- Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com columnist
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This is not what tanking looks like.
Tanking looks worse. The record for the Charlotte Bobcats at the end of this week may not reflect it, but tanking is not about a race toward the worst winning percentage in NBA history.
Matter of fact, throw the record out the window. Remove it from the equation/conversation. It really means nothing. It is a hollow fact. What is happening with Charlotte's basketball franchise is something more systemic. Something that is embedded into the fabric of everything original owner Bob Johnson put into the 2004 expansion franchise (including, if you believe the jokes, a vanity name).
But we'll save that for the TV investigative piece. For this space, let's just deal with what's in front of us; what we've been forced to witness over the past four months. Looking this bad never looked so bad. Who is surprised the Bobcats couldn't beat the Washington Wizards (a 28-point loss Sunday in D.C.)? Right now, the Bobcats couldn't beat the Washington Generals.
And who is the world looking at for this, blaming it all on? The G.O.A.T., who in his ownership debut is about to have the periods removed, the letters reduced to lowercase and the "greatest of all time" acronym changed back to its original form and meaning.
Losing is not a good look for Michael Jordan.
But it's too early to dog Jordan. At least as as owner. Ask Oprah -- sometimes these things take time to build; they take time and failure before they go right. Waiting can be hard, especially when performance as an owner is relentlessly judged against past superstar performance as a performer.
For Jordan, one of his best friends (Charles Barkley) and a former Bobcats coach (Sam Vincent) have publicly questioned his ability -- or true interest -- to run an organization. Such criticism (especially when the primary product may become the basketball definition of epic failure) suggests things are closer to being as bad as they can get than they are to getting better.
Stephanie Ready, a former coach and now the Bobcats sideline reporter, has seen the spiral, every game of it. She knows what we -- those who are on the outside watching and verbally bashing from afar -- are seeing is not a reflection of a team that has no desire to win.
"I've watched how hard the guys work and how much they want to win, and it just hasn't happened for them," she said. "It's not from lack of trying. If you look at the roster, they have guys playing heavy minutes who have less than three to four years of NBA experience, so the learning curve for them is a bit steeper than most."
Case in point: Guard D.J. Augustin is the Bobcats' best player. At this point, he's their franchise player. He's their point guard, and everything offensively runs through and because of him. He goes down. He has missed, in a shortened, condensed and detrimentally structured regular season, 18 games with toe and knee injuries. His replacement? A rookie, Kemba Walker, who is a good player, but not yet close to great.
Remember, there was no true preseason for Walker to learn how to run an NBA offense. Point guard in the NBA is not only the most difficult position to learn, but also the position where as a collective the best players in the league happen to play. (Think about it: Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Deron Williams, Ty Lawson.)
But that injury and its impact are not taken into consideration when the masses discuss this Bobcats season. And if no one thinks losing a point guard isn't instrumental to a team's imminent downfall, just look at what happened to the Minnesota Timberwolves once Ricky Rubio went down. They went from being one game above .500 to now 13 games under .500 in a little over six weeks. And they still have MVP candidate Kevin Love -- a luxury Charlotte cannot come close to claiming.
At times this season, Gerald Henderson has played at a Danny Granger/Rudy Gay-type level, but that has not been enough to stop the losses. The team's highest-paid player, Corey Maggette, is third on the team's depth chart at his position and has played only 32 games because of injuries. Their second-highest-paid player, Tyrus Thomas, by the look of his latest actions (a shoving match with the coach Sunday, followed by a flagrant foul 2 and ejection in the first quarter of the Washington game Monday) has become typically petulant.
Once Augustin was injured, the Bobcats didn't stand a chance. If he had missed, say, just 10 games instead of 18, the Bobcats probably win a couple more and no one is talking about them in the context of a low place in NBA history. That's if we are being honest.
But none of that matters, does it?
To most of you, it still looks like tanking because no team in the modern era of basketball could possibly be this bad. Not by accident.
Bobcats coach Paul Silas responded to the notion that his team was not in it for the wins by saying via email: "We still want to win games. We've got to find out what these kids are about also. If we were going for a playoff berth, then we'd want veteran players out there to get ready for the postseason. We want these young players to play and see how they react. We've got more guys who have played more minutes this season than they ever have in their short NBA careers, so the learning curve is much sharper for many of them, but they are playing hard and they have not given up."
It doesn't help matters or perceptions when Jordan shows up in Chicago supporting an NHL team (the Blackhawks) during a Stanley Cup playoff game on the same night his team is in another city being handed its 21st loss in a row.
Still, this is not being done deliberately. This is how I know.
One, because, no disrespect to the possible No. 1 pick in this year's draft (Anthony Davis) or the other top prospects (Jared Sullinger, Harrison Barnes, Thomas Robinson or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist), but there hasn't been a player entering the NBA worth tanking for since Kevin Durant.
Two (and Jordan is full aware of this), since the Nets drafted Derrick Coleman in 1990, there have been only two teams (Cleveland in 2003, Orlando in 2004) that finished with the worst record that have ended up being rewarded with the first pick in the draft.
As bad as Jordan's evaluation and selection of talent has been over the years (drafting Kwame Brown, Adam Morrison; trading Rip Hamilton, Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace; firing Larry Brown as head coach and failing to create an executive/front office position for him), he knows no player coming out is worth purposely putting his franchise through this.
Three, players honestly hanging their heads low while walking back into the locker room is not tanking; that's not what happens when a team is not competing and therefore losing games by design. Coaches getting into shoving matches with players (as Silas did recently with Thomas) is not what happens when a team is losing consciously.
As a low point, this could be the best thing that's happened to Jordan as an owner because it could ignite the fire that he used as a player to push him to be the owner he needs to be to push this franchise to a place of respectability, and then to a place beyond even his own dreams.
Tanking is a business strategy. But single-digit wins is not part of Jordan's business plan with the Bobcats. This is real: A really bad team that didn't have much room for error that unfortunately happened to come across an iota of bad luck at a bad time that just so happened to be playing bad basketball for an owner who just so happens to have a bad history when it comes to management.
We can't feel sorry for them, but we can't call it what it is not, either. As bad as the Bobcats are -- the team, not necessarily the organization -- they deserve more than that.
This is not what tanking looks like. The Charlotte Bobcats' win total may not reflect it, but tanking is not about a race toward the worst winning percentage in NBA history.