Charlotte’s on the clock

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comJune 23, 2013 

The Charlotte Bobcats’ current rebuilding effort will be decided over the next 16 months.

In that time, they may add four first-round lottery picks. Plus, they could have as much as $20 million-plus in space under the salary cap to potentially add a star player through free agency or a trade.

Those are the assets they started assembling the winter of 2011 when they blew up the franchise’s only playoff team, starting with the trade of small forward Gerald Wallace. Team owner Michael Jordan spelled out the plan: Build through the draft and add a franchise player to lift the Bobcats to eventually compete for an NBA championship.

They’ve gone through two seasons of pain, going 28-120. Now, starting with the fourth pick in Thursday’s NBA draft, they have an unprecedented chance to set about righting this franchise. But a failure to add key players through the next two drafts or add a star veteran player by the 2014 training camp, might mean years before the team has this good an opportunity again.

For the second year, the Observer analyzed the top 100 NBA players to see how they were acquired and how championship teams were assembled. The study is a potential indicator of how the Bobcats might build their team. The study shows:

•  It’s extremely difficult to acquire top players via free-agency, because NBA rules give advantages to the retaining teams. Only two players in the top 50 – Indiana Pacers forward David West and New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith – joined their current team as a direct result of free-agency. Nineteen others were traded to their current teams.

•  It’s rare to find a player who develops into a star late in his career. Eighty-two of the Top 100 had a breakout season in their first three seasons.

•  It’s crucial that teams don’t blow top-five draft picks. Twelve of the top 19 players in the Top 100 – tiered as “franchise’’ – were top-five picks. The Bobcats don’t have a strong history in that regard. Adam Morrison, drafted third in 2006, was a bust. Raymond Felton, drafted fifth in 2005, left in free-agency without compensation to the Bobcats.

But point guard Kemba Walker offers hope the Bobcats are improving their draft performance. Picked No. 9 in the 2011 draft, Walker is ranked No. 63 in the Observer’s Top 100. Shooting guard Gerald Henderson is ranked No. 96. He was drafted 12th in 2009 and is on track to be a restricted free agent next month.

The Bobcats drafted the youngest players in each of the last two drafts and their potential of contributing to a championship run won’t be known for at least two more seasons. Forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the second pick last year, and center Bismack Biyombo, the seventh pick in 2011, each were drafted for their potential and each has significant improvements to make. The Bobcats have assembled a new coaching staff – head coach Steve Clifford and assistants Patrick Ewing, Mark Price, Stephen Silas and Bob Beyer. Management instructed Clifford that player-development tops all other priorities.

This is a big off-season for the Bobcats but the summer of 2014 could be even bigger. The 2013 draft Thursday night should deliver them a solid player – perhaps Nevada-Las Vegas forward Anthony Bennett or Maryland center Alex Len – but this is not a rich draft. There’s no clear-cut No. 1 pick who can be expected to become a franchise player, as Duke point guard Kyrie Irving was in the 2011 draft or Kentucky big man Anthony Davis was in 2012.

“It’s going to be hard to put that (franchise description) on a player we draft fourth Thursday night,” Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod Higgins said. “We’re going to get another good player. Then it’s our responsibility to develop those players, hone their skills.”

Bobcats management can’t discuss this under league rules, but the 2014 draft looks far more promising if everyone eligible turns pro. Two college freshmen-to-be – forwards Andrew Wiggins at Kansas and Jabari Parker at Duke – plus Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart could all have huge NBA careers and might present the Bobcats’ single best opportunity to add a franchise player in the foreseeable future.

How important is it to get a franchise player? There are 19 franchise players who are good enough to build a team around, according to The Observer’s rankings. NBA champion Miami Heat had LeBron James, the No. 1 player in the ranking, and two other players, Dwayne Wade (29) and Chris Bosh (34) also rated high. The San Antonio Spurs have two franchise players – Tony Parker (3) and Tim Duncan (14).

It’s possible, through previous trades with the Detroit Pistons and Portland Trail Blazers, the Bobcats could have three picks in the top 13 a year from now. In a best-case scenario they’d have the first pick (their own), the ninth pick (from Detroit) and the 13th pick (from Portland).

But in a worst-case scenario, the Pistons and Blazers would both have high enough picks to delay passing those selections on to Charlotte. And if the Bobcats’ pick is outside the top 10 in 2014, they owe that pick to the Chicago Bulls to complete the Tyrus Thomas trade. That seems a remote possibility, but sitting out the 2014 draft would be a huge missed opportunity at a time when the Bobcats have so many needs (frontcourt scoring, rebounding and improvement on a league-worst 42.5 percent shooting from the field).

Assembling sizeable flexibility would start with waiving forward Thomas under the amnesty clause, clearing his $18 million over the next two seasons from the cap. The Bobcats have two significant free agents in Henderson and Byron Mullens. They have until June 30 to make qualifying offers to restrict their free-agency. Those qualifying offers – $4.2 million for Henderson and $3.2 million for Mullens – would give the Bobcats the option to match any offers by other teams this summer.

The cap room could be used to sign one or more free agents, to facilitate trades or to be banked beyond this off-season for future transactions.

Jordan has said often he’s prepared to pay for a franchise player if one sees a future in Charlotte. Jordan said last fall his front office looked into trading for Houston Rockets guard James Harden when it became apparent the Oklahoma City Thunder wasn’t signing Harden to a maximum contract.

But Charlotte isn’t a glamorous media market, like New York or Los Angeles or Miami, and this team is years away from assembling the talent for a deep playoff run. So the chances of changing this franchise’s fortunes with a single signing seem remote. It might be more likely that instead of a veteran franchise player the Bobcats add two starters.

In any moves they make, the Bobcats say they are committed to adding someone who meets their long-term strategy rather than someone who can help the team add a handful of wins in the next two seasons. They have a plan and say they are committed to following it.

“The process remains the same,’’ said general manager Rich Cho. “What was important to us a year ago – finding players with great work ethic, guys who play at both ends of the floor – is still important to us today. And ownership is fully committed to building a great product.’’

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