Michael Jordan and the Bobcats: Losing Winners
This isn’t exactly an earth-shattering revelation, but Michael Jeffrey Jordan likes to win.
As a matter of fact, he likes winning more than anything else in the world. He likes winning perhaps more than anyone else in the world. These are known facts; facts known from a past where Jordan saw himself ascend over the basketball world as the greatest to ever step on a court. Where he became a six-time NBA champion, an NCAA champion, won a couple of Olympic gold medals and added more hardware of accolades to his shelf than most other athletes on the planet. He had a legendary drive to win that made him the harshest competitor the world has ever seen. Whether it was on the basketball court, the golf course, or the cards table, Jordan wouldn’t be defeated. He wouldn’t be left unsatisfied. Even in his failed experiments – the baseball ‘career’ or the return with the Wizards – he competed hard in a field where most of his peers were or had become more gifted than him.
The tougher that one strives for victory, the harder they feel when they have to taste defeat. Michael Jordan’s previous career of victorious highs is now but a blur, a memory, a legend amongst those who worship him not as a man, but as a myth. The man himself is a 49-year-old majority owner and chairman of the Charlotte Bobcats. The man who was once a mythical winner had spent the last several years tasting bitter defeat.
Now in the ninth year of their existence, the Bobcats have served most of their time as the punch-line of the NBA, as a terrible team with no excitement, no hope, and worst of all, no wins. They made the playoffs once – back in 2010 – and were swept in the first round. Every year since their inception, they have finished at second-last or last place in their division. A year ago, the franchise run by basketball’s greatest winner finished with the worst regular season win percentage in NBA history. The Bobcats won just seven of the 66 games. This was beyond embarrassment; this was historical notoriety.
After making an improvement this season (it would’ve been hard not to improve on 7-59, wouldn’t it?), the Bobcats find themselves ending most game-nights with the familiar ‘L’ next to their team name again. After a 7-5 start, the team has lost 11 straight contests. Rest assured, it looks like another season outside the playoff picture.
The Bobcats find themselves amongst other bottom-dwellers in the league – the Raptors, The Pistons, the Cavaliers, the Wizards, the Hornets, and the Kings. But should they be better? The habit of losing is a contagious virus, some teams and individuals find it tough to ever shake it off. But Jordan’s Bobcats have been constructed with individuals who come from championship backgrounds. They have been brought together from winning fraternities to win at the professional level. So why isn’t it working?
There’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the second-pick of this year’s draft, who won an NCAA championship with Kentucky this year, and perhaps reminds Jordan of his old running mate Scottie Pippen. There’s Kemba Walker, who was last year’s NCAA champion with Connecticut and the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. There’s Ben Gordon, who won the NCAA Championship with the same school – Connecticut – seven years prior to Walker’s achievement. There’s Hakim Warrick, who was an NCAA champion with Syracuse back in 2003. There’s Gerald Henderson, who played in one of the strongest college programmes with Duke, and there’s Brendan Haywood, a graduate of Jordan’s own alma mater (North Carolina) and an NBA champion in 2011 with the Dallas Mavericks.
In the majority of the cases, the Bobcats have drafted, signed, or traded for players who have been winners, rather than players who have been more talented. Unlike conventional wisdom across the league, this may have been a risk taken by the team’s ownership, no doubt led by the greatest winner at the helm, Michael Jordan.
But star performances don’t always translate from the college level to the pros, and the Bobcats may be a team that serves as a stark example of why it isn’t just important to pick a conglomerate of past winners but to build winning systems with the talent available. Great college programmes are built carefully around a system, a system that is almost always greater than the sum of its parts. Rarely is a player more important than the coach. Some of the most important college players in recent years – for example, like Jimmer Fredette, Tyler Hansbrough, or J.J. Redick – have been disappointing as pros in the NBA.
The NBA is a far different animal. It’s a league run by star power where the world’s strongest individual talent can be the system by itself. The Heat play a certain way because that is the way best suited to LeBron. The Thunder play their style of basketball because it’s the way Westbrook and Durant can thrive to their fullest offensive potential. And so on and so forth. The same rules as college don’t apply. There indeed are some NBA teams – like the Spurs, for example – who have shown that their teamplay is beyond the contribution of any individual. But even for them, finding the pieces that fit their winning system came from a mix of strong scouting for individual talent and a winning mentality.
Jordan and the Bobcats had the right idea of course; an idea to bring in players who knew how it felt to be champions, and then get them to translate that championship formula on a different platform. But so far, that vision hasn’t exactly come to fruition. The good news is that the future is looking much brighter than the past for the young ‘Cats. Walker has taken massive strides to improvement in his sophomore season and is evolving into a dangerous player. BJ Mullens is a decent big man in a league short on talented 7-footers. And Kidd-Gilchrist is a one-of-a-kind all-around talent, a player with multiple talents with the ability to develop into a dominating force on both ends of the court.
But silver linings aside, the Bobcats franchise is currently mostly a dark cloud. And for the team’s owner – the man who has spent most of his life addicted to winning at every level – finding himself on the losing end on most nights must be especially bitter. He was a miraculous athlete in his prime, but right now, Michael Jordan’s team is in a need of a miracle.
Now if only Michael Jordan could draft Michael Jordan…