Each week during the 2022-23 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
[Last time on Fact or Fiction: The East and West playoff pictures are coming into clear view]
Is Michael Jordan also the GOAT of the NBA’s worst current team owners?
Michael Jordan is the greatest player in the history of basketball. He made the NBA a global brand. The Chicago Bulls sold for $16.2 million in 1985. They are worth $4.1 billion today. Jordan is a primary reason for that growth. He deserves every cent the sport can possibly repay him over the course of a lifetime.
Jordan is also a trailblazing businessman, serving as the NBA’s lone non-white principal owner for nearly a decade after purchasing a majority stake in the Charlotte Hornets for $275 million in 2010. He became the first billionaire athlete six years later, the same year Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Jordan’s philanthropy includes donations of $100 million “to organizations dedicated to ensuring racial equality, social justice and greater education,” $10 million to Make-A-Wish America, $5 million to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, plus millions more elsewhere.
The man is an icon. Maybe the icon.
News broke Thursday that Jordan plans to sell his majority stake in the Charlotte Hornets, maybe for another billion, retaining a minority share in the franchise. No word on whether he will retain the title of “managing member of basketball operations,” which he first assumed as a minority shareholder in 2006.
These caveats are necessary before we reach another conclusion that is less heady in the grand scheme: Jordan’s record as an executive at the helm of a basketball operations department is abominable.
He hired former Bulls teammate Rod Higgins as general manager in 2007, followed by Rich Cho in 2011 and fellow University of North Carolina alum Mitch Kupchak in 2018, but Jordan is always the biggest voice in the room. Charlotte has been his NBA home since he assumed control of basketball operations in 2006.
Kemba Walker is the only home run Jordan ever hit with the Hornets, and Charlotte even drafted Bismack Biyombo two spots ahead of him. His batting average on first-round draft picks is worse than the .202 he hit with the Double-A Birmingham Barons. The draft record is somehow even worse than this first glance:
2006: 3. Adam Morrison
2007: 22. Jared Dudley
2008: 9. D.J. Augustin, 20. Alexis Ajinca
2009: 12. Gerald Henderson
2011: 7. Biyombo, 9. Walker
2012: 2. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
2013: 4. Cody Zeller
2014: 9. Noah Vonleh, 26. P.J. Hairston
2015: 9. Frank Kaminsky
2017: 11. Malik Monk
2018: 12. Miles Bridges
2019: 12. P.J. Washington
2020: 3. LaMelo Ball
2021: 11. James Bouknight, 19. Kai Jones
2022: 15. Mark Williams
Only a handful of them ever made it to a second contract with the Hornets.
Morrison is one of the all-time busts, even if the 2006 draft was no great shakes. Tyrus Thomas went fourth that year to Chicago. Not to worry: Jordan traded a future first-round pick to acquire Thomas in 2010, give him a five-year, $40 million contract and apply the stretch provision to that deal inside of three seasons.
Jordan traded his No. 8 overall pick in 2007, when Joakim Noah was still on the board, in exchange for Jason Richardson, who Charlotte flipped a year later — with Dudley — for Raja Bell, Boris Diaw and Sean Singletary. Only Diaw lasted the year, and he eventually quit on the Hornets because “losing was tough.”
In 2008, Jordan drafted Augustin ninth overall, one spot ahead of Brook Lopez, and then traded another future first-round pick to grab Ajinça at No. 20. From 2012-14, the Hornets spent top-10 picks on Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller and Vonleh when multiple future multi-time All-Stars were still available each season.
The coup de grâce may have come in 2015, when Jordan reportedly rejected an offer of four first-round picks from the Boston Celtics, including the one that became Jaylen Brown, in order to draft Kaminsky.
Over the next four seasons, Jordan’s Hornets traded their first-round pick for Marco Belinelli in 2016, drafted Monk at No. 11 over Donovan Mitchell (No. 13) and Bam Adebayo (No. 14) in 2017, swapped the No. 11 pick (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) for No. 12 (Bridges) in 2018 and selected Washington immediately ahead of Tyler Herro in 2019. Too many unfortunate decisions for them all to just be bad luck.
Time will tell if the selection of Ball will grant the Hornets a reprieve from draft misery. He was an All-Star replacement in his second season. He could not stay healthy this season, eventually fracturing his right ankle last month. There are already rumblings he could request a trade from Charlotte in the future.
To build around Ball, the Hornets drafted Bouknight 11th overall and traded another protected first-round pick to nab Jones at No. 19. Neither has been a regular in the rotation for a 22-win team this season. This past June, Charlotte dropped down from No. 13 (Jalen Duren) to No. 15, taking Williams, who was regularly listed as a “DNP — coach’s decision” until after Christmas. The Hornets will have two first-round picks this year, when theirs will be in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes, so hope never dies.
Jordan regularly trades his second-round picks, and his Hornets are one of two teams to never pay the luxury tax. As a reminder: Jordan also led the charge during the 2011 lockout among a group of hard-line owners who slashed the players’ share of basketball-related income from 57% to 50%. As Howard Beck noted in the moment for The New York Times, it was Jordan who, as a player during the previous lockout, told then-Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, “If you can’t make a profit, you should sell your team.”
If only profits were the excuse for Charlotte’s abysmal record in free agency. Any expectation that Jordan’s greatest asset as an owner would be his ability to woo players to the Hornets has long since subsided. His recruitment has delivered little more than distressed assets. The Hornets signed a hobbled Al Jefferson away from the Utah Jazz in 2013. He cracked the All-NBA third team in his first season for Charlotte, tore his meniscus the following year in the same knee he had previously torn his ACL and was never the same.
Jordan’s free-agent signings include the fading NBA dreams of Lance Stephenson, Jeremy Lin, Roy Hibbert, Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Parker from 2014-18. His high-profile recruits end with the oft-injured Gordon Hayward in 2020 (four years, $120 million!). There are no free-agent diamonds in the rough for the Hornets, either. Christian Wood may have been if they had not declined his minimal option in 2017.
If you have not liked what you have seen in drafts or free agency, trades have been no better. Emeka Okafor for Tyson Chandler in 2009 might have been a decent one, if the Hornets had not dealt the future Defensive Player of the Year after one season for three guys who could not make their rotation. Likewise, the trade of Gerald Wallace for two first-round picks could have worked out, had Charlotte not discarded both picks in years to come. Charlotte traded Henderson and Vonleh for Nicolas Batum in 2015, gave the Frenchman a five-year, $120 million contract a year later and waived him before the deal reached its merciful end in 2021.
It is a task to find trades of consequence during Jordan’s reign. Charlotte’s acquisition of Stephen Jackson in 2009 yielded his last two quality seasons, neither of which resulted in a single playoff victory. Mostly, the Hornets are trading one bad contract for another, often recycling players who failed previously in Charlotte.
The Jordan era has produced three playoff appearances in 17 seasons, all first-round exits, two of them sweeps. Their seven-year playoff drought will be the NBA’s longest when the Sacramento Kings reach the postseason this year for the first time since 2006. Charlotte and the Minnesota Timberwolves are otherwise tied for the fewest playoff victories (three) since Jordan joined the Hornets’ ownership group 17 years ago.
The New York Knicks are the only other team with single-digit playoff wins in a span when more than two-thirds of the league has 10 times as many postseason victories as the Hornets. We can only concede that Jordan is a superior team owner to the Knicks’ James Dolan in every aspect except fielding a winner.
Fact: For as awe-inspiring as Jordan was as a great basketball player, he is equally so as a bad team owner.