MJ, the G.O.A.T., is a deadly serious success magnet when he wants to be. He’s proven over and over again that he will put the work in to go over and above all obstacles. He’s done it on the court. He’s done it in the endorsement game. He’s done it for charity.
So why isn’t his team, the Charlotte Bobcats, succeeding? What isn’t he doing, and does he care?
Even for an expansion franchise they have been terrible. The Cats aren’t the worst organization in NBA history. The Vancouver Grizzlies were run out of town without ever having made it to the post season. Same with the San Diego Clippers. The Los Angeles Clippers didn’t earn a trip to the playoffs until their 8th season. But still, this is the sort of company that the Bobcats find themselves in 9 years into their existence with one 4 game playoff run to show for it.
We know Jordan is as hypercompetitive as humans get, so I think we can assume he cares about the success of his team. To his credit, the one playoff season the team had came during his tenure as majority owner. To his discredit, the losingest (by %) season of all time came during his tenure as majority owner.
If we’re going to lay all this failure at Mike’s feet, I think we need to define success for an NBA ball-club, and it basically comes in three related forms:
- Contending for Titles – A team doesn’t need to win championships to have successful seasons, but they need to at least seem to have a chance to win championships. Cleveland and New York in the early ‘90s were successful teams that didn’t win titles because they were perennial threats to Chicago.
- Fan and community interest / support – A team can go through slumps, periods of missing the playoffs, rebuilding projects, etc. as long as the city and fanbase is invested. The Celtics and Knicks both went through horrible extended downturns in their oncourt product, but the fans kept the faith because those teams are institutions in Boston and New York.
- Profitability – A team ought to be self-sustaining or profitable to its ownership. This isn’t necessarily true 100% of the time. Cuban and Prokerov and other billionaire owners may use their teams as publicity machines and personal fantasy fulfillment devices, but most ownership groups need their teams to at least not bleed money for obvious, practical reasons.
Obviously these three factors feed into each other. A contending team stirs up fan support. Fan support stirs up ticket and merchandise sales and leads to superior advertising and broadcasting contracts, which is how a team makes its money to become profitable. The more profitable a team is, the more money it will be able to spend on players and the sorts of extras that make players want to play for the team (nicer lockers, facilities, jets, etc.). The more a team can entice good players to join, the more consistently it will be able to contend, which keeps fans invested, which maintains profitability, which can be spent to keep good players on the team, ad infinitum.
The best recent examples of teams rebounding from obscurity / obsolescence are the Dallas Mavericks and the LA Clippers. Ownership of those two teams couldn’t be more different. The Mavericks are owned by eccentric billionaire Mark Cuban, and the Clippers are owned by notorious cheapskate (among other notorious things) Donald Sterling.
Mark re-built the franchise from the ground up, working with ticket takers, ushers, and concessions to see where the organization could be improved and investing in player comforts and facilities to make Dallas a desired destination. He also demonstrated a willingness to pay whatever it took to get the right people to make the Mavs a winning team, employing the highly regarded Don Nelson as his coach and opening his check book for top free agents.
Sterling moved the Clippers from San Diego to LA and allowed the team to flounder on the court while pinching pennies and raking in money thanks to the massive LA market. However in the mid-2000s, he took a turn, hiring coach / gm Mike Dunleavy to run the organization and spending money on a number of high profile free agents. Dunleavy and his team are gone, but the spending continues, as Clippers have built their first ever semi-contender around MVP candidate Chris Paul.
In terms of fan support and profitability, these two organizations go in different directions. The Mavs garnered fan support with Cuban’s willingness to do what it takes to put an entertaining and competitive product on the floor, and they basically ignored the profit because he uses other revenue streams to maintain his fortune. The Clippers garner their fan support by providing the basketball junkies in LA a cheaper alternative to the Lakers, and they maintain profitability by not overspending and having a great deal on the StaplesCenter share.
However, in terms of on court success, which feeds fan support and profitability, the Mavs and Clips do have a couple important points in common (and most teams that have success check these points). Both teams spent free agent money / made expensive trades for productive players, and both teams drafted stars.
The Mavs came out of their tailspin by spending money on their own free agent, Michael Finley, trading a first round pick (Shawn Marion) for Steve Nash, and then paying him the next year when his contract came up. Then they hit the jackpot when they drafted Dirk Nowitzki. Those three players became the core of a title contender that made the conference Finals and created a fan buzz that has lasted to this day.
The Clips climbed out of the NBA cellar by trading the #2 pick in a very weak draft (18 year old Tyson Chandler) for Elton Brand and pairing him with #3 pick Lamar Odom. They would eventually lose Odom but pick up veteran (and expensive) point guard Sam Cassell, who would team up with Brand to bring them to the second round of the playoffs. After a season marred by injuries the Clips decided to spend big on Baron Davis, but they lost Brand to the 76ers for undisclosed reasons (not due to stinginess). That experiment went to hell, but they did draft Eric Gordon and trade him along with a number of other assets to pick up Chris Paul to play along side another star draft pick, Blake Griffin.
Whew! Now back to the Cats. Jordan’s time with the Bobcats has been marred by poor personnel decisions, awful drafts, and a lack of investment in infrastructure and community building.
Examples of poor personnel decisions: hiring friends / NC contacts for coaches, breaking up a playoff team and paying Tyrus Thomas to stay instead of Tyson Chandler, letting Jared Dudley go before he developed fully, and a general lack of continuity. No one could predict that Chandler would learn to shoot free throws and double his value on the court, but he was the heart of the defense on their playoff team, and they lost him for nothing.
Examples of awful drafts: Adam Morrison over Brandon Roy, JJ Redick, Rudy Gay, Rajon Rondo, and Kyle Lowry. Brandon Wright one pick ahead of Joakim Noah. DJ Augustine one pick ahead of Brook Lopez. Gerald Henderson over Ty Lawson and Jrue Holiday. Bismack Biyambo and Kemba Walker over Klay Thompson, Kenneth Faried, and Kawhi Leonard. You don’t have get every pick right, but you can’t miss on all of them. I’m a huge Jordan fan. HUGE. I root for the Cats just because I want to see mah boy succeed, but every draft I just watch and cringe. Augustine over Lopez?! I can’t tell you how excited I was when I saw we were going to get Lopez! Jeez.
I don’t have any stock examples for the community building except to say that the Cats game I went to was horribly attended, and Charlotte, which is a thriving small southern city, could care less about its only professional basketball team. But I don’t need any either. If they get the personnel and the drafts right, the fanbase will follow.
There are a few other contenders for worst owner. Given his resources and the allure of LA, the cruddy job that Sterling has done isn’t completely glossed over by this new iteration of the Clippers. Robert Sarver basically submarined the D’Antoni – Nash Suns with his unwillingness to pay for talent. Joe Johnson vanished into thin air. Multiple first round draft picks were traded away to stay under the cap. I’m not sure if it’s worse to cheapskate your team out of title contention like Sarver or to cheapskate your team out of playoff contention like Michael. I lean to MJ though. He’s never even had a semi-star on the roster to peak would-be fans’ interest.
It’s hard to even tell where MJ needs to start in order to turn things around, but I’d venture that spending a little money on retaining and building a core, any core, would help to get the fans a little bit invested. After Bird and McHale left Boston and Reggie Lewis passed away, I still cared about the Cs because I knew Dee Brown and Rick Fox and cared how enough to want to see them play. Selecting and paying a reputable, team-building coach and keeping him around for at least 5 years would go a long way towards creating a stable direction and signature play style. And he absolutely has to nail one of these draft picks. One time, Michael! One time! You can take Pau instead of Kwame. Just do it!