"Mike knows how much is at... steak this season!"
Forget that patented twinkle in the eyes that he trots out for his new Presbyterian Hospital/Novant Health ads. The Endorsements King is far too used to his throne to allow his crown to slip quite that publicly. Please forgive the egregious pun in the photo caption. (After all, it is the first thing you read when you see the newest article is up, right?) But this is arguably the most important season in this young team's history and it is essential that everything go a very particular way. How essential? Well, let me put it this way... if things go wrong this season it could set back Jordan's goals for the team by a half-decade or more. Do you think I'm kidding? You might feel differently after we look at the details.
Let's get one thing at the front of our minds from the very start. Michael Jordan has one goal in mind when it comes to the Bobcats. It's something he's wanted for a long, long time. So long in fact, that a fair number of the team's players weren't even born when it first reached the tipping point and became an obsession in his mind. Michael Jordan wants an NBA Championship Ring. What's that? He already had a whole handful of them? They don't count. Why? Because they have the name of the wrong team on them. They belong to some team he played for. That means someone else called the shots, made the deals, assembled the staff, and created the very vision of excellence that the ring truly stands for. He wants an owners ring.
When an athlete reaches the pro level in a chosen sport it is the result of a singular dedication and commitment to excellence. Without it the endless thousands of hours spent playing and practicing wouldn't be possible. So doesn't it stand to reason that the player that most consider the absolute best in NBA history would also be in possession of the largest measure of that dedication as well? To crib from one of the great-unexplained items of pop culture history, Jordan's midichlorians are off the scale. He scaled heights most only dream of in the NBA, but it wasn't enough. Why? Because Bo knows, that's why.
Bo knows football AND Bo knows baseball. Bo knows how to excel in two major arenas, but "Jo" knows only one. If you think I'm kidding, look at the history. Does the phrase "White Sox washout" bring back any memories? How many curveballs do you think haunt MJ's dreams to this very day? Michael Jordan is driven harder than any dozen of his signature Titleists. The only thing that will lay his demons to rest – whether they are as I just postulated or from some other combination of causes – is reaching the top of a second tier of sporting excellence. In this case, age and circumstance have combined to make that second pinnacle the top of his mountain of the business range.
Which brings us to the inhabitants of that mountain - a certain breed of feline. What mode of madness makes me say that winning could wipe the smile off of the boss's face? Well, you Psych majors won't find it in your latest DSM. It's just that there are a finite number of ways to get to the NBA Finals. You can use the method pioneered by Red Auerbach and simply spend money like water on the absolute best players money can buy. It's worked for any number of owners. But let's keep in mind that MJ has said he's not going to go that route unless the team comes up on the trade deadline with a virtual lock on a deep run into the post season. In fact, let's keep that in mind for a while.
So let's assume that for whatever reason (small marketplace with limited profit potential, etc.) His Airness is unwilling to open the vault for now. This makes the "Road to the Ring" (hey, if Fox & all the others can use fancy buzz phrases, so can we!) a lot trickier. It means building through strong draft picks and filling in strategic holes with veterans that are both underpaid AND undervalued. This is the route that Jordan has chosen and it's a wise one. Teams that build toward excellence using this method tend to avoid becoming one hit wonders. If they don't win the first time they make a serious run, usually they remain contenders for several seasons. Even if they don't win the big prize, they are bankrolling the high attendance, bonus money, and license product sales for the next rebuild. Rick Cho is the hottest player at the "build from scratch" table at present and it's no accident that his office is next to "Big Mike's."
But there is always that one season where things get dicey. If management does the job too slowly, the team begins losing young studs to free agency as rookie contracts expire and the squad becomes, in essence, nothing more than a training ground for the teams with deep wallets. Bring the team along too quickly however, and it means getting stuck in the quicksand of mid-level playoff seeding. This may well be the problem the Bobcats face this season. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is becoming much more of an offensive beast than anticipated this early in his career. Everyone had him pegged as a defensive monster with limited offense that would take at least a couple of seasons to peak. Byron Mullen has stepped out of the shadows since coming to Charlotte and emerged as one fearless baller. Conventional wisdom had it that Kemba Walker had a higher ceiling than DJ Augustin, but his performance thus far has been nothing short of inspired. Yes, it's still early in the season, but the Bobcats are already playing and sometimes above the level of most conference 6th seeds. That could well be disastrous.
If the Cats fail to break out of the lottery this season they'll hit the playoffs a season early. We'll lose any chance at building through the draft and it's unlikely that we'll be good enough to make a serious playoff run unless MJ unlocks the vault. See why I told you to keep that promise in mind now? Any of the hard-core fans already know this, but another quick playoff exit will all but guarantee that by the time the team is able to contend through high draft picks again our current crop of youth will be fielding offers and we'll be writing rosterbation articles about the Lakers, Heat, and other teams around the league that aren't shy about waving the dead president flash cards around.
So by all means, let's cheer for our Bobcats. But let's do it wisely. The team is on a carefully chosen path to the NBA Finals and the less Mr. Jordan and Mr. Cho have to adjust that path the more we'll see MJ smiling at courtside. Any long time fan of this game knows that when His Airness is smiling it means something very worthy is about to happen!