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kerosene
02-09-2004, 03:12 PM
Building the Bobcats: money for nothin', picks for free

The Charlotte Bobcats barely exist. There's a logo, there's a coach and there sure are T-shirts for sale, but there also is a front office that operates out of four different locations, not to mention an arena that's just a few bricks beyond the pile-of-dirt stage (it'll be ready in 2005). If you think that's rough going for a team scheduled to debut in eight months, consider the Bobcats roster: There isn't one.

That might make the Bobcats a non-entity to most, but around the NBA, Charlotte's blank roster looms large. It is part threat, part opportunity and, sometimes, a little of both.

The team's expansion draft is scheduled for June 22, and though the rulebook governing that draft is thick and packed with lawyerly obfuscation, the overall guidelines are simple: Teams can protect eight players but not unrestricted free agents; Charlotte then has its pick of the unprotected players but can take only one from each team.

The first problem for general managers is obvious. If you have nine players you'd like to keep, you're going to lose one of them. Or, if you're Memphis, for example, and have 12 players you'd like to protect, you're up the river. "That is the price of being deep in an expansion year," says Pistons president Joe Dumars.

The second problem with expansion is the opposite -- not having enough players to protect. This is where Charlotte's roster presents an opportunity, as a dumping ground for bad contracts. Expansion rules allow the Bobcats to select a player, waive him and have the money taken off their payroll (they would continue to pay the player, but his salary would not count against the cap). The idea behind that rule is to give the Bobcats flexibility. Because Charlotte is forced to pick over the league's scraps, the team should be able to change its mind without killing its cap situation. Teams that have only eight players with contracts heading into next year must protect all eight and have no opportunity to expose bad contracts.

Take Portland, for example. Entering last week, the Trail Blazers had nine players with contracts heading into next season. But suppose they want to expose both Damon Stoudamire and Ruben Patterson, two players with bad contracts. Because the Blazers must protect eight players, they would be able to leave only one player unprotected. Perhaps with that scenario in mind, when the Blazers signed guard Eddie Gill last Thursday, they included a second year on the deal. Now, with Gill, they have contracts for 10 players -- and can leave Stoudamire and Patterson unprotected. Adding a wrinkle to this is that the Bobcats can be bribed. Expansion rules allow teams to offer the Bobcats draft picks and up to $3 million to select certain players. In the Portland example, the Bobcats, theoretically, could draft Patterson, waive him and receive a pick and cash from Portland.

With the February 19 trade deadline approaching, the Bobcats are on every league executive's mind. "You'll probably see some deals that don't make sense at first," says Warriors general manager Garry St. Jean. "Teams are going to have to make tough choices, and when you start talking trades, that expansion is an item you have to keep on the board."

Bobcats coach and general manager Bernie Bickerstaff chuckles about the last-minute haggling by other teams. He has heard rumors about who will be exposed -- Grant Hill? Antonio Davis? Keith Van Horn? -- but he knows to pay little attention to February's whispers. In May, Bickerstaff (as well as team owner Bob Johnson and vice president Ed Tapscott) can begin negotiating with teams. In the meantime, he says of the rumor mill, "The skullduggery has begun."

Bickerstaff says the Bobcats' goal is simple: To quickly identify a core group of players and build from there. He'd like a team that is "good on chemistry and work ethic" and based on a team-wide system rather than one player. Charlotte has a five-tiered scouting system, collecting data on NBA players, minor league players, college players, high school players and international players, as well as on different coaches and systems. So that the Bobcats don't have a huge payroll advantage over other teams, Charlotte will start with a salary cap that is two-thirds of the league's cap (about $31 million). The ideal player for the Bobcats will be young, talented and cheap, but Charlotte certainly will accept cash and draft picks to select and cut older players that other teams want to wipe off their books.

"You hear a lot about teams that are going to put only high-priced players out there," Bickerstaff says. "That's something we have to consider. We have to consider all scenarios. We don't know what will be submitted."

Bickerstaff can speculate on which players will be available, but he knows that's foolish -- with Charlotte firmly in the minds of personnel executives as the trade deadline nears, rosters will change, and be shaped, in part by the Bobcats. That leaves Charlotte in an odd position, with a roster that does not exist but is affecting every other team.

"I've been in the league for 30 years," says Bickerstaff. "I've gone into rebuilding situations before, but even with that, you start with assets. Here, we have no assets."

Which is the Bobcats' biggest asset of all.

Sean Deveney is a staff writer for Sporting News. Email him at sdeveney@sportingnews.com.

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