For better or worse, Feb. 24, 2011 was a huge day in Charlotte Bobcats history. That’s when they traded the closest thing they had to an iconic player – small forward Gerald Wallace – to the Portland Trail Blazers, primarily for two first-round picks.
Co-captain Stephen Jackson later followed Wallace out of town, as did coach Larry Brown. With that, the only playoff team in Bobcats history was effectively vaporized.
“What we didn’t want to do was just compete for the eighth spot, then not even win a playoff game,’’ said Rod Higgins, president of basketball operations.
“We made the tough decision to change this team.’’
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What followed was painful: The Bobcats had the worst record in NBA history in 2011-12, going 7-59. Last season they were 21-61, second-worst record in the league. Now they’re on their third coach in as many seasons.
Where’s the payback for all this pain? Potentially it will arrive over the next 16 months.
Higgins and general manager Rich Cho frequently talk about assembling “assets’’ – some of them tangible, like point guard Kemba Walker, others liquid like future draft picks and salary-cap flexibility.
With so much riding on this, the Observer ranked the top 10 assets the Bobcats possess going into Thursday’s NBA draft.
1. Three potential lottery picks in 2014
With the Trail Blazers and Detroit Pistons each owing the Bobcats a future first-round pick, the 2014 draft – potentially one of the richest in recent memory – could be the Bobcats’ best shot at acquiring a future franchise player.
The Bobcats get the Blazers’ 2014 pick if it’s outside the top 12. The Bobcats get the Pistons’ ’14 pick (from the Ben Gordon trade) if it’s outside the top eight. They are likely to have their own pick, which figures to be top-five.
Consider the possibilities: College freshmen-to-be Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) and Jabari Parker (Duke) and Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart might all be better NBA prospects than anyone in the 2013 draft. It’s logical that all three would turn pro after next season. Having three first-round picks – potentially lottery picks as high as Nos. 1, 9 and 13 – could be most valuable, whether the Bobcats execute them all or use one or more as a trade commodity.
However, there’s a worst-case scenario where the Bobcats have no first-round picks in 2014. If the Bobcats finished outside the top 10 picks in next May’s lottery, they owe their pick to the Chicago Bulls to complete the Tyrus Thomas trade. If the Pistons have a top-eight pick and the Blazers have top-12, neither one goes to Charlotte in 2014.
2. Kemba Walker
Right now he’s the most refined player among those young enough to play a prominent role on the Bobcats’ next playoff team. He led the team in scoring (17.7), assists (5.7) and steals (2.0).
Walker improved dramatically between his rookie and second seasons. He got back to the attacking, assertive player he was in leading Connecticut to the 2011 national championship. He’s been called a defensive liability, but he constantly deflected balls in opponent passing lanes, disrupting opponents’ offenses.
If anything good came out of the 2012-13 season, it’s that Walker showed he’s a keeper at a crucial position. He has potential to be one of the top 10 point guards in the league.
3. Abundant salary-cap space
The Bobcats say they could be as much as $20 million-plus under next season’s salary cap, offering flexibility to sign free agents and make trades. Getting that far under the cap would involve several moves, like using the amnesty provision on power forward Thomas and not re-signing restricted free agents Gerald Henderson or Byron Mullens. But flexibility is there if it’s warranted.
Amnesty is a provision of the new collective bargaining agreement in which a team can waive a player who was on its roster before the CBA was signed, and stop counting his salary against the cap. The Bobcats owe Thomas about $18 million over the next two seasons. Considering how little Thomas contributed last season, it might be in everyone’s best interest for Thomas to move on and for the Bobcats to recapture that cap flexibility.
The Bobcats don’t have to use that flexibility this off-season. They could just as easily bank some of it for the summer of 2014 and beyond.
Owner Michael Jordan has said he wants to sign a star player who would embrace the city of Charlotte and lead the team deep into the playoffs and that’s the best scenario using this money. But president of basketball operations Rod Higgins says the Bobcats could otherwise sign two very good players. That might be more realistic considering the Bobcats can’t offer either the appeal of a major media market or the chance to contend for a title soon.
4. The No. 4 pick in Thursday’s draft
The Bobcats had the second-worst record last season, but the draft lottery dropped them to the fourth selection. The 2013 draft isn’t particularly strong, having no clear-cut top prospect.
However, top-5 picks are a big deal in any NBA draft. Twelve of the 19 players ranked as “franchise’’ in the Observer’s NBA top 100 were chosen with a top-five pick.
The Bobcats haven’t been particularly adept at making top-five selections. Adam Morrison (third in 2006) was a bust and Raymond Felton (fifth in 2005) left in free-agency without compensation.
5. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
The Bobcats used the second overall pick to select Kentucky small forward Kidd-Gilchrist a year ago. His rookie season was a mixed bag. He was a solid defender, but his offense – particularly his shooting – needs a lot of work.
New coach Steve Clifford sees ways the Bobcats can better exploit what Kidd-Gilchrist does best offensively: Expect more post-ups and opportunities to attack off the dribble. But his jump shot has major mechanical flaws that must be fixed.
Kidd-Gilchrist suggested the Bobcats hire a shooting coach, and the team responded by hiring former Georgia Tech and Cleveland Cavaliers star Mark Price. At his best, Kidd-Gilchrist could evolve into a shut-down defender who could take on the opponents’ top scorer and also average 15 points and seven rebounds.
6. Gerald Henderson
Shooting guard Henderson might be higher on this list if he wasn’t a restricted free agent. The Bobcats don’t have a strong history of retaining former first-round picks, but Henderson seems like a keeper. He finished last season particularly strong, scoring in double figures in each of the past 24 games. Over that span he averaged 18.2 points on 46 percent shooting. Henderson said after the season he’d like to re-sign with the Bobcats, noting that if he’s been part of so much losing, then he wants to be part of the fix.
7. Bismack Biyombo
The Bobcats used the seventh overall pick of the 2011 draft on center Biyombo. He started most of last season, finishing 10th in the NBA in blocks (1.77 per game), but continues to be a liability offensively. “I thought his hands got better,’’ said Cho. “There’s a lot of room for improvement. His shooting got a little better. He’s one of the reasons we wanted to invest in a staff who would focus on our shooting.’’ Associate head coach Patrick Ewing, a Hall of Fame center, can only be good for Biyombo’s development.
8. The Hornets nickname
The Bobcats should get final approval next month from the NBA to change their nickname to “Hornets’’ for the 2014-15 season, returning to the identity of the city’s first NBA team. It’s a popular move with fans, so it might buy some time while the product on the floor gets fixed. However, a continuous loser in Charlotte won’t be supported indefinitely just over nostalgia.
9. A fresh set of eyes
The Bobcats are on their third head coach in as many seasons, and the lack of continuity can’t be positive. But Clifford worked over a decade for two of the NBA’s best coaches, Jeff and Stan Van Gundy, and seems ready for this responsibility. Also, the credibility of assistants Ewing and Price should register on the players they’ll teach.
10. Abundant playing time
Higgins said they don’t expect Clifford to make the playoffs next season, but they want the team to be competitive night-in and night-out. Playing time is more a commodity to invest in young talent than an imperative to win one more game at this point.
The Observer’s top 100 demonstrates how much investing playing time in young prospects can pay off. Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Indiana’s Paul George shot up the rankings as a result of their teams giving them ample minutes to refine skills and learn the league early in their careers.