How rebuilding can last forever in the NBA
Rebuilding generally means losing.
This is a given, and is an unsavory reality of the draft-based model to which the NBA is handcuffed. Assuming you also get lucky and draft well, there's no better way to make big leaps forward than by taking giant ones backward.
Those two qualifiers, however, are huge. It's better to be lucky than good, but to succeed through the draft, you have to be both.
The Charlotte Bobcats know this better than anyone. They've been bad throughout their existence, only briefly approaching the hallowed land of mediocrity, and at one point they reached a historical level of ineptitude. They've never tried all that hard to be competitive, and, even when they did, they were so unsuccessful at it they remained in a perpetual state of rebuilding. Indeed, it's not even a rebuild, as there's nothing to reconstruct. It's simply a build from scratch. Still.
Perhaps, though, they've now stopped the tanking. This summer has seen their biggest ever free agent move - by an incomparable amount - with the signing of Al Jefferson for three years and $40.5 million. Jefferson isn't the answer to the Bobcats' problems - he has never been an all-star, likely never will be, stopped improving some years ago, and isn't nearly efficient enough to be the offensive focal point he will now have to be. Nevertheless, he is a player of true quality at a position where the Bobcats sorely lacked.
Tanking, the stockpiling of youth, and minimal payroll expenditure, are all laudable traits on rebuilding teams in certain circumstances. Indeed, I lauded it only yesterday in the case of the Utah Jazz. But it only works for a certain time before it must give way to something substantial. You can't tread water forever - if you're still treading water after years of throwing the kids out there, the kids you've got aren't going to cut it. So perhaps Charlotte thought it was time to buy some quality.
At some point, a franchise can become viewed as toxic, and it's a tough decline to halt. The post-dynasty Bulls couldn't sign a free agent of any caliber until Donyell Marshall joined, and the Clippers were only able to stop the rot when they got luckier in the draft than the Bobcats ever have and landed Blake Griffin. Those franchises had the benefit of strong markets that Charlotte doesn't.
Nevertheless, quality attracts quality, and only those who have no say in it or have few other choices would voluntarily choose the moribund, direction-less franchise whose fortunes rest upon a few lottery balls every season. You don't want to be that. The Bobcats right now are very toxic. There's little incentive for anyone to play for them, or for anyone to watch them. It needs to stop. And it's good if they know that.
However, having the right idea alone isn't a sufficient remedy.
No matter how badly you need talent, you still need value for that talent. You need talent you can do something with in the future, not just that which helps you in the now. Unless you can sign genuinely elite stars who can reverse your fortunes single-handedly, you need players with caliber signed to digestible prices over short periods, so as to best maximize options for the future. It is, after all, still about the future. In signing Jefferson to the deal that they did, Charlotte have not done this.
Deals are judged by the comparable ones of others, and the obvious and necessary comparison here is with Paul Millsap, Jefferson's running mate as recently as five months ago. Millsap signed with Atlanta for two thirds of what Jefferson did ($9.5 million annual compared to $13.5 million for Al), and for two thirds of the time (two years instead of three). Logically, this would suggest Millsap is two third of the player. But he's not. Without wanting or needing to fully compare the two, we can all hopefully concede that they are about the same, give or take. But the price is very different.
Millsap is signed to an amount comparable to his talent, for shorter time. He provides Atlanta with the talent boost that will keep them out of the cellar - if you want bums on seats, you need that - and his contract makes him extremely tradeable. Millsap is a valued commodity around the league as a quality, versatile, two-way role player, and by getting him at the right price, Atlanta put themselves in a position to take advantage of that. And until they do, he'll help them significantly as a player.
Charlotte, however have paid the 'Bobcats tax' and will suffer for it. Jefferson is, at best, at the very top end of the acceptable overpay range, and probably slightly beyond it. Yet it is that third year that makes it extremely difficult to trade him before the summer of 2015. Rebuilding teams need as much flexibility as possible - with his undervalued, very competitively priced skills and short contract, Millsap could be traded for a quality return as soon as February. Jefferson can't. He costs too much and he's under contract for too long to be highly prized. Indeed, he may not be tradeable at all. This is not all bad, as it will mean a quality player will stay with them for three years.
At some point, a rebuilding project needs to involve actual building. At some point, you need to start acquiring quality - you can't forgo all talent acquisition just to stay bad just to hopefully get lucky in a good draft class. Charlotte have reached that point. Atlanta have somewhat, too. But in these respective signings, the Hawks and Bobcats have put themselves in far different positions. One team landed a quality player on a great price who will help the team in both the immediate future and (via trade), likely the long term. Meanwhile, Charlotte spend $21.5 million more to achieve less.
It was the right idea, but not the right execution.