After serving as the NBA's punching bags for quite some time, the Charlotte Hornets finally made strides in the right direction this past season thanks to some bold offseason maneuvers. But can the formula that proved successful last time around be repeated again this offseason?
While it's always tough to be a major free-agent player in a small market, Charlotte is poised once again to surprise. No one took Charlotte seriously last year despite having some major cap room to play with and Michael Jordan making the free-agent pitch, but all that space resulted in the signing of Al Jefferson, much to the surprise of the NBA at large.
While on the surface it initially looked like no more than a desperate team signing a player content with making a cash grab, Jefferson's signing turned into much more for the Hornets. It provided them with a 20-10 guy and a consistent offensive option to turn to, of course, but Jefferson's veteran leadership and dependability played a big role in guiding a team prone to making the mistakes young teams do.
It also put rookie head coach Steve Clifford in an actual position to succeed, which is something you couldn't really say for most of the coaches in the franchise's recent history.
Although he's never carried the reputation of a good defensive player, Jefferson helped anchor one of the league's best defenses. It was the marriage of the roster's youth and athleticism with the intelligence of free-agent signings like Jefferson and Josh McRoberts that helped make the Bobcats work on that end.
Clifford didn't get much publicity for Coach of the Year with so many other great candidates out there, but taking that roster to the playoffs was one of the better coaching jobs we've seen in a while.
There are some questions, though, about the upward mobility of the roster and what can be done from here. Clifford did an excellent job, but can he squeeze any more out of the available talent going forward?
It's hard to say, but the good news is that the Hornets are once again armed with assets to improve their roster greatly. Here's what Jordan told reporters recently:
Jordan said Monday that with three draft picks and more than $13 million to spend in free agency the Hornets are in position to make a "big difference" in upgrading their roster.
"I think we made a difference last year with Big Al [Jefferson] and some of the acquisitions, and I don't anticipate this year being any different," Jordan said. ...
"I always thought Charlotte was a great destination," Jordan said. "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."
While the Hornets could probably afford to upgrade in terms of talent at every position except point guard (Kemba Walker) and center (Jefferson), probably the biggest need is finding a reliable scorer on the wing.
Gerald Henderson is a solid player, but he's better suited leading a second unit as opposed to trying to post up bigger wings with clunky floor spacing.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a great energy guy, but it's just too hard to survive offensively when you're not getting any floor spacing from one of your wings. Until his jumper becomes a threat at all, MKG is better served as a small-ball 4 and role player.
Despite their winning record, the Hornets ranked 24th in offensive efficiency last year, so there's certainly plenty of room for improvement. When you see Charlotte ranked 25th in three-pointers made, it's not hard to connect the dots and see where they need improvement. Finding shooting and scoring on the wing is a must.
Of course, there's hope that the young guys will continue to improve and solve some of Charlotte's issues organically. Here's what Jordan told the media: "We have a bunch of young talent that we still are trying to nourish into some better basketball players. ... So summer is when we have to make our big leap."
Depending on the internal view of players like Cody Zeller and Kidd-Gilchrist, it might not be a bad idea for Charlotte to trade the ninth pick in the draft to find an established veteran. Given the shaky draft history of Jordan and company, dealing a highly coveted pick in a deep draft should be able to bring back a veteran talent.
Even if it's someone who doesn't carry "star" status like Orlando Magic swingman Arron Afflalo or Portland Trail Blazers guard Wes Matthews, those are proven three-and-D guys who could help Charlotte be a serious contender in a wide-open Eastern Conference behind the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers.
If the Hornets do stay put in the draft and don't move up or back, they should have their pick of a few talented wing guys like Nik Stauskas, Rodney Hood, Gary Harris or Zach LaVine. There's also a strong chance that a highly touted power forward like Aaron Gordon or Julius Randle falls as well. Either way, Charlotte should feel comfortable taking a "best player available" approach in the draft, then homing in on needs through free agency.
So who could be the next Al Jefferson? It should be a player who can really fit into the high-effort culture that Clifford established. Jordan explained more to the media about what Clifford was able to do:
The guys came out and took the initiative from coach. He was able to bond and get a really good effort. This (offseason) we have a lot of flexibility. I’ve been speaking about that the last three to four years – (how) that flexibility is very important. We’ll utilize every resource to improve the team. I don’t think that will change this summer.
Charlotte's flexibility should scare opposing teams, particularly those with restricted free agents. While those teams always reserve the right to match, Charlotte should be able to sign players coming off rookie deals to a max contract.
Hayward in particular would seem to be a great fit, and it's possible that Charlotte is the team that sets the market for at least one young player in free agency.
There are unrestricted free agents Charlotte could flirt with as well. This could be an interesting spot for Lance Stephenson, even if there would likely be some concerns about his personality dominating the locker room. Trevor Ariza would be a great fit, but a lot would depend on the price.
Even a veteran like Vince Carter, a North Carolina legend, could end up finishing his career for the Bobcats and providing some perimeter shooting.
There will be a lot of options here, but it's wise for Charlotte to aim big first and then work its way down. It's quite possible the market for some of these big names won't be as friendly as the Hornets imagined, and Charlotte does have a lot more to offer than before thanks to its recent success and Jefferson paving the path.
No matter how it's done, Charlotte needs more offensive firepower on the wing and to use its assets to upgrade the talent level on its roster. Last year was a good start, but to really play with the big boys, Jordan is going to have to hit home runs in the draft and free agency.