What’s Next for Charlotte?
In terms of predictions, perhaps one of the most surprising results of the playoffs thus far has been the first-round series between the Charlotte Hornets and Miami HEAT. Many basketball experts and media members didn’t give the Hornets much of a chance to upset the HEAT.
In a panel of five writers from Basketball Insiders, only one writer picked the Hornets to advance to the second round. A poll from ESPN yielded similar results as only three out of the 21 members in the group picked the Hornets to win.
Of course, predictions don’t hold much weight given the variables that factor into each game. Predictions are merely a way to create buzz heading into a series and there is no real way of knowing how exactly games will play out.
In the case of the Hornets, it seemed like many were betting on the veteran HEAT roster to take care of business. Looking back at how the series played out, that’s exactly what happened as we saw veteran guys like Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Goran Dragic and Joe Johnson each come through for the HEAT at critical times throughout the series.
The Hornets couldn’t sustain consistent play for each game, as it was Kemba Walker leading the charge for most of the series while often receiving little help other times. During wins, we saw multiple players step up and it seemed to be the other way around in losses.
In the Hornets’ Game 3 win, they had six players score in double figures. In Game 6, Walker scored 37 points in a 97-90 loss at home with just two others scoring in double figures.
Regardless of the outcome of that playoff matchup, the Hornets had a successful season as a whole. Obviously, they would have liked to advanced even further in the playoffs, but they made improvements this season and have shown that they can compete with some of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Walker averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game during the regular season and made a very compelling case to be an All-Star. He proved this season that he should be in the conversation among the league’s best point guards.
Walker proved that he can lead his team when it counts, as he bumped up his scoring average to 22.7 points per game during the playoffs. Even better for the Hornets is Walker is signed through the 2018-19 season.
As a team, the Hornets made a 15-game improvement from last season. Head coach Steve Clifford was able to get the most out of his guys all season long. Clifford was recognized by his efforts and finished fourth in the Coach of the Year voting.
Charlotte was one of just five teams to finish inside the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. Clifford entered this season in the final year of his contract, but he inked a new three-year deal back in November.
Sustaining that success next season could become a challenge for the Hornets. This summer will be extremely critical for the team as they could potentially have as many as eight free agents on their roster. Al Jefferson, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Courtney Lee and Tyler Hansbrough will all be unrestricted free agents.
Jeremy Lin will almost certainly join that list as well since he’s expected to opt out of a $2,235,255 salary for next season, while Troy Daniels and Jorge Gutierrez can become restricted free agents if the team extends them qualifying offers.
It seems as though free agency will be the most effective way for the Hornets to improve, as they currently just have their own first-round draft pick, which is projected to be a late pick. They are gave up their second-round pick to acquire Jeremy Lamb trade last summer.
With so many players expected to come off of the books this offseason, the Hornets can have as much as $42.2 million in available cap space. The problem for the Hornets (and other teams with a lot of cap space) is that nearly every team in the league will have ample cap space to some extent.
As things currently stand, there could be about 20 teams with enough space to sign one max-deal player, while there are about six teams that can sign as many as two max-deal players.
Given the fact that teams will have plenty of money to spend, the Hornets will essentially be in a bidding war for their own free agents and other players on the market as well. All of their upcoming free agents have expressed a desire to re-sign with the team, but we’ve seen in the past how quickly things can change.
Jefferson, Batum and Williams are perhaps the three most important players they must make decisions on.
Jefferson will be entering his 12th season in the league next year and is coming off of a season in which he appeared in only 47 regular season games, missing time with various injuries and a five-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
He has shown that he can still be an effective player when healthy, but it’s possible the team would want to bring him back for less than the $13.5 million he earned last season after he averaged 12 points (third-lowest of his career) and 6.4 rebounds per game.
Batum had a great first season with Charlotte, averaging a career-high 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. He figures to earn a pretty big payday this summer as a guy who can play defense and knock down three-point shots. He made just over $13 million this past season and will almost certainly expect to sign for more this summer.
Williams is another player who outperformed his contract last season He averaged 11.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists and one block per game while shooting a career-high 40 percent from three-point range. In a time when floor spacing is everything in the NBA, Williams will have no shortage of offers and could sign elsewhere for a huge contract if another team falls in love with him.
In addition to those three players, the club will also have to make decisions on Lee, Hansbrough, Lin, Daniels and Gutierrez. It remains to be seen which players will ultimately return and which ones won’t.
At this point, both sides are saying the all of the right things, but it will ultimately come down to this summer when negotiations get serious. The team has a solid core in place as it stands with Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Spencer Hawes, Cody Zeller, Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky all locked up for the immediate future.
The Hornets nearly advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Given how successful this season has been, this summer could be one of the most important in recent memory for the Hornets with expectations rising even higher for next season.
It’s clear that this team will have a lot of work to do this offseason and the roster could look completely different come next year.
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