Winning hasn't always come as easily or as naturally to Michael Jordan as his hagiography might suggest.
His Airness failed to make the cut for his high school's varsity squad as a sophomore. His Chicago Bulls didn't win a playoff series until his fourth year and didn't hoist their first Larry O'Brien Trophy until his seventh. His baseball sabbatical was as embarrassing as his comeback with the Washington Wizards was forgettable and regrettable.
Perhaps, then, it makes sense that it took MJ a while to get the hang of this whole "ownership" thing, as far as attracting free agents now and building for the future are concerned. During his first three years in Charlotte as majority owner (2010-11 to 2012-13), Jordan's Bobcats compiled an abysmal record of 62-168 (.270 winning percentage) amid a full-scale rebuild that saw his roster torn down to the studs.
And what, pray tell, did Charlotte get in return for its misery? Kemba Walker, Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller—not exactly a Dream Team of NBA draft lottery prospects, and certainly not enough to pack Time Warner Cable Arena on a nightly basis.
But things are looking up for Jordan and Co. in North Carolina's biggest city. And this summer, His Airness could play a bigger part than ever in pushing his pet franchise to the next level, with new talent coming in via free agency and the draft.
His team is coming off a successful 2013-14 season, wherein it posted a 43-39 record and qualified for the Eastern Conference playoffs. Al Jefferson, the Bobcats' big free-agent acquisition from last summer, put together an All-NBA campaign, averaging 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds.
Now, the misbegotten Bobcats will give way to the return of the beloved Charlotte Hornets. A new name, with new jerseys and a new court, should do plenty to bring this basketball-crazed town back into the good graces of the NBA after years of acrimony.
So, too, should the improved product that will be wearing those teal-and-purple jerseys while dribbling around on the Hugo-adorned floor. Charlotte's moderate success, when combined with its considerable cap space and the personal appeal of His Airness, should make the Hornets players in this year's free-agency period.
Jordan recently made clear his desire for the Hornets to be just that.
"I always thought it was a great destination," Jordan told the media during an appearance at Hornets Nest Elementary School, via The Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell. "I think Big Al (Jefferson) proved you can come here and make a big difference. Hopefully we can look at that and attract some other superstar."
Financially, the Hornets should be in good position to go after a big fish, even if it's not one of the two or three most prized catches.
According to Basketball Insiders, the Hornets are currently on the hook for just over $42 million in player salaries for next season. That number will shrink once figures for the team's draft-day acquisitions are factored in, but it should still leave Charlotte with ample wiggle room beneath the projected cap of $63.2 million.
The Hornets don't figure to have either the cap space or the appeal to chase marquee guys like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. But that doesn't mean Charlotte won't draw a notable name.
According to Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears, the Hornets will be one of Lance Stephenson's most eager suitors. The Deseret News' Jody Genessy reported that Charlotte could be among those extending offer sheets to Gordon Hayward, though the Utah Jazz are expected to match whatever comes the way of their restricted free agent. Luol Deng would also provide the sort of help on the wing for which Charlotte seems to be searching, as would Rodney Stuckey, albeit to a lesser extent.
Attracting any of those big names would likely require that the Hornets overpay for his services, just as the team (seemingly) did with Big Al last summer. As desirable a locale as Charlotte may be for MJ, it still has a ways to go in the minds of players these days.
Jordan, though, figures to play a pivotal part in bridging that gap with prospective signees. He may not be the one in charge of cap gymnastics and brass-tacks negotiations, but his mere presence can and should carry some weight with those the Hornets are looking to sign.
As Pro Basketball Talk's Dan Feldman noted:
Jordan is the ultimate draw. As the greatest player in NBA history, he immediately commands respect, even among this generation of players. His ties with Nike could also help make the necessary connections.
Just don't expect the Hornets to grovel and beg for free agents to join them. Summer signings or no, Charlotte already has plenty of room for improvement.
The team added two tantalizing talents—Indiana's Noah Vonleh and former UNC castoff P.J. Hairston—by way of last week's draft. General manager Rich Cho subsequently spun second-round pick Dwight Powell and injured big man Brendan Haywood into Cleveland Cavaliers wing Alonzo Gee, per The Associated Press (h/t USA Today).
To be sure, these moves might not portend another step forward for the Hornets in and of themselves. Gee might've been the worst starter in the league before now-twice-ex-Cavs coach Mike Brown planted his behind on the bench last season.
Vonleh's a raw teenager—he doesn't turn 19 until late August—whose intangibles, as ESPN.com's Chad Ford noted (subscription required), led eight other teams to pass on the upside implied by his size, length and shooting ability:
Vonleh slid because teams worried he wasn't going to maximize his obvious physical talents. He can shoot, run the floor and play in the post, but questions about his motor and toughness and conditioning caused him to slide a bit.
Moreover, Charlotte isn't exactly thin on players at his position; the Hornets already employ a pair of incomplete youngsters (i.e., Zeller and Biyombo) up front, behind Big Al, and are expected to bring Josh McRoberts, a free agent, back into the fold.
Hairston may well have been more than a late first-rounder had his time in Chapel Hill not been sidetracked by drug possession charges and NCAA violations. Staying so close to home, though, could be risky for the Greensboro native.
Hairston told The Charlotte Observer's Jonathan Jones prior to the draft:
That would be lovely and my family could come to games and it’d be convenient, but at the same time I don’t want people to have the idea of, 'Can he focus?' ... I feel like if I got drafted in Charlotte, people would be more worried about me than the basketball side. That’s the only question, because I want people to watch basketball and not be worried about my personal life.
Those concerns aside, Vonleh and Hairston could both help in at least one crucial area of concern: outside shooting. Charlotte ranked 22nd in three-point percentage and 27th in attempts last season.
Not surprisingly, the then-Bobcats managed just 101.2 points per 100 possessions (24th in the league, according to NBA.com), with only Gary Neal, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Anthony Tolliver to reliably stretch the floor for Jefferson's post-ups and Walker's drives. Of those three shooters, only Neal is guaranteed to return next season.
As such, Vonleh and Hairston should, in theory, get their respective opportunities to supplement Charlotte's corps of shooters. Still, each may have to wait his turn behind the young players already in Charlotte.
Jordan went on, per Bonnell:
We’ve got to make sure we find people who want to come here. We have a bunch of young talent we’re still trying to nurture into better players. The summer is when we need to make our big leap. We’ll know at the beginning of the season if Jeff Taylor’s gotten better, if (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) has gotten better, if Cody Zeller has gotten better.
Kemba (Walker) has shown that he can get better. And Big Al comes back with another powerful season. I hope he’s an All-Star. I thought he deserved it last season. Being all-pro this year hopefully gets him into that (discussion) that makes you an All-Star.
A step forward from each of the team's youngsters, along with the return of McRoberts (a free agent) and the incoming first-years, could be enough to push Charlotte into the East's top four.
Which, considering how terrible this squad was just two years ago, would be another sizable step forward. A playoff series victory therein would only sweeten the outcome that much more.
He'll probably never be anywhere near as successful as an owner as he was during his playing days, but winning doesn't always come easy, and at least his Hornets are poised to do that much.
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