’s size and athletic ability at his position will keep him in the League for at least a few more seasons.  He’s an excellent open court finisher and a decent mid-range shooter.  At 6’8″, Brown has excellent height for a SF which accounts for a high rebound rate at the position and has also allowed the team to play Brown at PF for stretches before acquiring Tyrus Thomas in February.  With more seasoning, it’s possible that Brown could crack Larry Brown’s rotation for good next year but he’ll need to cut down on the mindless fouls and missed assignments that plagued him during the second half of his rookie campaign.

Flip Murray

Offseason Free Agent Acquisition: Signed 1 year $1.9 million contract, traded mid-February
Reserve Shooting Guard / Point Guard

Why He’s Most Valuable Reserve Material:
Gone but not forgotten, Flip Murray proved to be exactly as billed: a scoring force off the pine, a strong personality with the cajones to take and make shots when others wouldn’t or couldn’t.  Murray’s bench scoring (over 12ppg) provided a major boost during Charlotte’s dominating 12-4 run in January and his presence was immediately missed as the Bobcats went 2-5 following his trade to Chicago.  Eventually, things returned to normal for both Charlotte and Murray as the Cats started winning again while Flip dropped 12.5 in 26 minutes per game with the Bulls in March.

Baseline Scouting Report:
Flip Murray is gonna get his.  Period.  Flip will shoot (and make) half of his team’s shots while he’s in the game and for a team in desperate need of second unit scoring, Murray is a godsend.  What he gives up at the other end of the court on defense he more than makes up for on offense.  During a loss against Orlando back in November, Murray dropped 31 points in 36 minutes – that’s probably more Flip Murray than you really need though.  He’s at his best in a 20-24 minute scoring role while the team’s starters have a rest.

Tyrus Thomas

Trade Acquisition: Currently on the final year of his rookie scale contract ($4.7 million), Bobcats can extend qualifying offer next season for $6.2 million or negotiate a long term contract
Reserve Power Forward/Center

Why He’s Most Valuable Reserve Material:
Bobcats fans were a little disappointed that the team didn’t pursue a veteran backup PF during the offseason.  One by one, quality backups like Drew Gooden and Hakim Warrick were picked up by other clubs and the ‘Cats entered the ’09-’10 season without a legitimate PF to play behind starter Boris Diaw.  While acquiring another big man was inevitable, no one believed that the team would be able to bring in a player like Tyrus Thomas, a 6’10” super-athlete with as much untapped potential as any young power forward in the League.  Still only 23, Thomas stepped in and stepped up his game instantly and is averaging over 10 points, 6.5 boards and over a block in just over 20 minutes a game for the Bobcats since the trade from Chicago.  His presence has allowed the Bobcats to offer different looks, as Coach Brown has played a small frontcourt Thomas, Wallace, and Diaw for stretches against smaller, run & gun squads.
Although the price was steep (giving up a future 1st round pick along with Murray’s bench scoring), Thomas’ potential is worth the gamble.

Baseline Scouting Report:
At 6’10”, it’s a little surprising that Tyrus Thomas has almost no post moves whatsoever.  His offense comes mostly on thunderous putbacks, open court dunks or on unexpectedly sweet 15 footers.  While his rebound and blocked shot rates are off the chart, Thomas isn’t exactly the world’s best defender.  He’ll often be forced to foul or make a spectacular block from behind once his man has beaten him in the post.  Still, Thomas has both age and situation on his side.  Larry Brown mentored a similarly raw specimen in Gerald Wallace to an All-Star selection in just two seasons, it’s not hard to believe that Thomas could walk the same path if he’s willing to work on his game.
BONUS: Having Thomas on the roster will give the Bobcats some flexibility heading into next season.  As long as Tyrus’ contract demands aren’t outrageous, the team will definitely extend him or at least sign him to the qualifying offer for a year, making Thomas an expiring contract or a moveable asset should the team choose to go another direction.

Theo Ratliff

Trade Acquisition: Signed a 1 year $1.3 million contract
Reserve Center : Currently Starting

Why He’s Most Valuable Reserve Material:
I don’t want to skew the voting here folks but c’mon, has there been anyone more valuable to the Bobcats late season success than Theo Ratliff?  When Ratliff arrived mid-February from San Antonio (in exchange for very distant 2nd rounder) three of the four Bobcats centers were injured and the fourth was playing hurt (Nazr Mohammed).  The 36 year old veteran showed up as an afterthought, a worst-case scenario insurance policy, and then proceeded to average 6 points, 4 boards and a block and a half in just over 20 minutes of action a night.  The numbers don’t do Ratliff’s impact justice.  Opposing players are aware of his presence on every possession that he’s out there and when the Bobcats trot out Ratliff, Thomas and Crash together on the frontline, there’s a one in three chance that a shot will be blocked.  Simply amazing.  The spry, second coming of Mutumbo has another unexpected trick up his sleeve: he shot 87% from the FT line in March (32-37), making him a little more valuable on offense.  With Tyson Chandler finally healthy and playing well and Nazr Mohammed coming back soon, Coach Brown will have to reconfigure his rotation at center and that might mean reduced minutes for Theo.  Doesn’t matter, Ratliff’s play in March propelled the Bobcats to an 11-6 record for the month, all but sealing the team’s first Playoff berth.

Baseline Scouting Report:
Theo Ratliff is never going to win any battles down low with brute strength.  He’s more of shot blocker, shot alterer and does this with ease.  Technically, he’s a solid defender who can hold his own against the League’s top centers (see the March victory against the Magic in Orlando).  On offense, Theo should be barred from ever touching the ball more than six feet outside of the basket.  In fact, the semi-dashed circle underneath the basket that the officials use to determine blocking fouls versus charges should also be used by Theo Ratliff in determining whether or not he should take the shot.  Look down, if he’s outside the circle, pass.  In, dunk or get fouled and go to the line.  Simple as that.

-ASChin


Vote For The Role Player You Think Has Most Helped The Bobcats This Season.

POLL : BOBCATS MOST VALUABLE RESERVE 2009-2010

  • Stephen Graham
    (28%, 39 Votes)
  • Derrick Brown
    (2%, 3 Votes)
  • Flip Murray
    (19%, 26 Votes)
  • Tyrus Thomas
    (28%, 39 Votes)
  • Theo Ratliff
    (23%, 30 Votes)

Total Voters: 137

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Larry Hughes To Sign With Bobcats

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Adam Fleischer of SLAM Magazine broke the news last night on Twitter that Larry Hughes will be signing with the Bobcats in the coming days.  This morning, Rick Bonnell is confirming the news, presumably from a team source.

Hughes is a 12-year NBA journeyman who experienced the best stretch of his career in the early-to-mid 2000s when he was a major cog for the Washington Wizards.  In 2002-03, a budding Hughes was signed by Michael Jordan to relieve His Airness and his balky knees.  That season didn’t go so well, but after Jordan was fired in the offseason, Hughes came back to post the best marks of his career in 2003-04.

He, Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas combined to become the highest scoring trio in the league that year and led the Wizards to a 45-37 regular season record and a first round playoff victory over the Chicago Bulls.  Hughes averaged 22 points, 6 rebounds and nearly 3 steals a game and was named to the All-Star Team and the All-Defensive 1st Team that year.

That performance bought Hughes a huge free-agent contract in the 2005 offseason, as he was signed by the Cavs to a 5-year, $70 million dollar deal to be LeBron James’ first big sidekick.  Unfortunately, injuries and an overall declining game contributed to things “just not working out” in Cleveland.  This stint resulted in a Cavs fan creating the blog Hey Larry Hughes, Please Stop Taking So Many Bad Shots, which amazingly was still being updated with Larry Hughes news as recently as last month.

Hughes’ minutes and scoring average have generally fallen every year since then, as he has bounced around between the Knicks and Bulls.

Hughes has had two career lowlights in the past few seasons.  The first came almost exactly two years ago, when Hughes, then a Bull, made comments to Cavs beatwriter Mark Windhorst that his goal as an NBA player was not necessarily to win, or win a championship.  Instead, Hughes indicated that he could be just as happy collecting his check and playing the way he preferred, which presumably was to be running the wing and jacking up a lot of shots — even if that didn’t translate to winning.

The comments essentially amounted to sacrelige and Hughes’ reputation has suffered greatly since then.  It hasn’t helped that his production has continued to decline, either.

Hughes second lowlight came earlier this season when he suffered the ignominy of riding the bench for the New York Knicks.  Now we may have to look back upon this from a slightly different angle as Mike D’Antoni’s wunderkind “7 seconds or less” reputation as a coach is increasingly taking a beating as time goes on, but the fact remains that Hughes was essentially deemed useless by a 22-44 team this year.

On February 18th, the Knicks sent Larry Hughes to the Kings as part of the Tracy McGrady trade.  At the time, Hughes was out with a broken finger, but was expected to be waived or bought out regardless.  On February 23rd, he was indeed waived, which freed him up to sign with any team down the stretch once his finger healed.  Which brings us to this weekend…

Life As A Bobcat

Hughes is a 6’4 or 5″ combo guard who will essentially fill Flip Murray’s role.  This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as Larry Brown is currently without his beloved “veteran third point guard” and couldn’t have been expected to go on much longer without such a trope/security blanket.

Beyond the fact that Michael Jordan brought Larry Hughes to the Washington Wizards back in 2002, Hughes has even deeper connections to the Bobcats — Larry Brown drafted and coached him to start his career in Philadelphia, and per Wikipedia, Hughes is a childhood friend of rapper and Bobcats minority owner (still?) Nelly.

Whether Hughes has anything left in the tank, or whether he’s willing to sublimate his ego enough to play spot minutes as a combo guard (sorta the role he bristled at in Cleveland) remains to be seen.

Perhaps most concerning for Bobcats fans is that the departure of Flip Murray has been associated with the rejuvenation of DJ Augustin and the emergence of rookie Gerald Henderson (maybe “emergence” is a bit strong, I know).  If Hughes’ presence results in any regression for these two young players, Bobcats fans will certainly be up in arms.

More likely than not, though, Hughes simply represents a cheap “insurance” option for the Cats, should Felton or Augustin suffer an injury down the stretch, or Henderson prove to be completely unprepared for even short stints of playing time in a pressure-filled playoff game.  Here’s hoping we don’t have to rely too much on him, though.

-Dr. E

Tyrus Thomas Trade: Further Analysis

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On a wild NBA Trade Deadline Day, the Charlotte Bobcats swung a deal to get the elusive athletic power forward that Larry Brown has been pining for all season.

The Cats have obtained Tyrus Thomas from the Chicago Bulls in exchange for Ronald “Flip” Murray, Acie Law, and a future first round pick.

I touched on Thomas in an earlier post; the knock on him is immaturity/lack of consistency.  More specifically, Thomas is infamous for “mental lapses.”  This makes him an interesting match with Larry Brown, who demands near-perfection and is a stickler for detail.

Most players in a Larry Brown system take awhile to “get it,” going through a process of assimilating everything before eventually settling back down and really showing improvement.  However, not all players respond, so this will either be the best thing that happened to Tyrus Thomas or a spectacular disappointment.

If Thomas does work out, it will be interesting to see what happens with Boris Diaw.  As we’ve watched Boris since he’s been a Bobcat, it’s clear that he’s struggled this season while playing with Steven Jackson.  Last year, prior to Jackson’s arrival, more of the offense ran through Diaw as he was able to utilize his “point-forward” skills.

Could Thomas eventually start, allowing Boris to move to the bench as a sixth man?  It’s not a perfect solution to the Jackson/Diaw conundrum, as Jack plays so many minutes that it’s inevitable that Diaw will play with him some.  But this way you could maximize the time that Diaw is on the court with the offense running through him, and not Jack.

Furthermore, we’ll be watching to see what happens with Thomas in the offseason (and Diaw, for that matter).  The Cats will be in pretty much the same boat with Thomas as they were with Raymond Felton this past offseason.  Thomas will be an unrestricted free agent, which means any other team will be able to offer him a contract starting at a qualifying offer of $6.2 million.  The Cats would then have a right to match.

But even with all the cap space out there, would any team in their right mind offer Thomas a contract for that much?  Might the Bobcats be able to sign him to a more reasonable deal instead?

Here’s looking forward to seeing Thomas in action for the first time soon; we don’t have any confirmation yet, but one would assume that the Cats will be trying to get Thomas suited up for Friday night’s tilt with the the Cavs.

That’s enough about Thomas for now, here’s a quick breakdown of what the Cats gave up to get him:

Acie Law

Acie Law was thrown in to the Stephen Jackson trade to make salaries match and because Larry Brown is perpetually auditioning “third point guards.”  However, Law had already been a bust in Atlanta, wasn’t getting any playing time in Golden State, and couldn’t break into the Bobcats rotation either.

The few moments that Law did get off the bench were primarily garbage time; even then he looked hopelessly overmatched.  His shot wasn’t falling, he didn’t seem quick enough, and didn’t show any real confidence or “game-managing” ability.

The one significant chance that Law got was in a December matchup against the Knicks in NYC.  Down 2 with seconds left, Law was inexplicably inserted into the game.  Furthermore, the play was drawn up for Law to get the ball on the final play — he took it coast-to-coast and forced up a layup that never really had a chance and was easily swatted away by Danilo Galinari to seal the Knicks win.

I would be willing to bet that Law will be out of the league and playing overseas next year.  He’s just not skilled or athletic enough to make it in the Association.

For Chicago, he simply represents a $2 million expiring contract as they clear room to make a splash in the Lebron/D-Wade/Bosh/Joe Johnson free agency sweepstakes this summer.

Ronald “Flip” Murray

Flip is the definition of a journeyman in the NBA.  The Bulls will mark Flip’s 8th NBA team in 8 years.  It isn’t exactly clear why this hired gun can’t stick anywhere or get a long-term contract.  Offensively, he’s an above-average, sweet-shooting, somewhat undersized 2-guard.  Though ballhandling and distributing are not his strengths, he can slide down to the point in a pinch.  This is how he’s been able to carve out a career in the league.

Defensively, he’s below average, due to his size and lack of elite quickness and athleticism.  This fact probably comes the closest to answering why Flip has, and will continue to have, a journeyman’s career.

Flip was signed to a bargain 1-year $1.9 million deal by the Bobcats prior to the season and was a good fit.  After sitting out several games to start the season, Flip joined the lineup and frequently provided a much-needed scoring punch off the bench.

He is currently averaging 9.9 points per game — exactly his career average, too — but is not shooting as high of a percentage as he had in the past.  Nonetheless, he will be missed.  While the Bobcats blogosphere is undoubtedly hopeful that DJ will step up and Gerald Henderson might even see some playing time, the safe bet is probably on Steven Graham filling in for the bulk of Flip’s minutes.

Ultimately, he was included in the trade from the Bulls’ perspective because he is on a one-year/expiring deal, but Flip will probably play an important role for the Bulls the rest of the season.  Remember, Chicago traded away John Salmons for more cap relief, so they have a hole at the 2-guard spot.

The Future First-Round Pick

This one is probably the hardest to part with.  As we’ve said over and over here at the Baseline, the best way for a small-market team to jump-start a run at a championship is to hit a home run with a first round pick (the Spurs and Tim Duncan are probably the best example, here).

But under Larry Brown, the Bobcats are clearly going about business another way.  And with Michael Jordan’s disastrous track record at making draft selections, maybe it’s a good pre-emptive strike to trade away picks for young veterans anyways.

Let’s remember a few things, though.  First, the Bobcats already owe a first-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves; second, you cannot trade away your first round pick in consecutive years and third, it’s not yet clear if there are any further conditions on the pick used in today’s trade.

The initial pick we have to give up was traded to the Denver Nuggets in the summer of 2008 (for their #20 pick in that draft, which we used on Alexis Ajinca — that’s a whole other story); the Nuggets have since moved it in another deal and it now is the property of the T-Wolves.

The pick is protected somewhat; last year it was protected if it was in the lottery, so we got to use it on Gerald Henderson.  This year it is only protected if it’s even higher, like a top 8 or 10 pick (Note: not exactly sure on that).  Whatever the case, barring a total collapse by the Cats, it looks like our first round pick this year will be the property of the T-Wolves.

So, given the rule about not trading away your first round picks in consecutive years, the earliest that the Bulls will get our pick in exchange for Ty Thomas will be 2012.  That’s a little scary, as Larry Brown will probably be gone by then, and who knows what the roster will look like.  It’s entirely conceivable that the Cats could return to the lottery by then and desperately need some help in the draft.

UPDATE: No sooner than I posted this and sat down for some dinner does Rick Bonnell come through to confirm that the future first-round pick owed to the Bulls for is indeed protected.  The exact nature of the protection is still unclear, but it is assumed to be similar to the protection that is attached to the pick that we currently owe to the T-Wolves (the exact nature of which is also unclear, but whatever…).

-Dr. E


POLL : TYRUS THOMAS TRADE REACTIONS

  • Great Deal for Cats
    (82%, 102 Votes)
  • Better Deal for Bulls
    (5%, 6 Votes)
  • Not Worth 1st Round Pick
    (13%, 16 Votes)

Total Voters: 124

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