All of a sudden it's cool to praise Michael Jordan again. After years of taking the brunt of any and all criticism (some deserved, some not so much) that had to do with the Charlotte NBA team, Jordan is starting to receive some recognition for the turnaround of the franchise.
Just this week Sam Amick wrote this piece on how Jordan and team have managed to transform the franchise over the last two off seasons. He goes as far as calling him a "great" owner. Truth. It's right there in the title! Such praise would have been treated as NBA heresy just a few short years ago.
If we take a brief trip down memory lane (Google search) we can quickly uncover some of the prevailing opinions of Jordan as an NBA owner. Some of these are unfair. Some of these are warranted. But most of them are scathing, either intentionally or by being brutally to the point but...more or less accurate.
They were all written around the time of the season that shall go unnamed when the Bobcats threatened, and made good on the attempt, to be the worst team in NBA history...as far as winning percentage goes. (And by the way the winning percentage caveat is definitely my favorite. "Well technically we were the worst team, but only if you go by winning percentage.")
The team was horrible. It was awful. And Jordan was the owner. So, sure, blame was bound to fall on the man in charge. Especially when that man is the greatest basketball player of all time and especially when he's probably the only person most fans could quickly associate with the team. But we've seen bad teams being bad before and we'll see it again. We're seeing it right now! (Philly, stand up!)
And perhaps having Jordan out front made it easier/more enjoyable to call the team and its owner out. Of course it did. Angry protests came in from all corners of the league. From columnists, to NBA analysts, to Jordan's friends. After so much time on top of the basketball world, certainly there were some that reveled in the opportunity to take shots at the G.O.A.T. You don't see owners of other tanking teams being labeled as such. Not by such a wide range of detractors.
As if the fact that Jordan didn't attend every game, or had other outside interests, meant that he didn't want to win or didn't want turn things around. Or more to the point, that his being there could have any immediate effect on that team. Maybe it wasn't the best look, but it's doubtful his physical presence at the games would have made any difference that season.
However that team was ultimately more than just that season.
That season was the culmination of the blowing up of a maxed-out eight seed playoff team, which resulted in unloading every last talented player who was enjoyable to watch, and completely missing on draft picks like Adam Morrison. So to many observers it looked like Jordan ran a perfectly fine playoff team straight into the ground and lit his cigar on the burning flames. It looked like he didn't care and because it was so bad and wasn't going to change any time soon it looked like it would never change.
However it was a monumental tank job that had to be done. Be clear on this, none of those players made any effort other than to win. They were just woefully outmatched every night. The front office made a strategic decision to be very, very, very bad in an effort to give itself the best chance at landing potential franchise-changer Anthony Davis.
Turns out...that would have been a pretty good move! (It was also in a lockout-shortened season. If you're going to suffer why not do it during a shorter season?)
Davis was groomed to bloom this summer with Team USA and is already on his way to being one of the top players in the league. He'll be the face of the New Orleans franchise for years to come and he's fun as hell to watch. So getting him would have been a huge coup and I'd argue would have been worth setting a mark for futility. But as we know those damn ping pong balls can be oh so fickle. Charlotte did not win the lottery and #sadRichCho seems like it should have been the trending hash tag of the day.
At that point though, Oklahoma City was the popular model to follow and they got better through the draft by being very, very bad. (Remember, Kevin Durant's first year in Seattle was pretty brutal.) It required absolute home run picks, but Charlotte had only been able to muster up doubles at best through the draft, along with some foul balls. So once the team got unfortunate luck of the second pick they selected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Forced to suffer through another tough year before making any major moves, Jordan and company were ready and willing to act the following offseason.
Since then, Jordan and Cho have made the moves outlined in Amick's article highlighted by signing Jefferson, hiring Steve Clifford, giving Cho full reign (which meant cutting team ties with one of Jordan's inner circle, Rod Higgins), and signing Lance Stephenson. He also stepped back a little, by all accounts. He's made changes that have corrected some of those criticisms. Whether in response to them or not. It likely took some time for Jordan to learn from his mistakes. So not all of the critics, or their arguments were off base.
None of these moves could have been made over night of course. Which is seemingly the only thing that would have staid those critics during the season that shall remain unnamed. It was easy to look at everything and say it had gone wrong because nothing had gone right yet.
It's not like Jordan needs defending. This is not an attempt to dispute all negative claims. But looking back on that time now you can see that, especially once the team bottomed out, it made a concerted effort to change course. Jordan played his hand with lady luck and was burned. It was time to make his own luck.
What was probably frustrating for Charlotte fans paying attention however was that this was a plan. Did it work too well? You could say that. MJ was always the best and he was the best at losing. But labeling him the worst owner of all time, or even the worst owner of that time may have been a bit shortsighted. It is fair to say he had some learning to do. And by all accounts some learning has been done.
His team is now on the cusp of its most successful season in franchise history. The expectations are certainly as high as they've ever been. But even if the Hornets don't live up to the lofty standards set preseason, keep in mind he and Cho have not only set up this team for success this year, but by signing sensible contracts and leveraging the salary cap they've set future teams up for success too.
The team is finally seeing the effect of having the greatest player of all time as the face of ownership, instead of the face of the franchise. Jordan played a major role in the Stephenson signing (as did assistant coach Patrick Ewing) and you can hear it when Stephenson talks about what it meant to be in the presence of Jordan. That is a real thing, but it has to be used as a mixer, not a straight shot. It works, but only if the team and situation is equally enticing.
Success, sustained success, will go a long way to erasing the label of the worst owner ever. Just turning the corner with this team should do it actually. Perhaps being as bad as they were and missing out in the draft changed the thinking. Perhaps it was plan B. Perhaps all the criticism sped up the clock and pushed Jordan to making different moves. Perhaps, like so much in life, the timing just wasn't right until it was. Hopefully for Charlotte fans the time is now.