The Charlotte Bobcats are a head coach’s dream.
Stick with me on this; I haven’t been drinking.
People want to mock Michael Jordan for what he’s done to the Bobcats since purchasing a majority share of the team in late February of 2010. When MJ purchased the team from Bob Johnson on February 27, 2010, the Bobs were 28-29 and on their way to finishing the season 16-9 and grabbing the seventh seed in the Easter Conference – the franchise’s only playoff berth in their eight-year existence.
Since that season, the Bobcats have endured a 34-48 year (10th in the East) and becoming arguably the worst team in NBA history this year with a 7-59 record. What people fail to realize is Jordan deciding to gut this team and start from the bottom was exactly what he is supposed to do. As constructed when he purchased the team, they were a core of Tyson Chandler (only played 51 games), Gerald Wallace, Raymond Felton, Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw, D.J. Augustin, and Tyrus Thomas. It was a cavalcade of role players that weren’t exactly inspiring a generation of star-gorged fans like the TEAM that is the current Denver Nuggets.
The team had a payroll of roughly $70 million committed for that season and already $60 million committed to the 2011-12 season. They were committing nearly $30 million over the next three seasons for Wallace, Jackson and something called a DaSagana Diop.
Jordan decided to gut the team. He sold off parts for probably less than they were worth. He brought Rich Cho from the Seventh Circle of GM Hell in Portland to help construct a long-term winner in a plan that was clearly going to take some patience. He bottomed out with Bismack Biyombo has his most attractive young asset (sorry Kemba fans but it’s true). He managed to grab two meh-inducing draft selections in the Top 9 of the 2011 Draft but they are guys who could turn into attractive role players.
And by having such a horrerrible (made it up!) season in 2012, he’s guaranteed that his franchise will have a Top 4 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft – a class loaded with potential franchise saviors and boosters. Instead of just accepting the eighth seed spectacle of chase every season and hoping for a little playoff revenue, the Bobcats blew up something that wasn’t very substantial in the hopes of building something very real from the ground on up.
And that’s why this team is a coach’s dream. With Jerry Sloan and Stan Van Gundy reportedly being in the discussion to take over the head coaching duties, it seems like MJ’s plan might actually end up being a gigantic success.
For a lot of coaches, they believe in their system and the fundamentals of basketball over the prowess of stars. They want guys to be in position within the team concept, to make the extra pass, and to know when their number isn’t the right option. Unfortunately for them, in a league dominated by star players and superstar-driven ratings and revenue, it’s quite easy for the best players on teams to try to take control in a power struggle. This often leads to a head coach either serving the best interests of the individual over the team or updating their résumé and hope that Eric Musselman’s Power Point presentation has egregious typos in it.
For years, Jerry Sloan had Karl Malone and John Stockton buying into what he was selling to his players and when he had the stars on board with his philosophies, they were one of the most successful franchises in a 20-year span. It wasn’t until he kept clashing with Deron Williams that he started to want out (and eventually cut bait). With Gregg Popovich, we’ve heard that he had Tim Duncan on his side from the start and it helped corral any potential problems with role players and guys who wanted to show they were bigger than the team.
This past year, we saw Stan Van Gundy take a stand against Dwight Howard. He publically outed his star for trying to get the coach fired. When Dwight went down with back surgery, SVG managed to rally his troops, survive a late season swoon, and even pushed a much better Pacers team in a five-game series that was a lot closer than first glance might reveal.
Van Gundy showed he believed in the game of basketball more than he believed in the business of basketball. That’s not something that necessarily promotes job security for him, but it is something that shows he’s a real coach who cares about his craft more than he cares about cashing checks. The same way we applaud star players for having the confidence to take big shots, we should be lauding Stan for having the confidence that his system matters more than a player’s Q rating.
It doesn’t mean that Stan is perfect. He can alienate guys pretty quickly with his overbearing and cynical mannerisms. He can lean on guys a little too much. But is it a problem because his style doesn’t work or is it a problem because he wasn’t in an organization like San Antonio that believes in their coach first and everything else second?
What if he can get to an organization that has nothing? What if he can be somewhere that doesn’t have untouchable components on the roster, doesn’t have egos sectioning off corners of the locker room, doesn’t have a star unwilling to take a verbal lashing in order to become a better player?
Stan Van Gundy’s system works. Did it get his team a title? No. Did he have a team truly good enough to win a title? Not really. As Eddy Rivera points out in this post, the success SVG had in his five-year stint with Orlando (“.657 winning percentage, 31 playoff wins, four 50-win seasons, three Southeast Division titles, one Eastern Conference title (and NBA Finals runner-up)”) helped teach us a lot about the game of basketball.
By going to Charlotte and taking over a team with nothing, a coach has a chance to use grass roots tactics for building his system and letting his voice take over the direction of an organization. Something good is happening in Charlotte and you shouldn’t let their historically comical futility of this past season cloud that notion. They have a very smart man taking the reins of the organization and they have a chance to build up without any major roadblocks (other than being in a small market, if you consider that a roadblock).
The Bobs have $43 million committed to salary next season and can clear $8 million of that by amnestying Tyrus Thomas’ murdered potential. After next season, they only have $14 million committed right now and plenty of flexibility in how they shape their roster. If they can grab someone like Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in this draft while grabbing a coach like Stan Van Gundy to teach them how to play the game, they’ll be far ahead of the rebuilding curve.
The beauty of coaching the Bobcats is there is literally no pressure. You’re in a small market where the college basketball is more important than the professional basketball. Nobody expects you to win and nobody really cares if you win. It’s why Stan might want to go there or Jerry Sloan might want to come back to coaching in that environment or Patrick Ewing might be clamoring for that head coaching job over any other.
Coaches get to work on their craft first and worry about extracurricular headaches second. Give a coach a blank slate and he’ll get to see if his system is truly capable of building something great. That’s a rare situation in this turnstile-coaching world.
Many great head coaches would be lucky to wake up on the Bobcats sideline next season.
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