During Saturday's game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Comcast Sports Net showed multiple shots of Charlotte Bobcats managing member of basketball operations Michael Jordan looking distraught as his team failed to convert on chances to take down a road-weary Blazers team playing its fourth game in five nights. Given everything we know about Jordan as a competitor, is it any surprise that the Bobcats made a trade 36 hours later?
In Charlotte's 3-6 start, one thing became painfully obvious: the Bobcats could not score. Entering Monday, their Offensive Rating of 93.3 points per 100 possessions ranked them last in the NBA, slightly worse than what SCHOENE projected in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 (29th). As we've noted in the past, scoring tends to increase considerably over the course of the season. Still, that doesn't excuse this. The combination of the inefficient offense and the league's slowest pace had the Bobcats scoring just 82.4 points per game. Since the introduction of the 24-second shot clock in 1954-55, only one NBA team has been more impotent--the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls, who averaged 81.9 points after the lockout.
Clearly, something had to be done. Was the answer Monday's trade, which sent saw Charlotte add Stephen Jackson and Acie Law from the Golden State Warriors in exchange for Raja Bell and Vladimir Radmanovic? Possibly in the short term, but in years to come the deal could be costly for the Bobcats.
Adding Jackson addresses Charlotte's biggest need, which is a lack of go-to guys on offense. The Bobcats had been incredibly democratic with their possessions. Only guard Raymond Felton (24.3 percent) and reserve Flip Murray (27.4 percent) used more than 22 percent of Charlotte's possessions while on the floor over the first nine games. Two more players, swingman Stephen Graham and center Tyson Chandler, have been mostly bystanders on offense. Everyone else had used between 17 and 22 percent of the team's possessions.
As idyllic is the notion of a basketball team that shares the ball completely equally, in practice NBA teams who distribute possessions evenly usually do so because they don't have anyone good enough to take on a leading role. Those squads generally tend to struggle to put the ball in the basket. (Yes, the 2009-10 Houston Rockets are a fairly balanced offensive team that has had success, but even they have six players using at least 22 percent of their possessions. It's just that the pecking order among those six players is somewhat less clear.)
To that mix, Charlotte adds Jackson. While he emerged as a point forward for the Warriors a year ago, Jackson has never been shy about calling his own number. He was using 24.7 percent of Golden State's possessions this season, and has been as high as 27.7 percent of his team's offense during his career. The tradeoff with Jackson has always been his lack of efficiency with those possessions, but while that is a problem when Jackson is playing with talented offensive teammates as he was much of his stay in the Bay Area, it's not a major concern for the Bobcats. As a Warrior, Jackson settled in at a True Shooting Percentage between 53 percent and 54 percent (he's at 49.9 percent this season, but that largely owes to drops in three-point and free throw shooting that seem unlikely to continue). By contrast, Charlotte's True Shooting Percentage as a team over the first nine games was 47.0 percent.
Jackson especially looks good on offense in comparison to Bell, who is strictly a spot-up shooter at this stage of his career. More than 40 percent of Bell's shot attempts this season came from beyond the arc, and according to 82games.com Bell had been assisted on 79 percent of his field goals. Jackson offers the ability to create off the dribble, complementing point guards D.J. Augustin and Felton, who had been responsible for producing much of the Bobcats' offense this season.
There's also a secondary effect on the rotation that could help the Charlotte attack. With Jackson playing at small forward to fill the minutes that were going to Radmanovic, the Bobcats will likely be able to find more time for Murray. He responded Monday by scoring a game-high 31 points on 13-of-21 shooting.
Of course, there's an upper bound to the impact of these improvements. While Charlotte will surely not be historically inept at scoring the remainder of the season, this will never be confused with a quality offensive team. Losing Bell may also hurt a defense that has been the NBA's sixth-best in the early going. At this point, a .500 finish seems optimistic. The Bobcats have a chance to make the postseason for the first time in franchise history, but will be hard-pressed to go beyond that.
In that context, the trade's toll begins to become evident. The most obvious aspect is the financial impact of taking on Jackson's contract. The disastrous three-year extension the Warriors gave him a year ago will take effect next season, paying Jackson $28 million over that span. Charlotte added more than $1.5 million to its payroll next year, the last of Radmanovic's contract, and $9.3 million and $10.1 million the following two seasons. From a team that has been actively shedding future salary, most notably in the Chandler-Emeka Okafor trade, the sudden change of heart is stunning. Now, the Bobcats will have a tough time clearing cap space by the summer of 2011.
Equally important is the fact that the money is committed to an aging player. Jackson is 31 now and will turn 35 by the end of his extension. He also will see minutes at the same position as the Bobcats' first-round pick, Gerald Henderson. Bell could have served as a bridge to Henderson taking over the position, but Jackson will block him unless he eventually moves full-time to small forward, now manned by Gerald Wallace.
The long-term cost seems way too high for a Charlotte team that seems to be aspiring to lose in the first round of the playoffs with little hope of improving from there. I'm not convinced the Bobcats need to start from scratch and rebuild, but making a playoff run with youth leading the way is very different than doing it with players like Jackson. I felt this was best summed up by Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti during his first year on the job, explaining why he led a rebuilding process. Presti said he didn't want the team's championship to be making the playoffs.
If the Bobcats start planning a parade for next April, you'll know something is very wrong.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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