5 Stars Michael Jordan Can Chase to Improve Charlotte Hornets

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIJune 13, 2014

5 Stars Michael Jordan Can Chase to Improve Charlotte Hornets

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    The Charlotte Hornets (formerly the Bobcats) made arguably the most underrated offseason move last summer by signing Al Jefferson. Under the tutelage of first-year head coach Steve Clifford, Big Al made Third Team All-NBA and led Charlotte to its first playoff berth since 2010.

    The team was vastly improved, but owner Michael Jordan intends on bringing in more big-name pieces to make his squad a legitimate contender.

    “I always thought it was a great destination,” MJ said, per the The Charlotte Observer’s Rick Bonnell. “I think Big Al proved you can come here and make a big difference. Hopefully we can look at that and attract some other superstar.”

    The Hornets are an upstart team that appears to be just one star away from competing for a championship. Whether Jordan and the rest of Charlotte’s front office can convince another “superstar” to hop on board, though, is up for debate.

    Jefferson was wooed to Charlotte with a three-year, $40.5 million deal. Some viewed the signing as an overpay, but the veteran big man’s only year as a Bobcat proved those critics wrong.

    Jefferson and Kemba Walker create a solid core, but future success will hinge on Jordan’s ability to persuade other talents to join the cause.

5. Kevin Love, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    If Minnesota Timberwolves part-owner, president of basketball operations and head coach Flip Saunders is to be believed, more than half the league has contacted Minny about ornery superstar Kevin Love.

    “We probably have 16 teams that have called us,” Saunders said, per the Star Tribune’s Sid Hartman.

    Is it possible that the Hornets are among the suitors?

    Charlotte could potentially offer the No. 9 and No. 24 picks in this year’s draft as well as young talents like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller. It’s unclear, however, if that would be in Charlotte’s best interest. Love may not wish to sign on with Jordan’s team long-term.

    Honestly, that trade offer probably wouldn’t convince Minnesota to pull the trigger on a trade anyway, so it might be a moot point.

    At this stage, the Hornets’ best bet is chasing K-Love during free agency. They’re an admitted long shot behind the Los Angeles Lakers (Love went to UCLA), the Boston Celtics (they have Rajon Rondo and plenty of draft picks) and other worthy contenders. Nevertheless, it can’t hurt to have a six-time champion and six-time finals MVP talk with Love.

    A frontcourt tandem of Love and Jefferson is a defensive eyesore, but Clifford showed in his first year that he’s a defensive mastermind. If anyone can make Love a competent defender, it’s Clifford.

    Charlotte likely isn’t Love’s first choice, but coming out of the Eastern Conference certainly looks easier than it does out West.

4. Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Like Love, former NBA Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol won’t become a free agent until after the 2014-15 season.

    Regardless, he’s a player who should be on Jordan’s “superstar” radar.

    His defensive mindset would endear him to Coach Clifford. Perhaps more importantly, his ability to score in the post and pass better than most big men would add an interesting dynamic to Charlotte’s anemic offense.

    He was able to play in just 59 games due to injury in 2013-14, but he has a lengthy track record as a durable big man—a rarity in today’s NBA.

    The younger Gasol brother has plenty of postseason experience and is still in his prime as a 29-year-old. His unselfishness would be a nice complement to offensive stars like Walker and Jefferson, as well as spot-up shooters like Gerald Henderson and Gary Neal.

    He may not be the final piece to a championship puzzle, but his veteran presence around Charlotte's youngsters would be a net positive.

3. Carmelo Anthony, SF/PF, New York Knicks

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    The Hornets’ fanbase is undoubtedly familiar with Carmelo Anthony’s standing as a lights-out scorer.

    During a game against the Bobcats on January 24, Melo erupted for 62 points on 23-of-35 shooting (65.7 percent). He drained 6-of-11 three-pointers and all 10 of his free throws.

    It’s worth noting that the Bobcats defense ranked sixth in the Association by posting a defensive rating of 101.2, per NBA.com. That didn’t matter one lick to Anthony, who poured in points with alarming efficiency.

    His scoring prowess is exactly what Charlotte needs to reach the next level of competition, but his interest in joining the Hornets remains to be seen.

    Despite efforts from New York Knicks president of basketball operations Phil Jackson to convince his star player to opt in, Anthony plans to test free agency, per ESPNNewYork.com’s Ian Begley.

    He can choose any team he desires, but his wife—La La Anthony—said on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live, “I definitely think he will stay. I know that he wants to stay,” (h/t the New York Daily News’ Peter Botte).

    Of course, she also said, “Listen, I used to live in Denver with him. If I can live in Denver, I can live anywhere. I just want him to be happy.”

    Only 'Melo knows what he’s planning to do. Charlotte provides him with a winning situation, but other places may prove more favorable.

2. Lance Stephenson, SG, Indiana Pacers

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    Love him or hate him, Lance Stephenson is an incredibly talented basketball player and a fiery competitor.

    His antics in the Eastern Conference Finals may not have endeared him to general managers around the league, but the numbers speak for themselves.

    Stephenson led the NBA with five triple-doubles during the regular season. He also pulled down 7.2 rebounds per game, by far the most boards of any 2-guard (Gordon Hayward of the Utah Jazz was second at 5.1 per contest, per ESPN.com).

    He upped his scoring average, shot more efficiently from the field and beyond the arc, made a name for himself as a distributor and continued to play solid defense. The kicker? He’s still just 23 years old (he’ll turn 24 in September).

    Stephenson has plenty of room to grow as an NBA talent. However, he might have hurt his free-agent stock by acting out during the ECF. Charlotte can take advantage of that caveat by offering him a contract other teams may be apprehensive to match.

    “Overpaying” Jefferson worked wonders. Perhaps Jordan and Co. can nab another core piece by stealing “Born Ready” from Indy.

1. Pau Gasol, PF/C, Los Angeles Lakers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Again, the Hornets should be considered a long shot when targeting big-name free agents. Nevertheless, they’re closer to competing for a championship at this juncture when compared with the Los Angeles Lakers, who are fresh off their worst regular season in more than 50 years.

    Would Pau Gasol consider joining forces with Jefferson in Clifford’s frontcourt to create one of the NBA’s most formidable one-two interior punches?

    Being able to post up either Jefferson or Gasol—depending upon defensive matchups—on nearly every offensive possession is for the rest of the Eastern Conference a scary thing to consider.

    Both guys can score with finesse, possess a soft touch around the basket and can knock down mid-range jumpers. At times, both have been able to drain the three-ball (Gasol more so than Jefferson). Their offensive skills have made them a lot of money over the years.

    If the veteran Spaniard signs on with the dark-horse contender and plays like he did in January—he averaged 20.8 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 blocks per game for the month—Charlotte’s lackluster offense will reap the benefits.

    Granted, those absurd numbers may not resurface again, but as Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix put it, "Even after a disappointing season—and with the understanding that Gasol has never been a strap-a-team-on-his-back kind of player—Gasol will be among the most sought after free agents on the market."

    Seeing the 7-footer sign on with the Hornets is intriguing. Like the proposed Jefferson-Love pairing, defense will be a question mark. Clifford's wizardry on that end, however, could render any perceived defensive shortcomings irrelevant.

    A Gasol signing would be worth the improvements Charlotte's offense would receive, but only if he can coexist with Jefferson.

Honorable Mention: Roy Hibbert, C, Indiana Pacers

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    Roy Hibbert carved a niche with the Indiana Pacers as a two-time All-Star and dominant rim protector. His alarming lack of production during the latter half of 2013-14, however, may prompt Indy’s management to explore possible trade scenarios.

    As ESPN.com’s Marc Stein reported last month:

    There is said to be some thought on both sides -- management and Hibbert’s -- that a fresh start would be beneficial for everyone after the big man’s second-half decline.

    Hibbert’s camp hasn’t outright asked for a trade, sources say, but word is that it wouldn’t exactly oppose one if the Pacers decide to actively shop their center.

    The 7’2” skyscraper fell off the face of the Earth during the 2014 playoffs—particularly in the first round series against the Atlanta Hawks. He averaged 9.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while shooting 44.9 percent through 19 postseason games. That’s not what you want out of a franchise center getting paid max money.

    If Hibbert can somehow regain his confidence in a different environment, he’d be a solid fit in Coach Clifford’s defensive-minded atmosphere. And, because of Big Al’s presence, Hibbert wouldn’t have to be relied upon for any low-post scoring whatsoever.

    The problem with adding the former Georgetown standout—aside from his shaken confidence and inconsistent play—is that Charlotte would have to give up a variety of pieces simply to add the 27-year-old’s hefty contract.

    Signing a free agent outright is more favorable, but trading for Hibbert with his stock at an all-time low isn’t a bad option.