Hornets general manager Rich Cho entered into the most precarious free agency period of his career last week. Five of the Playoff squad’s top rotation players were unrestricted free agents. Each could leave Charlotte cleanly with no strings attached and the Hornets had no recourse to match any offer they received.
The franchise clearly wants to continue to build upon last season’s 48 win team and with Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist entering their primes on longterm value contracts, tanking made little sense. The team had to stay good.
Cho’s situation would have been challenging in any NBA offseason but this July in particular was a floss-thin tightrope walk thanks to a meager free agent class combined with an unprecedented $24 million spike in the league’s salary cap.
By some estimates, the total amount of cap space available amongst the NBA’s thirty teams was as high as $1 billion. Charlotte’s high character, well-coached free agents were in demand. Rival fanbases were rabid with anticipation over picking the Hornets’ Playoff carcass clean.
Somehow a small market franchise with little history and zero superstars had to lure back or replace their starting shooting guard, small forward, power forward, backup center and backup point guard in one calendar week with only a modest amount of cap space to work with.
Key Free Agents Return: Batum and Williams
Normally when a small market NBA franchise is faced with this sort of dilemma, their only recourse is to either massively downgrade for cheaper players or vastly overpay in order to retain quality talent or lure similar ones.
Rich Cho and his staff did neither. Two starters, Nic Batum (5yrs, $120m) and Marvin Williams (4yrs, $54m), signed long term extensions BELOW market value. Easily the team’s most important and most coveted free agents, both players reportedly had more lucrative offers to go elsewhere but elected to stay with the no superstar, small market team instead.
This is extremely impressive and speaks to the culture, both in the front office and on the coaching staff that Charlotte has been able to build after the burnout Larry Brown/Rod Higgins era just a half decade ago.
The Hornets traded away a Top 10 Lottery pick (Noah Vonleh) last summer for the right to recruit Nic in house for a year. The gamble paid off. Nic could’ve asked for another $30m* (his full max) on top of the 5 year deal Charlotte offered him. Another team could’ve offered him (and likely did) nearly the same amount on a 4 year max offer. Batum resisted either temptation.
(*Keep this tidbit in mind two and three years from now when Charlotte hits the free agent market in 2018 and 2019. That extra $30m could be the difference between signing an All-Star or an average starter.)
Speaking of savings, let me be the first Hornet fan to offically say thank you to Marvin for taking the Early Bird contract. Yes, I know it’s a crazy world when $54m is considered a “discount” – when most of us would be happy with a tiny fraction of that amount in our pockets but relatively speaking, Marvin could’ve easily spurned the Hornets for a shorter contract at nearly the same amount.
By accepting the Early Bird offer, the Hornets were able to lock in Marvin’s cap hold at just north of $9m (~$3.5m less than his actual salary). There were rumors that Williams was being offered $16m as a starting salary and if he forced Charlotte’s hand in matching it, the Hornets would’ve had to go into cap space to bring him back – rendering it impossible to add eventual depth at PG and C.
So if Ramon Sessions or Roy Hibbert swing a close game Charlotte’s way next season, you know who to thank.
Replacement Shooting Guard: Lee to Belinelli
Courtney Lee, who arrived in a mid-season trade as a fill-in replacement for an injured MKG, was a coveted “3&D” wing who was looking at a minimum eight figure deal in the current market.
Knowing this, the Hornets made a proactive trade before the Draft, sending out their 22nd overall pick for Lee’s replacement, Marco Belinelli. At a little over $6 million per over the next two seasons, Belinelli will count half as much against the cap as Courtney Lee’s $12 million per season deal with the Knicks.
Marco is a defensive downgrade for certain, but with MKG returning to the lineup, Belinelli won’t be asked to play the same role. MKG and Batum will handle difficult wings, allowing Marco to do the things Lee couldn’t – facilitate, create offense and shots off the dribble – primarily with the second unit.
Ultimately, given the quality of this year’s Draft class, sacrificing a late round pick in order to save $35m in future cap flexibility (Marco is guaranteed a total of $12.9m, Lee $48m) is hardly an unforgivable sin. The aesthetics of this trade will look much better a year from now.
Replacement Backup Point Guard: Lin to Sessions
First the good news. Jeremy Lin’s ability to get hot and take over the occasional game can be replicated somewhat by Belinelli. If either Frank Kaminsky (likely) or Jeremy Lamb (less likely) take a step forward, Lin’s departure will allow them even more opportunities to become shot creators and makers with the reserve unit.
Now the bad news. As much as I like Ramon Sessions as a gritty, pick and roll point guard who can get to the rim, he is unquestionably a downgrade as an all around fill-in starter.
Lockout season aside, Kemba Walker has managed 80+ games played only twice in his career and just had another meniscus surgery following the season. Given his size and playing style, the chances of Kemba missing fifteen or twenty games are high enough to make you worry and Sessions as a starter is CLEARLY a downgrade from Lin.
But given the market conditions – this was a painfully thin PG class – and the Hornets other free agent priorities, downgrading from Lin was an inevitability. Jeremy was the best backup PG in the NBA last season and is good enough to start. Given the terms of his Brooklyn contract (3yrs, $36m), he obviously prioritized the starting role over potential cash.
Some fans have complained about the team choosing Sessions (2yrs, $12m – second year team option) over Brandon Jennings (1yr, $5m) but Jennings is a major injury risk in his own right and with Ramon having once a been a Bobcat, Cho and Steve Clifford ran with the devil they knew versus the devil they didn’t.
GRADE: C+ (highest possible given circumstances)
Replacement Backup Center: Big Al to Hibbert
The Hornets somehow managed a Top 10 NBA defense during Al Jefferson’s first year in Charlotte. Part of the smoke and mirrors D was slowing the team’s pace down to a crawl and feeding a prime Big Al entry passes. This worked great for a season and then Jefferson started getting hurt and putting on weight (or maybe it was in reverse order?).
At some point two years ago Clifford started watching Warriors games and realized that puttying together a inside-out offense and a paint-paranoid defense was only going to get a team so far. He set out to create the four out, one in system that propelled Charlotte to a Top 10 offense AND defense last season.
Gone was the steady diet of old man “1 in, 4 watch” post feeds (and 4 guard, 1 watches paint defense). Instead we had Cody pushing the limits of SportsVU tracking, setting what seemed like five screens on every possession while his floor stretching teammates moved the ball around to find an open shooter.
Although it seemed unimaginable to think back in Big Al’s dominant 2013 All-NBA season, just two summers later the team (and maybe the entire league) had passed him by.
You could pretty much cut and paste the above paragraph into Roy Hibbert’s recent bio and it would be accurate. At the end of the 2013 season, Hibbert was widely viewed as major NBA asset and a borderline star.
At 7’2”, 270+ pounds, Roy is a giant and one of the few seven foot plus players to have never battled foot injuries. He was the game’s best rim protector just a few short seasons ago and is still only 29 years old.
The Hornets are clearly buying low. Hibbert signed a one year deal at half the price that Jefferson will be paid next season from Roy’s first team ($10m per from the Pacers). It’s a smart move by both sides.
Roy is banking on big man guru (and fellow Georgetown icon) Patrick Ewing doing for him what the staff has done with Jefferson and Dwight Howard over the years: Have a renaissance campaign and cash in next summer for one last pay day.
Hibbert will play serious minutes for Charlotte next season; anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t watched Clifford coach. Cliff loves veterans and he loves size and he loves rim protection. Unless Roy utterly poops the bed with his effort, conditioning or effectiveness, expect him to average 16-20 minutes a night, depending on the matchup.
With Cody entrenched as the team’s starter, Frank bulking up for more minutes at the five and Spencer Hawes still on the books, the Hornets suddenly have a ton of depth at center – but only one of those guys can protect the paint. Given that Roy’s previous team just guaranteed a gimpy Timofey Mozgov $64 million over four years, a one year flyer on Hibbert at $5 million is a terrific gamble.
FiveThirtyEight’s Carmelo Projections are mostly favorable for Charlotte’s longterm contracts and upcoming restricted free agent candidates (Zeller and Kaminsky).
Given Marvin’s age and career numbers last season, you’d expect his projections to suffer the most and they do – dropping off to just 1.7 Wins Above Replacement in his player option fourth year. Kemba and Nic Batum are projected to play at an All-Star or near All-Star level for at least the next three seasons. MKG, Cody and Frank will enter the season at age 23 or younger.
From a cap perspective, barring a major trade, the Hornets are essentially punting on 2017 Free Agency. The Steph Come Home hopefuls (myself included) likely had our dreams dashed the moment Kevin Durant made his Super Team decision. Realistically, Curry was the only superstar who was ever going to sign with Charlotte as an unrestricted free agent in his prime. With that possibility removed, locking up the roster’s core for the next few seasons was the next logical plan.
Assuming that Cody Zeller signs a reasonable extension in the next 12 months (4yrs, $48m sounds right given 2017’s more robust FA class and smaller cap spike), the Hornets will be capped out next summer but could have as much as $20m in cap space in 2018 to go after an All-Star quality talent. See the attached a projected salary chart below for more details.
Extend Cho (#ExtendCho)
I’ve been on the Rich Cho bandwagon since he joined the Bobcats in 2011. The one quality decision that Rod Higgins made during his entire stint with the franchise was recommending Cho to ownership. His reputation as a terrible drafter is somewhat unearned – we still have no idea who makes the Draft day calls – but his asset management, trade and free agent work has been exemplary since day one.
If you stop and think about the hand Cho and his team were dealt heading into the offseason**, it’s borderline amazing what they were able to pull off. The quality of the Hornets roster is either on par with last season’s; arguably stronger and certainly deeper.
Here’s hoping the next extension made by the team is for Cho himself.
(**and if you really want to be impressed go back and check out the Bobcats cap sheet, roster and draft pick situation prior to Cho’s hire in 2011)