Michael Jordan’s status amongst the highest pantheon of NBA players in basketball’s history is safe. That there are children who were born decades after Jordan’s playing career casually sporting his name on their backs on a daily basis is a measuring stick of his legend. That the documentary on the Bulls’ final championship run produced abnormally excellent numbers for ESPN during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic tells you much of what you need to know. The in-depth review of that glorious season was a nostalgia trip for people who were alive to witness it in real time; it was a required history lesson for basketball appreciators who weren’t around to see it live. Jordan can sleep knowing that his legacy as a player is firmly locked up in the fictional bank of pride. But, his management and ownership career is treading in dangerous seas.
Jordan’s Hornets have won just three playoff games since he first acquired an ownership take in the franchise back in 2006–that is three playoff victories in fourteen seasons. It is always difficult for small-market franchises to attract top-level free agents in the NBA, but that does not mean it cannot be done or that it does not happen. The Golden State Warriors, who have won three championships since 2015, were able to lure Kevin Durant away from the Oklahoma City Thunder. The level of difficulty in securing behemoth free agents is much more significant for small-market teams–that much is true. The key to doing so is proving the championship viability of the pieces that are already there. Large-market teams, such as the Lakers, do not have to do that. They can lose 52 games one season and still introduce a top-tier player that summer. While small-market teams are, perhaps, less desirable than the booming markets that other teams can offer, the weapon that equalizes the game is laying out pre-existent pillars of winning. For the Warriors, that was Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant. For Jordan’s Hornets, the issue has seemingly become management’s intolerance towards committing to losing in the short-term. There are three decisions over the past five years that communicate that, and prove the franchise’s complete lack of direction.
The Hornets signed forward Nicolas Batum to a five-year deal worth $120 million in the summer of 2016. Batum was coming off of a four-year contract paying him $46 million–$11.5 million per year. Over the life of Batum’s prior deal, he averaged under 13 points, just over 6 rebounds, and over 5 assists. The French forward, who had cultivated a reputation as a defensive-minded player, averaged just over 1 steal and under 1 block per game during that contract. Batum was a fine role player suited as a complimentary piece on a good team, maybe a fifth starter or second-unit piece on a contender. Jordan’s Hornets gave him a contract in the neighborhood of what James Harden, Bradley Beal, and Andre Drummond, and CJ McCollum received that summer. Batum observed a career-high in scoring in his new contract’s first season; he followed that with linear decline in virtually every metric since the 2016-17 season, and his shooting efficiency suffered, as well. The Hornets waived-and-stretched Batum on Sunday, with one year and $27 million remaining on his contract. The Hornets now have $9 million in dead cap space each of the next three seasons because they elected to sign Batum to a heinous deal instead of committing themselves to a rebuild.
Last summer, the Hornets had a decision to make with then-free agent guard Kemba Walker. Walker was fresh off of his third all-star appearance, and had averaged over 20 points and 5 assists as the first, second, and third options for the Hornets in each of the previous four seasons. Charlotte had a cornerstone. One who was loyal, at that. Walker did not want to leave the community he had grown with, even expressing a willingness to take a discount on his new contract. Yet, Jordan and Charlotte’s management low-balled Walker with an offer totaling just under $160 million over five years; after making All-NBA honors in 2018-19, Walker was in line to receive a five-year, $221 million deal. The Hornets fell more than $60 million below the maximum amount they could’ve paid their all-star. Instead, they completed a sign-and-trade that sent Walker to the Boston Celtics in return for Terry Rozier. Rozier is a fine player, especially given the contract he is slated with in Charlotte. But, he is not bringing the equity needed to secure the services of top-tier free agents. That equity put significant distance between the two guards whose statistical outputs in the first years of their new contracts were not all that different.
The Hornets found themselves in a somewhat surprising situation this offseason. Rozier performed up to the value of his contract, and second-year guard Devonte’ Graham emerged as an explosive piece of Charlotte’s backcourt. PJ Washington showed flashes of his lottery value, and Miles Bridges continued to decorate highlight reels with thunderous dunks. The Hornets, who lacked experience, depth, and balance, were still a lottery-bound team. But, there was actually reason to watch them on any given night. They still lacked direction, but they were growing more and more interesting despite losing the player who kept them afloat quite literally by himself. The Hornets had young talent that needed opportunity to grow into a tangible future. Instead, in yet another directionless move, the Hornets pried Gordon Hayward away in the first few days of free agency, They inked the wing–who has yet to rediscover what he lost after the gruesome injury he suffered in his first game as a Celtic–to a four-year, $120 million deal. The player they signed isn’t the directionless part of the story, neither is the massive overpay. Small-market teams will have to overpay to convince an upper-tier player to come. The inexplicably odd part of the decision is that they gave Hayward less than $2 million per year less than what they offered Walker, who is a significantly better player than Hayward is at this juncture of his career. Hayward will take touches away from younger guys, which will disrupt the natural growth and development that they need. Signing Hayward is a win-now move for a team that lacks the horses to be anything more than a seven-seed in the Eastern Conference. The flummoxing question is: if they weren’t fully committed to rebuilding, why not just pay Walker to begin with?
Instead, the Hornets are saddled with a $120 million commitment to a player who may never return to all-star form, and they’re stuck somewhere between good and bad. In professional sports, that translates to “purgatory”, and that’s worse than being bad. I suppose “purgatory” is a foreign concept to Michael Jordan, who retired from the NBA as a six-time champion. If he wants to be the principal owner of a championship-winning franchise, Jordan will have to come to terms with the inevitable: he must fully commit to losing in order to win in Charlotte.