Let’s talk about justice. Not in some universal, karmic sense, but simply as it pertains to NBA basketball.
The quality of work a GM puts in should, at some level, approximate subsequent results. It’s inane, but without this concept, sports become infuriating. Research the stuffing out of Ginobili, win some titles. Max Rashard Lewis, cease all such ambitions immediately. This is the hope.
The NBA, of course, is no ordinary sport. A mere five players are on the court at once, and so any supremely talented individual will, by definition, affect the game far more than he would elsewhere. Acquisition of such prodigious players is accomplished via two primary routes – draft them or pick them off as they leave their first contracts for free agency. It’s again quite simple, and our original tenet of “do smart things; reap rewards” certainly still holds up.
It’s when we venture further down the NBA totem pole that things become murky. The presence of superstar players is severely limited (at this snapshot in time, let us say LeBron, Wade, Durant, Paul, Howard, Love, and Rose. Seven.). More importantly, without one of these players, it’s infinitely more difficult to build a complete “team” as you might find in another sport. Don’t have one of those six to seven top guys? Get one or content yourself with lesser goals.
It’s at this juncture we turn to the Charlotte Bobcats. For a terrible, small-market team there’s no option but the draft. Indeed, it’s the way most every small market team has pulled its way up into contention in the modern NBA. The draft lottery, of course, flips NBA justice on its head. At this level, there’s no reward for marginal, or indeed substantial, improvement. Rebuilding in professional basketball is highly binary in this sense. A team either vaults cleanly from hell to heaven or that’s it. In the pursuit of a title, there is no second option. There are degrees to this conception of “heaven,” of course, additional players to be added, defensive schemes to be incorporated and so forth. But only the presence of a genuine superstar can circumvent basketball purgatory.
And so, the notion that Rich Cho has assembled and maintained the worst team in basketball in spite of his own best efforts is absurd. There’s perverse triumph in every defeat, and that isn’t Rich Cho’s fault. At this level, losing is winning, and Cho will be the first to tell you about it:
“OKC has the best record in the league right now, but people forget how hard it was when we started out that first year of the rebuild. There are a lot of parallels… People forget we won only 20 games that year… We started out the season 9-36. So we go back into the lottery and draft (Russell) Westbrook. Wind up the season 23-59. So we go back into the lottery and draft James Harden. There’s a whole process and it’s not easy going through this process.’’
There’s a more elegant solution here somewhere, and it probably lies in between the extremes of unadulterated tanking (no lotto) and comprehensive contention but potential ennui (all lotto). Perhaps, it would be an auction system where a team could mortgage current or future assets for draft rights. Perhaps it would be a reverse lottery encouraging even bad teams to continually seek out marginal improvement. (I, like Ethan, don’t think it would be a big deal if the worst teams didn’t always win top picks). Whether David Stern and the league at large care enough to tend to a significantly flawed product at its lower levels remains to be seen.
Ultimately, the Bobcats aren’t the problem. The Bobcats are merely the abhorrent symptom, the decomposing rats of the plague-stricken city. They’re gruesome as all hell to look at, but theirs is a consequential existence. Without the current NBA system, one that heavy-handedly dictates the existence of a single pathway to small market title contention, the question simply doesn’t exist on this scale.
Dangling the probabilistic carrot of a weighted lottery is essential to the fan perspective. The worst teams don’t necessarily need to be rewarded; a mediocre team “deserves” the next superstar player no less than a terrible one. But rewarding somebody in a predetermined fashion is the only way to uphold cause and effect in these lower rungs of NBA life. Rooting for a terrible NBA team is bearable only in connection to the future that flagrancy promises. Sever that link, cede power unequivocally to the gods of luck, and one of the foundational assumptions of sport is lost. There’s no longer a discernible route from inferiority to excellence, and that’s fundamentally more disquieting than Cory Higgins passing to DeSagana Diop ever will be.
It’s simple – reward the Bobcats or fix the system.