When the Charlotte Hornets inked center Al Jefferson to a three-year, $40.5 million deal a year ago, skeptics saw it as a desperate attempt on the part of owner Michael Jordan to legitimize his wayward franchise.
But after a 43-win season punctuated by a surprising playoff appearance, the Hornets—with three draft picks and nearly $19 million in cap space—are rearing up for a repeat effort this summer.
"I always thought Charlotte was a great destination," Jordan told the Associated Press (via ESPN.com) Monday afternoon following an education fundraiser. "Big Al has proven that you can come here and make a big difference. Hopefully we can look at that and attract some other superstars."
“Superstars” overstatement aside, Charlotte’s prospects have seldom looked brighter. With a youth-laden core featuring Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller, head coach Steve Clifford has the rudiments of a rough-and-tumble conference power in the making.
Having a trio of picks in this year’s draft—No. 9, No. 24 and No. 45—will certainly help the Hornets’ cause, giving them the flexibility to trade up, down or out, perhaps as part of a package deal to land their desired star.
That’s not to say there aren’t significant holes to fill, however. As the Charlotte Observer’s Rick Bonnell points out, the Hornets would be wise to bolster their offensive firepower, be it through the draft or with a free-agent coup:
The Bobcats’ only primary scoring option beyond Jefferson was point guard Kemba Walker, and he shot just under 40 percent from the field. Neither of two starters – shooting guard Gerald Henderson and small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – had the shooting range to stretch defenses and make things easier for Jefferson in the lane…
...It seems almost inevitable the Hornets will use one, if not both, their first-round picks to upgrade their wing shooting. Three viable candidates for the ninth pick – Creighton’s Doug McDermott, Michigan State’s Gary Harris and Michigan’s Nik Stauskas – all shot 40 percent or better from the college 3-point line last season.
Two names that come immediately to mind on the free-agent front: Luol Deng and Pau Gasol, either of whom could likely be had for less than the $19 million in cap space Charlotte currently holds—leaving a bit of extra bullion to go out and snag some ancillary pieces.
All told, Charlotte is in about as good a position as any mid-market team could hope to be under the new collective bargaining agreement. The Hornets are young and talented, with enough financial flexibility and draft picks to improve their lot in both the short and long term.
Just two years removed from a seven-win, lockout-shortened season, the Hornets have heeded an increasingly rare managerial mantra: patience.