A year ago, the Charlotte Bobcats finished with the first winning record in the franchise’s history, good for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and the team’s first-ever playoff berth. It appeared to be the latest step forward for a franchise that was on the gradual upswing since entering the league in the 2004-05 season. Apart from a one-win regression in 2007-08, the Bobcats’ win total has increased every year of its existence, but that streak is in jeopardy after a poor 9-19 start in 2010-11.
Charlotte’s offense has been anemic this season. They rank last in turnovers per game and turnover differential, 29th in points per game and offensive rating, 20th in FG %, and 23rd in 3FG %. In a December 11 home loss to Boston, they were held to just 62 points, the lowest total in the NBA this season. In addition, head coach Larry Brown, who was critical of his team’s effort and performance this season, just resigned. Interim coach Paul Silas will take over for the rest of the season. Silas has been out of the NBA since 2005, so don’t expect a huge revival after Christmas. Charlotte is currently mired in a four-game losing streak including 33-point losses to the 12-17 Grizzlies and the 7-19 Wizards. If they can’t get things going with three easy home games next week (Detroit, Cleveland, and Golden State), they’re going to be in a lot of trouble.
What’s so different in Charlotte this season? It begins at the very top, as Michael Jordan took over ownership duties from BET founder Robert Johnson last spring. Despite Jordan’s competitive fire, he has a patchy front-office record, as he was part of the Wizards’ braintrust that selected Kwame Brown number one overall in 2001 (apparently, you can make the same mistake twice, as the Bobcats signed Brown in August). The larger effects of Jordan’s ownership are yet to be seen, but if this offseason is anything to go by, things aren’t looking up for the Bobcats. They let their starting point guard, Raymond Felton, sign a 2-year, $16 million deal with the Knicks, and now he’s flourishing in New York, where he’s registering career-highs in all major categories. D.J. Augustin is not a huge downgrade (plug him into D’Antoni’s system and he’d probably average similar numbers), but he’s not as good a shooter as Felton, and he doesn’t get to the rim as often either. While Felton will never be an elite point guard, the Bobcats may have wanted to overpay for the UNC alum in order to keep their nucleus intact.
That nucleus was ripped apart days after Felton’s early-July departure, as Charlotte shipped Tyson Chandler to Dallas in return for a trio of nobodies -- Matt Carroll, Eduardo Najera (who’s played exactly three games for the Bobcats), and Erick Dampier (since waived) -- in order to get under the salary cap. After playing on the world championship-winning Team USA squad this summer, Chandler is now the defensive anchor of a superb Mavs team, while his replacement at center, Nazr Mohammed, has been abused by opposing centers this season. While the Bobcats with Felton and Chandler would not have been contenders, they would have been a competitive, playoff-worthy team, especially with how bad most of the league is this season. Now its unclear what direction they are headed; with the roster they have in place now, the most logical solution would be a full rebuild, but they’re not exactly flush with young talent. Tyrus Thomas is about the only guy they have who fits that category, but he’s always going to be a complementary piece.
Though Charlotte wasn’t awful last year, they were still swept out of the playoffs in the first round by Orlando. When you remove two of the most important players from that roster, and make no significant additions, is it really a surprise that Charlotte is back to mediocrity this season? Whether you choose to blame Charlotte or GM Rod Higgins, it's clear that the Bobcats are one of the many teams in the NBA season that doesn’t seem clear on where they are going. There’s only so much talent in the draft from year-to-year, and even at 9-19, there are still six teams in the league with a worse record than Charlotte. Ideally the Bobcats would have been able to make a run at a major free-agent last summer, but their roster is full of guys making between $4 and $10 million a year, most of whom are signed through 2012, which taken as a whole pushes them towards the cap limit. And they will need to find a new head coach after Silas' remainder of a year is done. The NBA already failed in Charlotte once; if Jordan can’t turn things around things may be headed down that path again.