Posted Dec 23 2011 8:59AM
ATLANTA -- Would any worthwhile free agent sign with a team coming off a losing season, to live in a small market and play for an owner who stood strongly against players in a tense labor fight that left the players bitter?
"Why not?" said Bobcats vice president Rod Higgins.
Well. The Bobcats will learn the answer next summer, and perhaps the summer after. That's when they hope to use a signing or two to jump-start a franchise languishing on the bottom line and in the standings (one winning season in a seven-year existence). It'll be the ultimate test under the new labor agreement, whether a free agent will skip a migratory trend toward sexier cities and ready-to-win teams for a place where college basketball gets better treatment.
Money will be the primary factor, of course, because it always is with free agents. And the Bobcats will have money to spend in 2012 once a few bad contracts disappear from the books. But their ability to entice a big name could also depend on two interesting in-house names: Michael Jordan and Kemba Walker.
Here in this write-off season for the Bobcats, who are built not for a playoff run but an offseason dismantling, Jordan and Walker will be the franchise faces that all free agents will see. What impression will they leave?
Jordan annoyed a number of players when he drove a hard bargain in labor talks and was said to favor a more owner-friendly deal than the one agreed upon. It smacked of hypocrisy if only because Jordan was a hard-liner as a player, once famously telling Wizards owner Abe Pollin to sell if he couldn't make a profit.
Speaking with reporters in Charlotte recently, Jordan said he didn't think his role in the labor negotiations would be held against him by free agents weighing offers from Charlotte, adding: "I'm not anti-player. As a businessman, I want everybody to be happy."
Jordan is an owner now, and no doubt more in touch with team financial realities than when he went chin-to-chin with Pollin. The Bobcats are dealing with a depressed economy in Charlotte and a fickle fan base, so Jordan has challenges. Jordan also did more than anyone to make today's players enjoy the highest salaries in team sports, simply by helping the league generate millions during the Golden Era and making the game's popularity soar.
So the same players who took shots at Jordan at the labor table -- all fair -- should remember to shake his hand as well.
"It's time to move on," said Higgins, a close friend of Jordan's for decades. "You can't hold onto that. It's just business. He took an opinion on it but I don't think it's an issue going forward."
The main issue with free agents will be Jordan's decision-making as an owner. While he was unquestionably influential as a player, that may not be in play anymore. His generational pull becomes weaker as his highlights become foggier, just as it was with Dr. J and Magic and Bird. Some young players today can barely remember Jordan winning titles with the Bulls; they grew up with Kobe Bryant. Besides, it's Jordan the owner who'll carry weight with free agents, and his track record in that area will ultimately help or hurt Charlotte's chances of buying an All-Star. Free agents want to know the team is in good hands and committed to doing whatever possible to win.
That leads to Walker, the No. 9 overall pick that coach Paul Silas can't stop gushing about. After too many dud draft decisions -- none of the Bobcat picks ever became All-Stars -- Walker needs to be a beast. He is much closer to 5-foot-10, not his listed 6-foot-1, but he's viciously quick and brings a mature mid-range game.
"I didn't know he was this good," Silas said. "His leadership, his ability to get to the rim and just his overall understanding of the game and his toughness, it's really something to see."
More than Jordan, the Bobcats need to sell someone who's actually on the floor, a player who can find teammates and win games. If Walker is that player -- although the early returns are favorable, it's really too early to tell -- Charlotte's fight for free agents will get that much easier.
"He has huge confidence, which is what you like to see from a young player," Higgins said. "We're trying to go get a superstar, and you can do that through free agency, but maybe that superstar is here."
Higgins cautions about putting too much burden on Walker to do wonders with a developing team, although Walker seems to welcome any and all. Besides, he carried Connecticut to a national championship that few saw coming.
"I just play hard," he said. "I'm all about team, all about effort. Not about myself. I go out there and do the things I know I can do."
Best scenario for Jordan and the Bobcats is for Walker to be in the Rookie of the Year running, and in next year's Draft (which will be rich and deep) the Bobcats land another potential star. Then a few trades and a free-agent signing would give Charlotte a new outlook. That's the plan, anyway.
"We're trying to create a culture where people want to play for us," Higgins said. "We've seen how big markets have won out for these players but that doesn't deter us from making our place special. It's up to management and coaches to continue to build that."
Jordan said he'll spend generously if the Bobcats are in position to win, because sellout crowds and playoff revenue would justify a higher payroll. But first things first. Walker, more good decisions in the Draft, some salary cap flexibility for free agents -- all of that means progress. It's the only way a small market team can big-time the league.
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