Rich Cho’s Season Has Only Begun
Nearly seven months ago I predicted the Hornets would win 44 games and finish sixth in the East. Most called this prediction overly optimistic and a few called it naive. In the end, Charlotte surprised us all by totaling 48 victories, finishing just a game out of the third seed despite a myriad of injuries to key players and a drastic change in their style of play. It was without question the most successful post-relocation season in Charlotte NBA history. Now it’s up to Rich Cho and the team’s front office to continue this success and propel the team to the next level.
Batum is Everything
When Charlotte traded for Nic last summer, there was no question about the player’s talent or fit; it was Batum’s impending unrestricted free agency status that loomed over the entire season. Credit the Hornets for making his return feel more inevitable than it should and Nic’s postgame remarks after Game 7 sounded like a guy who plans on being back. The hope is that both sides have something on the table the minute free agency kicks off in July. They’ll need to make it quick. Why?
The Hornets have to structure their offseason plans around Batum for two reasons:
- He’s one of the team’s top three players along with MKG and Kemba Walker and his abilities as a point forward are a perfect fit alongside them.
- His near $20 million cap hold needs to be addressed before the team explores alternative options.
For those unfamiliar with cap holds, unrestricted free agents count against a team’s cap sheet until they either sign with another team or are renounced by their current one.
Batum will turn 28 next December and is in the beginning of his prime. Inking a deal that pays him near max money into his early 30s does make sense from the player’s perspective, especially a wing. Alternatively, Nic could gamble on himself with a short term deal or a player option after two seasons but as we saw last offseason, even with new CBA cash around the corner, players are much more likely to take the safe money – especially if it’s in the vicinity of $20m per.
Ultimately, Nic seems happy in Charlotte and comfortable with the coaching staff, front office and ownership. Expect His Airness to pony up with the largest contract ever signed on his watch as an owner: 5 years, $100 million with a player option in the 5th year. Little Ayden Richard Batum will be living that bon vivant 4LIFE.
PREDICTION: Batum Returns on a near max contract
Bon Voyage, Big Al
Jefferson finished the season in a quintessential Big Al sorta way. He shot 50% against Miami and manufactured offense when the Hornets couldn’t buy a bucket. But he was also in less than great shape and contributed to Charlotte’s atrocious postseason paint defense.
Coach Clifford received a blessing in disguise when Jefferson went down with an injury slash suspension midseason, discovering that a Cody Zeller/Marvin Williams frontcourt (especially when combined with MKG at the three) was much more effective at both ends of the floor.
Big Al turns 32 next January and his inability to get into or stay in shape does not bode well for his future play. Renouncing his rights frees up a valuable $20 million in cap space for Charlotte to use on Jeremy Lin (player option) or
Courtney Lee (updated, see below) both of whom will need to be re-signed via cap space (no Bird Rights). The Hornets could also use the $20 million in conjunction with another move (salary dumping Spencer Hawes and/or Jeremy Lamb) to bring in Dwight Howard.
Either way, I fully expect Jefferson to be playing elsewhere next season. Thanks for the memories Big Al. We’ll always have the 2013-2014 Bobcats season.
PREDICTION: Jefferson is renounced, signs elsewhere
Key Secondary Guys
Of the three key secondary free agents (Williams, Lee, Lin), only Marvin ($9.1m cap hold) can be re-signed over the cap.
[UPDATED: The Hornets have Full Bird Rights for Lee, Early Bird Rights for Marvin and non-Bird Rights for Lin. So the team can go over the cap to sign Lee but given situation outlined below, I still believe he’s the least likely to return.]
Technically Lin isn’t a free agent yet but he’ll surely opt out of his $2.2 million player option in July; even so Jeremy’s cap hold will be less than $3 million so the Hornets will have some wiggle room to wait (if) they re-sign him.
Lee’s cap hold ($10.8m) complicates things for his return and with MKG healthy and Jeremy Lamb being groomed for a larger role, he’s my bet for least likely to return of the three.
Marvin will turn 30 in June and has logged a decent amount of miles. The elbow injury prior to the Miami series explains his disappearance on the offensive end. He was a key cog all season for Charlotte and a fantastic fit when Clifford goes small at the five with either Zeller or Kaminsky. I could see the Hornets offering a one-year $12 million deal and Marv taking it. Why that much and why one year? More on this later.
Lin is the most interesting of the three in many ways. He’s clearly found a home with Clifford as a third guard. MJ loves him and Lin’s off the court ability to attract East Asian/Asian-American interest in the team can’t be denied.
Given his consistent struggles with turnovers and his jumper (one of which did improve this season) I would be surprised if another team were to offer him their starting gig. Something in the neighborhood of 3 years, $21 million seems about right for J-Lin. He’ll get consistent minutes and a positive environment to showcase his talents. Consider him Kirk Hinrich in teal (or a more likable Ramon Sessions).
PREDICTION: Marvin and Lin return, Lee walks
A Big Handsome Payday
Cody enters the final year of his rookie deal next season that will pay him a little north of $5 million. The following season he’s scheduled to count over $13m via cap hold. Cho won’t let it come to that. Charlotte has extended their Lottery picks in back to back seasons (Kemba, MKG) and I fully expect them to do the same with Zeller this summer.
Fortunately Cody is still under the radar enough that Cho can likely get a deal done, even in the current cap environment, for something less than his on-coming cap hold. Again, just like Marvin, this is important and I’ll cover it more below. Something like 4 years, $40 million makes sense for a skilled, mobile seven footer like Zeller.
PREDICTION: Cody signs a four year extension lower than his 2017-2018 cap hold
Rounding Out the Roster
Troy Daniels, Tyler Hansbrough, Jorge Gutierrez are unrestricted free agents. Daniels is the most valuable and is likely to be retained if the numbers are right but don’t expect Charlotte to break the bank if another team shocks him with real money.
Aaron Harrison has a league minimum non-guaranteed option that could be picked up if the Hornets like his progress. Exhaustion plagued Kemba in the Playoffs; if Harrison isn’t ready to play, expect the Hornets to pursue a veteran 3rd PG later in free agency.
Charlotte owns the 22nd pick in the Draft and could find a developmental big man or rotation player late.
The Hornets traded their 2nd Round pick to Oklahoma City as part of the Jeremy Lamb deal.
PREDICTION: Charlotte supplements their core with a third PG and backup Center.
Focus on 2017-2018
Make no mistake, the Hornets will compete in 2016-2017. With a (fingers crossed) healthy MKG, Kemba and Batum and one of the league’s best coaches and GMs – Charlotte has assembled a solid foundation on which to build. Next season should be about building on the previous one, trying to earn homecourt and win a round in the Playoffs; then pushing the momentum forward towards the summer of 2017. Why?
Because (if you buy my predictions above) the Hornets will have all of their key guys under contract that summer with an additional $26 million in free cap space. If they can prove to a key All-Star free agent that they’re only one player away after next season, they have a shot of luring a top tier guy to the Queen City. Then the fun really starts.
Until then, enjoy the offseason Hornets fans…