What Does Rebuilding Mean?

In trading franchise icon Gerald Wallace, Michael Jordan stated that just making the playoffs is not enough, and he is intent on building a team that can one day play for a championship.  He has asked the fanbase to place their faith and hope in him, while the team takes a step back in order to bring future glory.  What he doesn't say is how he plans to build this future champion. 

In his written statement on the trade, MJ straddles the fence between claiming the team has acquired players that will help it compete for a playoff position this season, provide flexibility to be aggressive in free agency this year, and ultimately build a future contender.  The first claim is laughable.  Gerald Wallace was not traded for any players that make the Bobcats more likely to make the playoffs.  The second claim is also false.  Going into the offseason, the Bobcats will have just over $50M committed to 10 players.  $3-4M more will go to the Bobcats' two 1st round draft picks.  Considering that the salary cap currently is $58M and may be headed lower once a new CBA is approved, the trade did not open up any significant cap space to sign free agents this offseason.

It's MJ's 3rd claim that he is really asking fans to buy.  But how does a middle of the pack, veteran team transform itself into a contender?  Some might hope that the mystique of MJ will lure free agents to the Queen City.  Quick rebuilding through free agency has transformed Miami and now seems to be working for the Knicks.  While not impossible, this plan seems extremely unlikely as Charlotte lacks both the big market of New York and the entertainment alure of Miami.

Any realistic path to building a contender will require a more patient, strategic approach.  As an example, consider the Washington Wizards, a team who a couple years ago was in much the same position Charlotte now finds itself.  The Wiz made the last of four consecutive playoff appearances in 07-08 (losing in the first round the last three of those four).  They believed Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, and Brendan Haywood would be the core of a solid playoff team for many years.  However, injuries wrecked their 08-09 season and convinced them to begin rebuilding. 

Rebuilding has meant getting rid of nearly every significant player from their playoff years, and only Andre Blatsche and Nick Young remain.  Washington had some luck with the lottery and drafted John Wall with the #1 pick last year, and they also have developed Javale McGee, their '08 1st rounder.  Those four players and Rashard Lewis make up Washington's starting 5.

By any measure, Washington is successfully executing their rebuilding plan and have even been fortunate enough to score a #1 pick.  Still they've won less than 30% of their games during their rebuilding years and have one of the worst records in the league today.  If their rebuilding plan succeeds, they probably are still a couple successful drafts and a couple years of development from emerging from the depths of the Eastern Conference.  And of course there is no guarantee that will happen.

Washington is an approximate example of what we can expect Charlotte's future to resemble (assuming they stick to the plan).  Viewed from the perspective of rebuilding, any Bobcats' players who won't be able to contribute to a contender in five years (best case) are at best trade chips and at worst dead weight.  Realistically, the Bobcats presently have one low end starter (Augustin) and a couple rotation players (Thomas and Hendo) who could fit on a hypothetical future contender. 

In order to gather the rest of that team, every other player on the current team will need to be phased out either by trade or by letting their contract expire.  The Bobcats will need to draft their top 2 or 3 players and establish a new core team before they can hope to fill in the roster with a couple above average players acquired by trade or free agency.  At best, this is a five year plan that will result in many more losses than wins in the near term.  At worst, this is the LA Clippers after Larry Brown left, a team that is finally emerging 18 seasons later. 

Rebuilding is quite the downer, and it didn't have to be like this.  Three years ago, the Bobcats featured a core of Gerald Wallace, Emeka Okafor and Jason Richardson, and they had no bad contracts.  Had they avoided the foolish, quick fix trades that led to their budget problems, they could feature those same three players with Augustin and Thomas rounding out the starting 5.  Add Livingston, Hendo, Dudley and Kwame off the bench, and the Bobcats could have held onto a winning team while not exceeding the salary cap.  They would have had financial flexibility with Richardson's expiring contract, too.  Let's hope Charlotte learns from its mistakes.  I'll believe it when I see it.

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