CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It's hard to imagine things looking any bleaker for the Bobcats.
They've lost 10 straight games, have the NBA's worst record and are coming off a 44-point drubbing Wednesday night at Portland, the worst loss in franchise history.
That's why Charlotte director of basketball operations Rod Higgins said now, more than ever, the Bobcats need to exercise patience.
Higgins said the Bobcats are still very young, playing without their three best players and, perhaps most importantly, that making a trade right now that would eat up cap space next season could be detrimental to the long-term future of the franchise.
"You have to resist a kneejerk reaction," Higgins said.
Being patient is a lot to ask of fans because the present is so bleak. The Bobcats are 3-20 entering Saturday night's game at Phoenix.
However, by standing pat this season, the Bobcats would be in shape to make some noise in free agency next season.
According to NBA documents, if the Bobcats remain status quo this year they'll be around $20 million under next year's salary cap. They could potentially create even more cap space if they were to use the amnesty clause on Corey Maggette (due $10.9 million in 2012-13), Tyrus Thomas ($8 million) or Gana Diop ($7.3 million).
They're looking to be in even better shape in 2013-14 with only three players — Tyrus Thomas and rookies Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo — under contract at a combined salary cap hit of $13.8 million.
That means — along with adding a top draft pick next year — the Bobcats potentially could sign a big name or two in free agency.
"Being a competitor you want to win," Higgins said. "So it's hard. You want to think of ways and how you can position yourself for the short term as opposed to long term, but you have to stay patient avoid that kneejerk reaction. You have to stay the course and see it through and try to develop your young guys."
Higgins predicts the Bobcats will be "active" in free agency, but stopped short of saying how much turnover there will be in the roster.
He said that will be determined over the next three months.
"We're set up to get into the free agent market the next two years," Higgins said. "And with that advantage all kinds of situations come into play for you — whether it's signing a big-time free agent or maybe signing two or three quality players that enhance the talent level on your team, or being a conduit in a trade.
"Maybe there is a three-way opportunity where two teams are in a situation to make a trade and you're helping yourself because of your ability to wash money through the deal and pick up an asset in return. Maybe that's a first-round pick or a young asset from another team."
Higgins wouldn't reveal details of the team's strategy next season or talk about potential targets.
But there's a growing sense the Bobcats want to find a marquee player who can become the face of the franchise. Earlier this offseason owner Michael Jordan said in a press conference he'd be interested in making a play for Chris Paul if he were to hit the free agent market.
A few hours later Paul was traded from the Hornets to the Clippers.
Whether or not that's an indication Jordan is willing and ready to spend big-time money next year remains to be seen.
In the meantime, this has been a brutal year for the Bobcats.
Coach Paul Silas said he's spent plenty of sleepless nights trying to figure out how to help the team become more competitive.
He's not had it easy.
Maggette has missed almost the entire season, while D.J. Augustin has been sidelined for six games and Gerald Henderson has been in and out of the lineup, too.
Silas said before the season he expected Maggette to be the focal point of the offense and to average more than 20 points per game.
He called the team a work in progress.
"We have to understand that, but it's been difficult," Silas said. "It's been unbelievably hard. And there's really nothing I can do about it. The guys are playing as hard as they can. We just don't have enough (talent) at this particular point."
As ugly it's been at times in the past for the Bobcats, things seemed to hit rock bottom Wednesday night.
Led by Gerald Wallace, who the Bobcats traded away, the Trail Blazers jumped out to a 17-point first quarter lead and dismantled Charlotte 112-68.
"You take the three top players off anyone's team and they're not going to do well," Silas said. "If I had a full squad and we were losing this way, it would be awful. But you take (LaMarcus) Aldridge and Wallace off (the Blazers), and see what kind of team you have."
The 10-game losing streak is the longest in franchise history.
And losing seems to be taking its toll.
"It gets to a point where it's just embarrassing, and you don't want to continue," said Henderson, who has been troubled by back problems and left Wednesday night's game with a right hamstring injury in the third quarter. "So you just have to continue to play hard. I love to play this game, so it's more of a pride thing than anything."
Associated Press writer Anne M. Peterson in Portland, Ore. contributed to this report