There's only one way for the fortunes of the Charlotte Bobcats to go after last season.
The Bobcats hit rock bottom harder than any team in NBA history, succeeding in just seven of their 66 tries during the lockout-shortened season. Their winning percentage (if it can even be called that) of .106 was the lowest the league had ever seen. Their 57 losses came by an average of 13.9 points per game.
They finished the year on a 23-game losing streak, breaking the previous franchise record for futility of 16...which had been set earlier in the season.
However you measure it, Michael Jordan's team had a campaign of misery for the ages.
Which, in the grand scheme of things, might actually be good for the Bobcats.
How's that? Well, in the NBA, the general rule of thumb for any franchise is to avoid being stuck in the middle, where teams right around the fringe of the playoff picture in each conference tend to reside. The goal, instead, is to shoot for the extremes—either chasing championships at the top or tearing the team apart for a full rebuild at the bottom. Typically, teams mired in the median shoot for the bottom, where they can pick up budding stars and young talent in the NBA draft by tanking their way through one or more seasons.
Which, as it happens, is a crucial step toward constructing the foundation of a sustainable title contender, especially in today's NBA, wherein stars are such precious commodities.
Not so much for the Bobcats. They were stuck in that uncomfortable position from just after their inception in 2004 until the end of the 2010-11 season. Between the fall of 2005 and the spring of 2006, Charlotte made the playoffs once—as the seventh seed in the East in 2010—but never won fewer than 26 games.
As it turned out, they had the ceiling of a team destined for a first-round playoff exit, the result of trying (and failing) to win right away as an expansion franchise rather than begin life in the NBA amidst the harsh realities of a long and painful rebuilding (or, in the 'Cats' case, building) process.
It wasn't until the 2010-11 season, after MJ acquired the team from founder Bob Johnson, that the 'Cats got serious about aiming for the extremes. They dumped Gerald Wallace and Nazr Mohammed at the deadline, hired Rich Cho to take over as their general manager after the season and sloughed off Stephen Jackson in a draft-day trade that netted them the No. 7 pick (Bismack Biyombo) and Corey Maggette, who's since been swapped to the Detroit Pistons for Ben Gordon.
In truth, then, last season's embarrassment was anything but accidental. The 'Cats were going to stink by design, though few could've predicted how unseemly the futility would be.
Of course, that design was meant to include the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA draft. However, the ping pong balls of the lottery had different ideas, awarding the rights to Anthony Davis instead to the New Orleans Hornets, who themselves had bottomed out after trading Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers.
It was a big loss for Bobcats, to be sure, but not necessarily a fatal one. Rather than trying to take shortcuts once again by opting for a more "NBA-ready" prospect like Thomas Robinson, Charlotte spent the second pick on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a raw-and-rangy athlete with the heart and work ethic to become a staple of a winning program in the pros. MKG's full potential was on display during his one outing of the Las Vegas Summer League, when he racked up 18 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four steals in 22 minutes before leaving the game with an injury.
He'll have a chance to develop his game and learn the ropes of the NBA without pressure while playing alongside fellow 2012 draftee Jeff Taylor, 2011 classmates Biyombo and Kemba Walker, gifted big man Byron Mullens and not-quite-draft-bust Gerald Henderson this coming season.
That core, along with Gordon and free-agent signees Brendan Haywood and Ramon Sessions, isn't going to contend for the playoffs any time soon. There will be plenty more growing pains to come for the Bobcats, not to mention the few fans who've stuck by the team to this point.
But in all likelihood, there will be signs of improvement, however incremental they may seem. They'll win more than 11 percent of their games, notch another lottery pick along the way and continue to build the viable team that Bob Johnson never could, precisely because he tried to skip those crucial, painful steps.
And in due time, the 'Cats will be something more than the league's lowliest laughingstock. They've already found the very deepest point of their valley.
Now begins the long, arduous and ultimately (hopefully) rewarding climb to the top of the NBA mountain.
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