The East is terrible this season.
It's the worst the conference has been since 2004, and that terribleness has forced the Bobcats to change course with their rebuilding plans. This isn't the worst thing in the world, but it's not necessarily helpful. There is a plan the Bobcats can follow, but the changing landscape has complicated things for Charlotte.
The easiest way for a team to rebuild and get themselves to contender status is through the draft. A lot of Bobcats fans would disagree with this, considering their luck in the draft, but it's true, especially for smaller market teams. The alternative relies heavily on free agency, and attracting free agents to Charlotte over Miami, Los Angeles or any other warm weather climate is difficult. As a result, the draft is the easiest way to become a force. However, with the way this season is shaping up, the Bobcats aren't going to be allowed to build through the draft like once imagined. Too many teams are much lower than they are and have an inside track on the top picks. And the further back in the draft Charlotte slips, the more unlikely finding that franchise player through the draft becomes, unless they strike on mid-to-late first round gold. If the Bobcats are to acquire a franchise player, it might have to be through other methods.
Fans of the Bobcats and the organization are going to have show some real patience when they go down this non-draft path. And patience in sports is a rare virtue. Everybody in the front office has to trust one another, you can't make rash decisions, and, most importantly, you have to be flexible. This doesn't mean the team should wait around forever for players to make jumps, but they can't fire people and make trades for high cap players. This path would involve a lot of mediocre basketball: 8 and 7 seeds, first round exits, and role players coming in and out. This kind of basketball is frustrating for fans and the team itself, as it feels like they're just spinning their wheels without any real of hope progress.
If this season becomes a trend, there is going to be a major change in draft strategy from here on out. No longer will the Bobcats be drafting future superstars, but instead, future role players -- players like Kevin Martin, J.J. Redick, and DeMarre Carroll that you need on your team if you want to compete.
The important thing to remember here is that just because the team is being forced to change course does not mean that this is the end of the world. They don't have to blow up this current core and go back to tanking. They can use this opportunity to create a winning culture. Something that might attract free agents. There's a lot of talk about teams that are in big markets having an advantage over teams that are in small markets, and while the Bobcats might find it harder to attract a free agent compared to the bigger markets, that advantage for teams in more attractive locales doesn't mean much if they come off as perennial losers.
Now the big question is how exactly should the Bobcats proceed with this new course they've been forced upon. Lucky for them there are a couple of other teams they can emulate.
The best example would be the Houston Rockets. The Rockets spent years clearing cap space and creating a team that was flexible but pretty good at the same time. The Rockets then had to show patience. Summers came and went and each year they would strike out on a superstar in free agency. Then, the opportunity they were waiting for arrived. James Harden was too expensive for the Oklahoma City Thunder to keep. Harden was a budding superstar, and the Rockets had a bunch of solid movable pieces. They crafted a deal and got their future superstar.
The team finished as an eight seed in the West that year and made some noise in the playoffs. All of a sudden this Rockets team, who didn't have to deal with a culture of failure, had a team attractive enough to get another superstar in Dwight Howard. The plan worked.
Another team going down a similar path is the Atlanta Hawks. After Josh Smith left there was a question of whether the team should tear everything down and rebuild or tread water. With players like Kyle Korver, Al Horford, and Jeff Teague they decided their best option was to tread water until they can trade or sign a player to put them over the edge. (Of course with Al Horford hurt this might put a damper on their plans) At the moment the team is third in the East with a lot of cap room for a great player to put next to Horford and nice assets that could deal if they so choose.
With these two teams in mind, the Bobcats need to come up with their own strategy. Since the team doesn't look like they'll be at the top of the lottery any time soon, they have two options. They can get good enough and put together a team that will attract a free agent interested in being "The Guy" for this team (perhaps someone like Chris Bosh who after spending his time in Miami might want to go somewhere at the end of his contract and show people how great he is). Or perhaps it's a player we can't even think of right now that's ready to break out but just needs a team to put their trust in him. Alternatively, they can aim to trade for a young budding superstar that a team can't afford or doesn't fit with his current team, a la the Rockets and James Harden.
The Bobcats might have preferred to have gotten a top-5 or 7 pick in this year's draft but, so be it, that's not happening. The NBA never goes scripted so the Bobcats are forced to change course. A good team can handle being forced off course, but it requires patience. It's time to see just how patient this Bobcats front office is.