1. The Worst of the Last 20: As 2020 is upon us, there has been a lot written about the moments and teams of the last decade. Some of this is quite interesting but when I step back, I’m more interested in the larger picture. We are now 20% of the way through this 21st Century and I have watched/followed more NBA since 2000 than before (my NBA sentience started in the early 1980s). In other words, I’ve watched much more basketball without Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan than I have with them. This sort of blows my mind because, with a stream of documentaries in interviews perpetually on cable and the internet, Magic and MJ have never really stopped playing in some ways.
Also, we should forget the best of teams. It’s not hard to figure out the Spurs had the best run. I was wondering which franchise was the worst over that span. Before we jump in a few ground rules/notes:
-We define the 20-year period with a bit of overlap, as the NBA season will inevitably bleed into one decade from the last. In that regard, we are counting the 20 year as running from 1999-00 through 2018-19. This isn’t exactly the full 20 years but let’s not be too anal in our assessments. Running the count from January 1, 2000 to January 1, 2020 might meet the technical definition but it is much easier and more useful to view players and teams from the full-season context.
-Franchise success is subjective. Winning/losing a lot of games matters but playoff success is usually more meaningful to the fan base. Again, mileage may very on what constitutes a better/worse franchise.
With the help of Basketball-Reference.com’s awesome customizable search feature the “winner” is: the Charlotte Hornets/Bobcats. They didn’t have the worst record of the past 20 years but they were pretty close. Charlotte was 624-836 (.427%), which was 29th out 30 teams, just ahead of the Knicks.
So what inches Charlotte ahead James Dolan’s zombie franchise? The relative lack of playoff success in Charlotte. The Knicks have been terrible but they won a series more recently (2012-13) and the last vestiges of the 1990s teams made the Conference Finals in 1999-00 (Charlotte has never made it past the second round). By contrast, the Hornets have not won a playoff series since 2001-02, when they were about to move to New Orleans the first time.
As a side note, the goofy expansion name doesn’t help Charlotte either. At the time, Charlotte raised an interesting philosophical question for a few years: is it better to not have a team or to have a team called the Bobcats? Probably better to have the Bobcats but still…
The weird thing about Charlotte is that, despite their badness, they have not had many high picks in the past 20 years. Could they have done better than they did in that span? Let’s take a look at all the top five picks they have had over that time:
2004, Emeka Okafor (2nd Pick): Okafor was a very good player, just not quite the star that Orlando got with Dwight Howard. The only other options, Andre Iguodala and Luol Deng, were good but not franchise changers either.
2005, Raymond Felton (5th pick): Felton was not an inspiring choice but they, again, didn’t whiff on any real stars, as there were a few okay players later in the draft (David Lee, Monta Ellis, Lou Williams) but no real stars near the top that the Hornets whiffed on. The problem was Chris Paul and Deron Williams were taken the two picks before Felton.
2006, Adam Morrison (3rd pick): Okay, that was a terrible pick and a bust but Charlotte again didn’t have a superstar to choose from. The best players they could have reasonably been expected to take were Rudy Gay (good player) or Brandon Roy (he was briefly a star before his knees gave out). There was a run of good sleepers in Paul Millsap, Kyle Lowry, and Rajon Rondo but no one would have ever taken them in the lottery.
2012, Michael Kidd Gilchrist (2nd pick): Here we have the one true whiff. The Hornets could have had Bradley Beal (not a superstar but definitely a star) or Damon Lillard (superstar). Lillard was not projected quite high to be taken second but the opportunity was there but that was the one chance to get a game changer. Even this miss could’ve been worse because the one star the Hornets did find, Kemba Walker, was a point guard anyway (but, yes, Dame would’ve made them better).
2013, Cody Zeller (4th pick): Zeller has disappointed but the draft superstar ended up being Giannis Antetokounmpo at 15th overall. The picks after Zeller were pretty uninspiring until CJ McCollum at 10.
Moral of the story is that losing does not guarantee lottery success. Charlotte did poorly with its top five picks but the best possible lottery options would not likely have made the Hornets much better, with the limited exception of Lillard.
2. CP3 v. West Update: When the Chris Paul/Russell Westbrook went down, it was our opinion that: (a) Paul would likely be a little better than Russ in 2019-20, (b) CP3 could be hurt more frequently and decline soon, and (c) the Rockets wanted no part of the backend of the CP3 contract. In other ends, we thought the Rockets would be slightly worse now but better off thereafter. So, where do the two rate as of right now (through 1/6/20)? Let’s take a look:
Chris Paul: 31.8 mpg, 16.3 ppg, .592 TS%, .366 3FG%, 5.0 RPG, 6.6 APG, 1.5 SPG, 2.4 TOPG, 20.5 PER, 4.4 WS (.183 WS/48), 3.8 BPM, 1.7 VORP, 0 dunks (he hasn’t had one since 2015-16, and 42 for his career)
Russell Westbrook: 35.3 mpg, 24.1 ppg, .503 TS%, .235 3FG%, 7.9 RPG, 7.0 APG, 1.5 SPG, 4.4 TOPG, 18.3 PER, 1.8 WS (.078 WS/48), 0.0 BPM, 0.6 VORP, 18 dunks (532 for his career)
Paul has been the better player this year by most measures. Westbrook’s three-pointer has appeared to have cratered and is not nearly as efficient a passer. In fact, Westbrook has dipped into negative territory in OBPM. This is not to say that Westbrook has been bad. He has put up points and filled up on boards and assists as always. As a whole, the Rockets have actually been slightly better as a team this year anyway.
Westbrook’s major impact appears to be in pace. The Rockets have gone from 26th in the NBA with Paul to 2nd in the NBA this year. Has this made the Rockets better? James Harden has been slightly better in WS but otherwise he’s flat. The rest of the team has not been much better offensively. All this is a long way of saying that the Rockets would be probably be slightly better with a healthy and happy CP3 this season (though neither was a given). This lack of change in fortunes means the Rockets were correct to dump Paul before he likely declines as early as next season.
As for Paul’s future, his production is similar to last season, which mean he does potentially have value. It’s not clear how much longer he will play at this level but a team looking for a title this year might consider taking the plunge on his terrible contract (assuming they have the contracts to move to match salaries). OKC would have to be willing to value salary cap relief more than getting talent or picks but the 76ers and, ironically, the Clippers could really use a great point guard to put them over the top in 2019-20.