Charlotte Hornets Could Be Annual Contenders If Key Free Agents Return

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 1, 2016

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 23: Nicolas Batum #5 and Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets look on during the game against the Boston Celtics on December 23, 2015 at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice:  Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)
Kent Smith/Getty Images

MIAMI — Behind a spread-out offensive attack and a near-All-Star-level climb from Kemba Walker, the Charlotte Hornets forced their way onto the NBA radar in 2015-16.

But injury issues, shooting woes and a lack of experience ultimately forced the Hornets out of the playoffs and into an offseason littered with question marks.

Sunday's 106-73 Game 7 loss to the Miami Heat was hardly indicative of their ability. The Hornets encountered nightmare scenarios on both ends of the floor, failing to find any offensive rhythm or defensive stability. Charlotte's 32.1 field-goal percentage sagged 16 points below Miami's, and the Hornets' final scoring tally barely covered the Heat's paint points (58).

"We didn't play obviously anywhere near the way we would have liked to," Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. "So, today is tough."

May 1, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford (left) during the first half in game seven of the first round of the NBA Playoffs against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Still, progress was clearly made. The Hornets posted their best record since 1999-00 at 48-34 and enjoyed their first postseason victory since 2002.

"A lot of people didn't even think we'd be here," Walker said. "I'm just really happy with my team's effort. ... We'll be back better and stronger."

The sentiment is easy to follow.

Charlotte showed steady progress throughout the season, posting the NBA's third-best record after the All-Star break. It also has a nucleus of young talent that should continue to develop, including 25-year-old Walker, 23-year-old Cody Zeller, 23-year-old Frank Kaminsky and 22-year-old Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who lost all but seven games of this season to a shoulder injury.

But improvement is never guaranteed. The Hornets had all the makings of an up-and-comer in 2013-14, reeling off 43 wins and snapping a three-year playoff drought. Then, injuries struck key contributors, a free-agency gamble on Lance Stephenson failed and Charlotte sagged back to a 33-49 record in 2014-15.

It's hard to predict how much of this corps will call Charlotte home next season. The Hornets have an important group of veterans heading to free agency, several of whom will be heavily courted in a market where demand far outweighs supply.

Charlotte's Significant Impending Free Agents
PlayerNotable Numbers2015-16 Salary
Nicolas Batum14.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 5.8 APG$13,125,307
Al Jefferson12.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 0.9 BPG$13,500,000
Courtney Lee8.9 PPG, 2.1 APG, 39.2 3P%$5,675,000
Jeremy Lin (player option)11.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 3.0 APG$2,139,000
Marvin Williams11.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 40.2 3P%$7,000,000
Sources: Basketball-Reference.com, Spotrac

Do-it-all swingman Nicolas Batum could be worthy of a max contract in this new economic environment. Three-and-D wing Courtney Lee might fetch a massive raise. Marvin Williams is entering free agency at a perfect time, with his stretch-4 skills enhanced by career bests in three-point makes (152) and percentage (40.2). Jeremy Lin, who should swiftly decline his $2.2 million player option, looks great as a third guard.

Al Jefferson's fit in the modern game isn't always clear. He's neither a floor-spacer nor a rim protector, but he's an incredibly skilled scorer in the post and someone who Clifford often cited as Charlotte's key to pulling defenders away from the perimeter shooters. Jefferson won't have trouble sniffing out a contract, even if he's the lone member of this group to see a salary reduction.

The Hornets could have upward of $42 million in cap space, which could be spread around to three of those players. Maybe more, if the desire to keep this core intact is strong enough to facilitate some discounted deals.

"We spoke about [free agency] quite a few times within the team and with each other," Lee said. "We like our group. We want to keep it together. We understand it's a business, so both sides, both parties have to come to an agreement."

Whatever it takes to keep Batum is worth the investment. Foot and ankle injuries limited his impact on this series, but at full strength, he's a versatile defender and a potent offensive player on or off the ball.

"Nic is an all-around player on the court," Jefferson told Bleacher Report. "He can do so many different things. And it takes pressure off Kemba."

The other free-agency decisions won't be so easy to make.

Williams had the widest on/off disparity of Hornets regulars during the regular season (plus-5.2 with him, plus-0.5 without), and players with his particular skills are highly sought after. Lee won't be cheap, and the Hornets could need to free up perimeter minutes for Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeremy Lamb, whose $21 million extension kicks in next season.

Given the dearth of point guard depth behind Mike Conley in this free-agent class, Lin could have several high-dollar suitors. He has a history with Kenny Atkinson, the new head coach of the point guard-starved Brooklyn Nets. Jefferson could be an interior option for those who miss out on Al Horford, Hassan Whiteside and Dwight Howard. And if Jefferson's price goes up, the Hornets could turn the keys over to Zeller and Kaminsky.

Charlotte could be content to keep everyone around. Hornets general manager Rich Cho told Bleacher Report earlier this season that he'd like to "keep the team together if it all possible."

But the market may not make that a viable option.

"Any time you make strides with a team...I think you do want to try to build on that," Williams told Bleacher Report. "You want to try to bring guys back, and I'm sure guys want to be back. Obviously, you never know what happens in free agency, but I'm sure everybody will try to get back."

The Hornets could have another hole to fill outside of their roster. Lead assistant coach Patrick Ewing will interview for the Sacramento Kings' head coaching vacancy, Clifford confirmed before the game.

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 21:  (L-R) Assistant coach Patrick Ewing and head coach Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets react during their game against the San Antonio Spurs at Time Warner Cable Arena on March 21, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.NOTE TO U
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Even if there are a few departures along the way, Charlotte will pick up a reinforcements.

Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 pick in 2012, could be a clean bill of health away from a breakout. He's already a shutdown defender, active rebounder and relentless fast-break finisher. His ceiling sits at a skyscraper's height if he finds a sustainable shooting stroke.

"He'll be back, man, and he'll be ready," Williams told Bleacher Report. "No matter who's suiting up with him, you're gonna get a hell of a player and a hell of a captain in MKG."

The Hornets also hold the No. 22 selection in the upcoming draft, which could net them another rotation piece.

So, there are reasons to find solace in this disappointing exit. The nucleus is good already and better off after having experienced this series. There's an undeniable opportunity for individual and collective growth, plus the potential to keep adding pieces.

If Charlotte keeps its most pivotal players around and expands the talent base a bit, then 2016-17 could be another leap year for this rising franchise.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand. Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com. Salary information obtained via Basketball Insiders.