The Bobcats started out a mess under Michael Jordan, which was a problem because he took over a mess from the owner before him. And on the court last season, things did not look a lot better as they went 7-59.
But it was a mess for very Jordan reasons. And there should be legitimate hope things are changing because he is becoming a better manager and realizing what he can and can’t effectively do as an owner.
There’s a fascinating story in the current ESPN the Magazine by Ryan McGee about Charlotte. And it starts with why things didn’t change fast for Michael Jordan as an owner.
In both of those front office roles, Jordan at first was a constant contradiction, with ultraselective public appearances and a front office omnipresence that came and went in streaks. Both strategies became increasingly ineffective. He was criticized by fans, and most recently former head coach Sam Vincent, for not being around as much as they would like. He would swoop in each spring, largely inspired by what he had seen during the NCAA tournament, and reset the personnel chess pieces that his staff had spent all year, not just March, positioning for the NBA draft.
Any scout will tell you, what you see in the NCAA Tournament is the tip of an iceberg — it’s good to see top players against other quality players, but you need to see a player 50 times in games and practices (on tape and in person), not three or five.
Jordan learned that the hard way with picks like Kemba Walker (who could still pan out but hasn’t yet). He also learned the hard way his name was not enough in the free agent market to start drawing guys.
So Jordan started making moves — Rich Cho came in to take over the front office, Mike Dunlap got a shot as a rookie head coach and that was not an MJ hire. The Bobcats were making changes.
“Every single one of those moves is evidence that Michael is serious about getting out of the way,” a rival Eastern Conference GM says. “They are now going to succeed or fail with Rich. And I can guarantee you that Michael has made sure that Rich knows that.”
That same executive describes the 47-year-old Cho as a “Moneyball kind of guy,” respected around the league for his involvement in the construction of the rosters of both Portland and Oklahoma City. According to Cho, when he left his job as the Trail Blazers GM to come to Charlotte 15 months ago, his marching orders from Jordan were simple and specific — build through the draft and get free agents to complement the youngsters and put them over the top. The old Jordan, by his own admission, believed that if he cleared enough cap space, he could personally lure the likes of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. But as he learned last year, even “MJ” appearing on their caller IDs wasn’t enough to offset the lure of LA.
For smaller markets like Charlotte, winning the free agent superstar game is the longest of shots. The only way you can get a superstar even to a middle-sized market like Miami (14th largest in the NBA) is with the promise of money and wins combined. Well, Miami has other advantages over Charlotte and other smaller markets that might draw young men, but without the wins and the money they can’t get people either.
How Charlotte has to build is the draft. And they need a little bit of luck.
Jordan is starting to act like an owner, one who sets the macro goals but lets other people handle the management of how to get there. Jordan’s image can go a long way toward healing the wounds previous Charlotte owners left in the city with the NBA. But nothing can do that like winning. Good young players they can buy into like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a start, but ultimately fans want real hope, then they want wins.
It’s the one thing Jordan certainly does understand.