Ten seasons ago, Michael Jordan assumed control of the Charlotte Bobcats' basketball operations. Things were looking up. After all, Jordan was a six-time NBA champion, arguably the greatest player in basketball history, a hyper-competitive person who never, ever settled for second place. Surely, his fanatical drive and deep knowledge of the sport would turn the Bobcats—a franchise that began playing in 2004—into a perennial contender.
As we now know, not so much. A decade into the Jordan era, Charlotte has just two winning seasons and two playoff appearances. They have one new name (the Hornets) and zero postseason wins—one fewer playoff win than Jordan had by himself after his rookie season. Jordan might be a basketball assassin; his team has been anything but.
This season, though, things are different. The Hornets are surprisingly competitive, so much so that they're experiencing their best statistical season ever. How? In 2009-10, Charlotte outscored opponents by 1.5 points per game, a franchise record. Thirty games into the current NBA campaign, the Hornets are blowing that mark out of the water, outscoring opponents by 3.1 points per game.
Granted, that number isn't great. No one will mistake the Hornets for the Golden State Warriors. And yes, Charlotte's current 17-14 record wouldn't even qualify them for the Eastern Conference playoffs if the regular season ended today.
Still, the Hornets clearly are improved, a tougher out on a nightly basis. A third postseason trip is hardly out of the question. This raises the question: Just how did Jordan build a better team?
To answer, let's start with something Rich Cho reportedly asked Charlotte's brain trust before becoming the team's general manager in 2011:
"Are you willing to take a step back to take two steps forward?"
In essence, Cho was asking Jordan if he would be willing to tank, the better to land higher draft picks. This team-building strategy is advocated by many inside and outside the NBA, and not just the Philadelphia 76ers. The logic is simple: the NBA Draft rewards losing, so if you want to win in the long run, lose a whole bunch of games in the here and now so you can grab productive players at the top of the draft.
Under Cho, Charlotte completely nailed the losing part. In 2010-11, the season before Cho was in charge, the Hornets won 34 games—pretty lousy, but mediocre enough to only land the No. 9 pick in the draft (and, theoretically, the ninth-best player in the draft). The next season—Cho's first—Charlotte was abysmal. The Hornets finished a lockout-shortened season with just seven victories; their 0.106 winning percentage was the worst in NBA history. Mission accomplished.
The reward for this awfulness was the No. 2 pick in the draft, which turned out to be Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The next season, Charlotte won just 21 games; their reward was the No. 4 pick, which the team used to select Cody Zeller.
Kidd-Gilchrist was merely average his rookie season, but last season, he produced a solid 6.5 wins. Unfortunately, he hasn't been healthy, missing 20 games in 2013-14; 27 games last year; and all of the current season with injuries. Meanwhile, Zeller hasn't been very good, producing a below average number of wins for his career.
So Cho's plan didn't quite yield its promised benefits. And yet the Hornets are enjoying a historically successful year, at least by their historically inept standards. What changed? Only this: Charlotte has abandoned the "step back" path, and instead pursued the completely novel and not-at-all obvious strategy of filling out its roster with—gasp!—productive NBA players.
Of the Hornets' 17 current wins, 14 can be traced to the play of Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, and Jeremy Lamb. Walker was drafted before the Cho plan went into effect. After generally producing at a below-average level in his first four seasons, Walker has become an effective player in 2015-16 because, for the first time in his career, he is finally hitting his shots from the field at an above average rate. Funny how that works. Williams, a 2014 free agent signee, has been about average for most of his career; this season, however, he has been above average with respect to shooting efficiency, rebounds, and blocked shots. His win production has followed suit.
Both Lamb and Batum were acquired via trade this past summer. Lamb only cost Charlotte Luke Ridnour—who is no longer in the league—and a second-round pick in 2016. Like Williams, Lamb is above average this season with respect to shooting efficiency, rebounds, and the production of wins. Batum cost a bit more, as the Hornets gave up Gerald Henderson (the No. 12 pick in 2009) and Noah Vonleh (the No. 12 pick in 2014).
Henderson played six seasons for Charlotte and was never an above average player. Vonleh has intriguing physical talent, but only played 259 minutes for the Hornets. Together, they were used to acquire a player, Batum, who has consistently been above average with respect to shooting efficiency and rebounds. More recently, Batum has become an above average passer, too.
To improve, Charlotte abandoned the silly idea that being good at losing is ultimately a way to win. Instead, Jordan's franchise used every tool at its disposal—the draft, trades, free agency—to add four productive players, the kind who are able to get their shots to go in the basket at an above average rate, which in basketball is kind of the point.
Look, professional basketball in North Carolina has a checkered history. While the state's college teams are known for winning, the Bobcats-cum-Hornets have been a bust, and the old Charlotte Hornets (now the New Orleans Pelicans) had their best season in 1994-95, when they outscored opponents by 3.3 points per game. (The 1972-73 Carolina Cougars are unquestionably the best pro team in state history, posting a 4.9 points per game differential under rookie head coach Larry Brown in the old American Basketball Association.) But things are finally turning around, a least a little bit, and it's all because the new Hornets have realized that the best way to be competitive is to try to be competitive. Given Jordan's history and temperament, it's a wonder this has taken so long.