Charlotte Hornets fans know disappointment all too well. The most recent season saw a franchise, looking to build off a surprising playoff run, take a step back after poor offseason signings and rampant injuries derailed the momentum gained from the previous year. Most of it was tough to watch, but it's not the first time Charlotte fans were looking towards the playoffs, only to see their team stumble and regress.
The 2007-08 Charlotte Bobcats were also supposed to be a playoff team. Entering year four since their expansion into the league, the team had increased their win total each season, from 18, to 26, to 33 wins. 2007-2008 was supposed to represent another jump, but the team stumbled backwards, finishing with a record of 32-50. Despite a legitimate effort to get better, the Bobcats were undermined by poor management decisions, odd lineups, and injuries to key players and former lottery picks. As we'll see, the team set themselves up for disappointment early on.
The Hiring of Sam Vincent
2007-08's offseason started with arguably the worst move of the season -- the hiring of Sam Vincent. Previously, Vincent had been an assistant for the Dallas Mavericks, but there were concerns as to whether he had enough experience for the job. Take this snippet from Rick Bonnell, back in May of 2007:
Vincent has never coached an NBA game before. In fact, he’s not even the lead assistant on the Mavs’ bench. I’ll find it a little strange if they hire a guy who’s never coached an NBA team to run a franchise expecting to be in a playoff race next season.
Bonnell did point out that experience isn't everything, citing the likes of Pat Riley and Lawerence Frank as successful coaches who went straight into head coaching jobs with little previous experience. However, a more experienced coach made sense for a team looking to make the playoffs, but as Bonnell also pointed out, the connection between Michael Jordan and Vincent, along with former owner Bob Johnson's tendency to hire cheap, were strong indicators for why Vincent was ultimately hired. There's also this from Bonnell's article, which I think I speak for everyone when I say I hope this isn't the only reason Vincent was hired:
I know the Bobcats are intensely concerned with retaining the harmony and chemistry of the first three seasons. A friend who covers the Mavericks described Vincent as having "pizzazz.’’ That would definitely appeal to team management.
Knowing how Vincent's time with Charlotte ended, "pizzazz" is the last word I'd ever use to describe him. It didn't take long to realize Vincent's hiring significantly hurt the Bobcat's playoff chances.
Rod Higgins named General Manager
That same month, the Bobcats hired Rod Higgins as General Manager. It's safe to say Higgins wasn't a very good GM, and looking back at his first draft in charge, he only got it half right. The Bobcats had the 8th and 22nd picks in the 2007 NBA Draft, but as a team looking to make the playoffs, were looking to get better in the short-term. Golden State answered their call, and were willing to send Jason Richardson to Charlotte for the Bobcats pick, Brandan Wright, and Jemareo Davidson. Charlotte lacked a legitimate starting shooting guard and Richardson was meant to fill that role. While Wright has turned into a one of the best backup big men in the league, he took years to develop, and he wouldn't have made a positive impact his rookie season with Charlotte. This was the right call at the time considering the Bobcats got one of the better shooting guards of that era in return.
With the 22nd pick, Charlotte selected Jared Dudley. Now at first, Dudley seemed like the right pick. A four-year player, and ACC Player of the Year his senior year, Dudley has developed into a solid 3-and-D player in the NBA. His selection was solid...except the player taken 23rd was Wilson Chandler, one of the better 3-and-D small forwards in the league. Arron Afflalo, another perimeter player that is also better than Dudley, was taken 27th (to be fair though, Afflalo was not known for his offense coming out of college). Considering that Dudley would be dealt the following season, it's unlikely that Chandler would have stuck around in Charlotte long enough to develop into the player he is today. Still, it's fun to imagine an alternate universe where the Bobcats made mostly smart basketball decisions and Chandler was still a key part of the team.
Jason Richardson's Impact
Richardson was brought in to add scoring, and he did just that. J-Rich had the green light, attempting more shots that season than in any previous or future season in the league. He was particularly trigger-happy from the 3-point line, attempting 599 3-pointers that season, making 243, to finish the season shooting 40.6 percent. At the time, Richardson's 243 made 3-pointers were the fourth most made by any player for a single season in league history (he now ranks seventh thanks to some guy named Curry).
Richardson started and played all 82 games that season, averaging 21.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 44.1 percent from the field. He finished with an effective field goal percentage of 52.4 percent, and was particularly efficient in December, shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 47.2 percent from 3-point range. In the final two months of the season, Richardson took his scoring average to another level, averaging 25.1 points per game in March and, 26.8 points per game in April. For comparison, Al Jefferson's best month in 2013-2014 was 24.7 points per game in March. Richardson finished with a team high Win Shares value of 7.4 (next highest was Emeka Okafor at 5.8).
What went wrong?
The Bobcats had three glaring weaknesses entering 2007-08, the lack of a legitimate starting shooting guard, starting power forward, and backup point guard. They addressed the shooting guard position with Richardson, but failed to do so with at power forward or at backup point guard. Their starting lineup on opening night was Raymond Felton, Richardson, Gerald Wallace, Okafor, and Primoz Brezec.
With Okafor and Brezec, the Bobcats were essentially starting two centers in the front court. Given that small ball wasn't as popular back in 2007 as it is today, this front court could have worked if not for the fact that Brezec was clearly not fit to be a starting center in the NBA anymore, and hadn't been for over a year. He only averaged five points and 3.2 rebounds a game the previous season while playing in just 58 games due to injury. Yet he somehow still started 40.
Brezec should have been replaced in the offseason, but wasn't, and worse still, the Bobcats had no alternative on the roster to replace him with. Jermareo Davidson was traded along with Richardson, but only featured in 38 games. Ryan Hollins was young enough that teams still believed he had potential, but only averaged 2.5 points and 1.8 rebounds per game. Bobcats cult-hero Walter Hermann proved ineffective as well, averaging only four points and 2.1 rebounds per game.
In their opening regular win against the Milwaukee Bucks, Felton and Wallace logged 40 plus minutes, while Okafor and Richardson logged 37 and 36 minutes respectively. Brezec only managed 20, and guess who played more minutes off the bench?
Enter Jeff McInnis.
McInnis is one of the most notorious Bobcats players in franchise history. He played in Charlotte the final two seasons of his career, when, at ages 32 and 33, he was a shell of the former NBA player who, to be quite honest, was never very good even in his prime. Nonetheless, McInnis was the backup point guard for the Bobcats in '07-'08, and averaged only 4.5 points per game in 26 minutes a game. He somehow started 26 games for the team before he was waived in February 2008. Earl Boykins, who had been signed the previous month, became the backup point guard, but he wouldn't improve their backcourt. (Ed Note: How dare you, Boykins was a saint.)
With the lack of a true starting power forward, and back up point guard, the roster construction was unbalanced from the start. The team attempted to right the front court issues by trading Brezec and Hermann for Nazr Mohammed in December, but the team was 8-13 at that point, and was still recovering from a seven game losing streak. Mohammed averaged a solid 9.3 points and 6.9 points per game in 61 games (in just 23 minutes per game!), but strangely only started 29 games (why start Okafor and Brezec but not Okafor and Mohammed?).
This leads back to Vincent, who struggled with team management, lineups, and minute allocation. The most used five-man lineup consisted of Felton, McInnis, Richardson, Wallace, and Okafor, who played 494 minutes together, 251 more than the next most used lineup, which was the same lineup only with Matt Carroll instead of McInnis. Vincent clearly preferred playing Wallace as the four man, which sounds great in today's NBA, but in 2007, meant Wallace was being posted up by a number of forwards that were taller and outweighed him. Wallace finished second in the team in rebounds per game, but at what cost? In February, he suffered a concussion taking an elbow to the face, which caused him to miss significant time. The team was 19 games under .500 at that point, but it didn't do him any favors that season or the rest of his career.
Eleven different players started for the Bobcats in '07-'08, including 14 by rookie Dudley, and two by Davidson, who spent most of that season in the D-League. Vincent had trouble finding lineups that worked, which wasn't ideal for a team expecting to make the playoffs. By the end of the season, Vincent had clashed with the roster more than once, which made his exit all the more likely. Still, he later managed to call the 32 win season "good."
The absence of Morrison and May
Largely forgotten about this season were the injuries to Adam Morrison and Sean May. Both players missed the entire season, which was costly for their development and left the roster thin. Fans are quick to call both players busts, and they were, but how would their careers have differed if they hadn't missed all of 2007-08?
The previous season, Morrison and May averaged 11.8 and 11.9 points per game respectively. In 2006-07, Morrison featured in 78 games, starting 23, and logged almost 30 minutes a night. His shooting percentages were poor -- 37.6 percent from the field and 33.7 percent from 3 -- but he also attempted 12 shots a game, 3rd most on the team. A healthy Morrison in '07-'08 would have had less pressure to score with Richardson leading the team. When Wallace was out with a concussion, Morrison could have filled in as the starter, as opposed to starting McInnis as the shooting guard and moving Richardson to the small forward position. It wouldn't have been perfect, but Morrison's scoring, even if it stayed at almost 12 points a game, would have been welcomed for a team that finished 19th in points per game.
May could have been their answer as the starting power forward. He only played in 35 games the previous season, but shot 50 percent from the field, averaging 9.4 attempts per game. He also logged 6.7 rebounds a night playing almost 24 minutes. It's easy to write off May due to his poor diet and rehab process, but staying healthy would have kept some of the weight off, and allowed him to continue his development.
Worst of all, Morrison and May were lottery picks meant to be eventual starters for the team. Both could have had a positive impact, but when they finally returned the following season Morrison's confidence was shot and May was out of shape. It's not absurd to say both had NBA ability, but were undermined by major injuries along with their own personal hindrances.
After finishing with only 32 wins, the Bobcats tried to mend things by firing Vincent and hiring the experienced Larry Brown. Brown quickly dismantled the roster, trading Richardson (who was averaging 18.4 points a game at the time) to Phoenix for Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, and Sean Singletary. Bell and Diaw were important parts of the 2009-10 playoff team, but it's disappointing Richardson didn't get a longer run with the team. Wallace and him enjoyed playing with each other and made for a dynamic two player attack. Brown would assemble a playoff roster, but it wasn't sustainable, and forced the complete destruction of the roster after he was fired. It's possible the Bobcats could have created a more sustainable playoff roster with Richardson as the primary scorer, while adding talent and depth to the front court and backup guard positions.
2007-08 ultimately exposed a lot of flaws within the organization. It was the first time the team had regressed, largely due to the decisions made by the front office and coaching staff. To call that roster a playoff team was pre-mature, and the ensuing decisions showed the franchise lacked the experience necessary to right their mistakes and build a sustainable playoff roster. It was a turning point for the Bobcats, and they would find themselves in a hole that would only grow deeper.