Things are looking up in the Queen City, but a bad summer could stop all of their momentum
Barring an unforeseen collapse over the next eight games, the Charlotte Hornets (43-31) are poised to cap a successful season with an unexpected playoff berth. The Hornets have defied the odds this season despite Michael Kidd-Gilchrist appearing in just seven games and former All-NBA selection Al Jefferson missing half of the campaign battling a combination of injuries and Father Time.
The club has been spurred by the continued development of explosive guard Kemba Walker and resurgent bounce-back years from veterans Marvin Williams and Nicolas Batum. The club currently sits fifth in the Eastern Conference standings and are just one game behind the Southeast Division leading Atlanta Hawks (currently third).
But as good as things are looking in Charlotte, the next few months will go a long way to see if they can sustain the success rate.
The team’s front office has plenty of questions to address once the offseason begins. While Walker is locked up through the 2018-19 campaign, Batum, Jefferson and Williams are headed to unrestricted free agency in July.
Jefferson has missed over 50 games since being selected to the All-NBA third team in 2014. While Jefferson is still a productive scorer in the post, the Hornets will have to decide if they want to invest in a long-term annual eight figure payday for the veteran. Jefferson has experienced declines in points, rebounds, minutes and games played in each season since 2014.
On the other hand, it remains a mystery if Batum views his long-term future in Charlotte.
The veteran forward is currently averaging 15.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 65 games this season. Last season, Batum managed to play 71 contests, but was limited to 9.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists in an injury-plagued campaign.
To his credit, knowing he will be a top target this summer, Batum hasn’t let his looming free agency status become a distraction to the team.
“I’ve been around teams where people think about their contract and their personal situation. I can’t understand that,” Batum said, according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. “With this team, we know if we do great as a team, if we all do our jobs, everything will work out.”
Rounding out the key decisions for Charlotte’s front office is the fate of Williams. The former University of North Carolina standout was a part-time starter a year ago, but has emerged as a starter in every game he’s appeared in this season. Williams has also knocked down a career-high 135 three-pointers on 40 percent shooting from deep, which will undoubtedly make him an attractive target in a league that values frontcourt perimeter threats.
Williams’ return could hinge on the health of Kidd-Gilchrist and the continued development of Charlotte’s youthful big men Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky.
The Hornets have continued to defy the odds and remain relevant heading into playoff time. But the team’s long-term possibilities for emerging into the league’s elite will likely come down to how they execute at the negotiating table come July.
Despite struggles, the Cavaliers are still in command of the Eastern Conference
The Golden State Warriors (68-7) and San Antonio Spurs (63-12) currently sit head and shoulders above the rest of the league. But the Cleveland Cavaliers (53-22) own the league’s third-best record and are overwhelming favorites to, at the very least, reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Cavaliers have been the definition of a roller coaster, as teams at the top go. The Cavaliers have demonstrated the ability to play with the top teams, but have also lost to inferior teams at a surprising clip.
Cleveland is two and a half games ahead of the Toronto Raptors in the standings for the first spot in the East, but are just 6-4 over their last 10 contests. The Cavs’ ability to hold off Toronto, despite their struggles, comes as a shock to star guard Kyrie Irving.
“Everything surrounding our team, [it’s] just crazy to think that we’re still in first place and we’re still the team to beat, honestly,” Irving said, according to ESPN. “Regardless of what anybody else says of what we need and what we don’t need and what we need to get better at – us, internally, we know that we have to improve on a lot of things, but we’ve just got to handle business as professionals and continue to get better.”
Irving is averaging 20 points per game since the All-Star break and has increased his minute workload to around 32.5 per appearance (after averaging 29 before the All-Star break).
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