Alec Lepage is a 30-something sports writer and blogger in Denver who got his start covering high school football. He has contributed to multiple sports blogs, and covers the NFL and NBA for Dish.
At a glance, the Bobcat’s roster looks like something out of a sports movie. It’s ragtag. It’s like something out of The Replacements. You could even argue it is the replacements. There’s a guy from the Congo with arms so long they can’t find a suit for him. There are players with birth dates in the 70s and in the 90s. There’s a Swede; guys who went undrafted; a jamaican with a British accent. There are nearly two lineups full of players from powerhouse programs (UConn, UNC, Duke, Kentucky…), as well as international, straight from high school and 2nd rounders filling the roster. Nothing about it really makes sense.
Yes, there isn’t much traditional about it. This isn’t a newsflash or anything. Jordan has taken plenty flack for the team(s) he’s put together — or not put together (however you want to look at it). He’s been accused of pandering to local North Carolinians with picks from local college teams that don’t make sense, or for picking “winners” as though he sees himself in them, regardless of position or roster needs. (And although Kemba Walker is no doubt a “winner” — it’s safe to say from his (editor’s note – alleged? – please don’t sue me) gambling hijinks, Jordan’s never been one to pick winners).
This criticism is warranted; it won’t be rehashed here. The results have been up and down — in the sense that even the worst stock in Nasdaq occasionally goes up and down. Just over a year ago the ‘Cats racked up the lowest win% in league history.
The bottom line is that the national media continues to demand some measure of traditional basketball play from the lineup (to Jordan’s credit according to traditionalists, Al Jefferson’s signing was a positive step). The lesson from a Public Relations point-of-view for any GM is obvious: if you’re going to do things different, or unconventional, you better win — it’s OK to be bad as long as you’re doing things the way we all expect.
Jordan has done things different.
Of course, there have been intriguing bursts of success in MJ’s tenure. Let’s not forget the playoff bout behind Raymond Felton’s lead in 2010. Let’s not forget the aforementioned Al Jefferson signing, or the still apparent good call on Kemba’s drafting. And most importantly, let’s not forget that the ‘Cats are currently sitting at 6th in the Eastern Conference, and should have their sights set on a 6th to 8th place finish (editor’s note – currently in 6th, but only 2.5 games up on 13th. Depending on your perspective on goals for this season, those extremes represent desired outcomes).
Yes. Playoffs. And yes, there is still nothing traditional about the Bobcats roster, or starting lineup, or rotations, or general play. But this seems to be the trend in the league, which is moving faster and faster away from the classic 80s set up with lumbering centers and six-foot, pass-first point guards.
Just look at the two-time defending champs, who run their offense through a 6’8 small forward, and who often guard opposing centers with that same player. Or just look at the Thunder’s rapid rise to fame, on the backs of a 6’10 shooting guard (Durant) and 6’3 shooting guard (Westbrook) who plays point guard for some reason. Heck, the Spurs started three small forwards and a shoot-first point guard in Game 7 of the NBA Finals just six months ago.
We all know what traditional scouts and old-timer writers want to see: conventional 1 through 5 positions and generally well-rounded players. And it’s no secret every college basketball fan in the country thinks players are drafted based on how good they are at all different aspects of the game. But the trend in the league is quite obviously the opposite. Like the NFL (but with the opposite effect), the NBA has become so phenomenally athletic that successful teams have to find guys who can fill specific roles, not positions.
The most clear proof of this is all-american college players who come into the league with fantastic skills, but no elite skill to set them apart (these are the Adam Morrison’s of the NBA).
Long story short, instead of looking for a prototypical power forward, teams might just look for guys who can block and rebound. Instead of looking for traditional small forwards, GMs want a wing who can score, and a wing who can guard plus shoot three-pointers. And coaches just want a point guard who can direct the offense, even if he’s too tall (or short) to guard anyone on the other end.
It’s weird to think of basketball players in terms of fill roles, not positions, but that’s where we’re headed. There’s nothing wrong with being well-rounded (LeBron, Chris Paul, Kobe), but that’s reserved for the cream of the crop these days. In this new age of basketball, guys who can do literally only one thing are phenomenally valuable as long as they can do it well. Just look at Steve Novak, Chris Birdman Andersen, and John Henson.
With that said, here are a few examples of some of those principles at work in Charlotte:
Kemba Walker — It all starts here. Walker isn’t a pure point guard, and has never been sold as one. He’s a combo guard, a bit undersized, and is going to find it hard to ever be a factor on the defensive end of the court. But it doesn’t matter. He’s a playmaker. Period. And Walker also has that unspoken alpha dog mentality when it comes to scoring — every team needs that even if they’re not six feet tall.
Bismack Biyombo — Jordan was denigrated mercilessly for this pick, but it’s looking more and more like Bismack will be a solid rotational player. And remember, MJ was killed for picking someone with a very limited skill set, but that’s the whole point in today’s new NBA. Bismack doesn’t need to fill a total position, just a role: block shots, rebound, make people fear the rim. He’s proven to be able to do all of those things, even if he never learns to shoot. Did Tyson Chandler ever learn to shoot? No, and neither did his Defensive POY Award.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — The Bobcats management no doubt want to see MKG turn into the wing-defender/stretch-shooter role that is everywhere on good teams these days (Battier, Sefolosha, Leonard, Green). And while the shooting may never come, seemingly leaving him without an old-school position, a player with the athleticism and motor of MKG is ultra-valuable in today’s league. In the 1980s, he would have been passed on for his broken jump shot. Today? You have to have guys like this who can guard 1 through 3 on the court, can get rebounds, and can score with tenacity where talent lacks.
Ben Gordon — Well past his prime, Gordon remains the same combo-ish guard he’s always been. There’s not a single pure point guard on the ‘Cats roster, but until Chris Paul makes it past the second round of the playoffs, there doesn’t seem to be much proof anymore that you need one.
Ramon Sessions — Same as Gordon and Walker. Sessions has never been billed as a pure point guard, and never will be. But the least of the Bobcats worries right now is their point guard play.
Of course that isn’t an exhaustive look at the unconventional means at play in the Queen City right now, perhaps we’ll touch on the rest of the roster and gameplay in the next column. But the point is obvious: Jordan hasn’t perfected the formula yet, but at least he’s progressive enough to see what’s coming in the league. He isn’t sitting on his hands. There might be nothing conventional about the Bobcats right now, but there isn’t much conventional about any good team in the league other than San Antonio.
So it isn’t working right now. That’s fine. But things are looking up in Charlotte, and doing things the old way, just because it’s the way it’s always been done, has never been a good plan for anything. Let’s wait for MJ to finish playing this hand.