In the 14 years the Hornets had been in the NBA, Charlotte had lived up to its billing as an up-and-coming business hub. It grew to the second-largest banking city in the US, trailing only New York. Population had exploded, taking it into the top 20 in city population and the top 30 in metropolitan population. The NBA had expanded again, adding teams in Vancouver (which would move to Memphis 10 years later) and Toronto. Adding a 30th team would bring balance to the schedule, so the NBA quickly brokered a deal to get a new building in uptown Charlotte, and an expansion team to be owned by Bob Johnson, the founder of the BET network. Johnson had recently sold BET to Viacom for $3 billion, and he would be the first black person to be the majority owner of a North American sports team. The new Charlotte Bobcats would begin play in 2004-05 at the old Coliseum and move into the new home uptown in 2005-06.
Meanwhile, back on the fixing ranch, another generational player was about to come on the scene. LeBron James was making a mockery of high school basketball in Akron, Ohio, less than 2 hours south of Cleveland. The Cavaliers had built a strong team in the late ‘80s, but they never could get past Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, who won 6 championships between 1991 and 1998. Now they were the dregs of the NBA. But wouldn’t you know it, the Cavs drew the lucky combo in 2003, and the local phenom would stay home. More lottery stink.
He was as good as advertised. By 2007, Cleveland was in the NBA Finals. But they would get swept by the 2-time lottery-winning San Antonio Spurs, behind Robinson and Duncan. James would play out his contract and enter the summer of 2010 as a free agent. He and his agents embarked on the greatest “LOOK AT ME” show in history, culminating in a 1-hour show on ESPN titled “The Decision,” where he announced at the end, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach, and am signing with the Miami Heat.” It was a rather sickening display of self-aggrandizement.
Of course, completely by accident, the Cavs won the next draft lottery. More Limburger cheese stink.
Meanwhile, the Bobcats were floundering. After taking college championship-winning Emeka Okafor from Connecticut with their first-ever draft pick, (#2, because Orlando won the lottery AGAIN and got Dwight Howard). the next several years were filled with terrible picks and very questionable coaching hires. Suddenly, a new narrative emerged that the team name “Bobcats” was the owner’s attempt at self-aggrandizement. “He named the team after himself,” people groaned. It did no good to explain to those people that a bobcat was a real thing, and whole packs of them could be found in the North Carolina mountains. “He named the team after himself,” they would stubbornly chant. Finally, in 2010, Johnson had had enough, and put the team up for sale. None other than North Carolina native Michael Jordan swooped in and bought it. The Bobcats made the playoffs for the first time that year, but lost several key free agents and dropped to one of the worst records in the league the next year. As usual, there was no luck for the Bobcats in the lottery, ending up with the 9th pick. They used that pick on another Connecticut player coming off a national championship – a point guard named Kemba Walker.
At the beginning of the 2011-12 season, there was a labor dispute that delayed the start of the season. It was settled in December, and a shortened 66-game season was put in place. Charlotte had lost all its best players from the 2010 team, leaving them with Walker, promising Duke guard Gerald Henderson, and a bunch of misfits. Paul Silas, who had coached the Hornets from the late ‘90s through the move to New Orleans, was called out of retirement to coach. He was well past his prime. Some people insist they saw him fall asleep during a late-season game. They would endure a 23-game losing streak to end the season, finishing with a record of 7-59. That .106 winning percentage was the worst in NBA history, eclipsing the 1972-73 Philly team that went 9-73, a .220 winning percentage.
Well, that sucked, but hope was high. The University of Kentucky had just won the college national championship, led by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Davis had the look of that once-in-a-generation player such as Ewing, Duncan, and James. Is the lottery fixed? If so, wouldn’t it make sense to fix it for the team that just set the all-time record for losing and has a couple of promising young players? If it’s not fixed, hopefully, the all-time losers will be rewarded with the top pick coming from the best odds.
Once again, a tourist-trap city with a team that should have been picking at the bottom of the lottery group wins the generational player – New Orleans, of all teams. First, they steal our team, then they steal our shot to rebuild quickly. Add this to the other suspicious lottery winners. This one stinks more than all of them since LeBron.
At least our name came home. New Orleans was now owned by the owner of their football team, and he wanted a name that was more representative of the city. Jordan swooped in and made a deal that would bring the Hornets name back to his franchise, along with all the team records and stats. As of the 2014-15 season, the NBA team in Charlotte would be called Hornets, and all the team records and stats from 1988-2002 would be combined with the info from the Charlotte team from 2004-present. The New Orleans Pelicans would read as if they were an expansion team in 2002, with all records and stats from their first game in New Orleans to the present being their official records. But they still had Anthony Davis.
There haven’t been any of those generational players come along since Davis, but more lottery suspicion has. The best player in the 2018 draft was DeAndre Ayton from the University of Arizona. The Phoenix Suns won the lottery. Another coincidence, right?
My conspiracy theory is fully developed.
There are the very biggest TV markets – New York, LA, Chicago, Boston, Philly, Houston, Minneapolis, Dallas, Atlanta – and having these teams be successful is obviously in the NBA’s best business interests. Big-market teams mean big revenue streams when the teams are winning.
Then there are the tourist traps – San Antonio, Miami, Orlando, New Orleans, Phoenix (and to some extent, all the California cities). It’s in the best interests of the league for these teams to be successful. It will build the cities’ reputations and make them more attractive to people looking to move. More people, more viewers, more revenue.
But then you have the cities that are either small, business-focused, or both – Salt Lake City, Portland, Memphis, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Charlotte, Indianapolis. There’s no big incentive for the NBA to need these teams to be successful. They don’t have enough residents or tourists or combination thereof to command huge advertising dollars. So why should they get the top talent? Occasionally, these teams can build contenders from great drafting (Utah getting Karl Malone, Memphis getting Pau and Marc Gasol, Charlotte getting Mourning & Johnson, Indiana getting Reggie Miller, Portland getting Clyde Drexler and later Damian Lillard), but they never quite make it over the top. And I don’t think this is limited to the lottery. I believe the league has some clandestine way to steer free agents to the big markets. Oklahoma City (where the Seattle team moved in 2007) did great in drafting Kevin Durant while they were still in Seattle and Russell Westbrook later on. But they lost Durant the second he was able to go, off to big-market Golden State. When was the last time one of the 10 best free agents went to one of these smaller business markets?
As a fan of one of those teams, I feel quite hopeless. My team is going to be one of the worst in NBA history next year, again. There may be some rare talent coming along. Kentucky, as usual, and the University of Memphis have assembled world-class teams that should produce some fantastic NBA players.
And my Hornets won’t get any of them. After suffering through a 15-67 season, we Hornets fans will be filled with jealousy as we watch the playoffs, and our jealousy will turn to rage as Atlanta, New York, Washington, Miami or some other undeserving team lands the big prize. And there we will sit, with the league’s worst record and the 5th pick in the draft.
And I’ll be at it again, screaming at the top of my lungs, “the NBA is fixed!”