Charlotte and the Wheel of Mediocrity

So the Bobcats signed Al Jefferson, and they are paying him way, way too much money. He will make over $40 million on his next contract over the course of three years, and he will hurt the defense every minute he is on the court. Throughout the entire course of his career – 9 seasons – there have only been two in which his team played defense better with him on the floor, and both times it was only by a narrow margin. For his career his teams have been nearly four points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor defensively, and this may even undersell his lack of impact a bit; in most years this number has been in double digits.

Even on offense, where Jefferson excels individually, his teams are usually only slightly better with him on the floor than off it. His impact on this end is undeniable, but he almost always gives it back and more on defense.

Why then did Charlotte feel the need to shell out for an inefficient big entering his 10th season? Is this just another case of the Bobcats making a poor decision and continuing to cripple their franchise?

Not really.

The popular theory is that while some teams can get lucky (or utilize their superior market) and acquire big talent through free agency or a trade, most teams will eventually need to bottom out to get a high draft pick in order to rebuild. Without bottoming out, teams risk landing on the “wheel of mediocrity” wherein they are too good to land a high draft pick but not good enough to contend.

This strategy works great if your team happens to land top picks and drafts well. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the poster children for this strategy after picking up Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden in the top 5 of consecutive drafts. The Bulls managed to land the #1 overall pick (and Derrick Rose) despite having less than a 2% chance of winning the lottery.

Meanwhile, Charlotte has seen the bottom, and through a combination of bad luck and weak drafts, have not managed to land an elite talent in recent drafts. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, taken with the 2nd pick in the 2012 draft, is the best prospect to come through in years, and he may never be more than a third option. The Bobcats notably passed on Brook Lopez in 2008 to select D.J. Augustin, who is no longer with the team.

This lack of talent acquired through the draft left the organization with few options. Charlotte isn’t the sort of destination that can draw in free agents on its own, and with no talent on hand there were limited trade possibilities. Gerald Henderson could only net so much in return. So the option existed to languish in the cellar for a few more years and hope that the lottery trips eventually returned someone who could carry the franchise, or look for another way out. The team has been too bad and unlucky to even be mediocre.

With top tier free agents unavailable and the draft yielding middling results, throwing too much money at a flawed player was the best option on the table. There is still no risk of making the playoffs (thus ensuring another lottery pick) and now the franchise can begin to pull themselves out of the cellar by accumulating talent that the rest of the league might actually want.

It’s worth asking, if the Bobcats were set on spending big to get a mid-tier free agent, why they wouldn’t land Josh Smith. The answer may be as simple as him preferring Detroit, but it would have been nice for Charlotte to have a young defensive talent instead of an older turnstile. This is really just picking nits, and somewhat misses the point – sometimes a team has to pick up whoever they can just to start the process of acquiring more talent.

The most prominent recent example of this strategy is the Golden State Warriors, who overpaid David Lee in the summer of 2010. They had to begin the process of acquiring real talent at some point, and that was it. Since then they have traded away the also-overpaid Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut, who, if he can stay healthy, will anchor the defense. While the team started to turn around on the floor, they were still getting lottery picks like Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. The development of Stephen Curry has been a huge help, but the Warriors would be in good shape either way, and it all started with acquiring Lee.

The Bobcats hope they are able to see similar results, with Jefferson providing enough talent in the middle to begin working in young players like Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller without requiring them to do too much too soon. All the while they will still be picking in the lottery, and have two protected first rounders from mediocre teams due to them in 2014.