The Charlotte Hornets recently put a wrap on what will go down as their most successful season in recent memory. Their 48 wins set a high water mark that they hadn’t seen since the 1999-2000 season, when they went 49-33. And even though they ended up losing in the first round to the Miami Heat, they did take the series to seven games, a better postseason performance than they’ve had since making the second round in 2002.
Several of the pieces on this year’s team can enter free agency; in fact, only seven players are fully under contract for next year. Al Jefferson, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Courtney Lee, Tyler Hansbrough, Jorge Gutierrez, Troy Daniels, and Jeremy Lin could all become free agents this summer. If all of those players left this summer, it could leave the Hornets up a creek without a paddle. Assuming the salary cap lands at the projected $90 million, the Hornets should have almost $44 million in space to try to improve their team. Before even thinking about calling other players to set up a meeting, and before begging Kevin Durant for just a minute of his time, the team needs to sit down and figure out who exactly they can retain, and at what price.
Here, I’ll put on my GM hat and try to do just that. I'll take a look at each of those impending free agents and try to decide if the Hornets should bring them back next year. Each player will be put into one of two groups: those that the team needs to bring back and those that can return if the price is right. Most of the players fall in the second category, because any player should be welcome on the team if they're on a fair contract. Of course, it's likely that several of the players will be looking for a deal big enough to push themselves out of Charlotte's price range.
Group One: Must Re-Sign
Nicolas Batum: The Hornets have stated that bringing Batum back is their first priority this summer. According to GM Rich Cho, Batum has expressed interest in returning. He’ll almost definitely be coming back on a max deal, but it’s worth it for the Hornets – his work as a second ball handler took pressure off of Kemba Walker and allowed both players to shine this year. At 27 years old, Batum would be signed with the team through the tail end of his prime. Batum may not seem like the typical max contract player, but his importance to the team can't be understated, and even a maximum salary will look better next year when the salary cap jumps even higher.
Marvin Williams: An elbow injury hindered him greatly in the postseason, but he was still a vital part of the team’s success throughout the year. He rebounds and defends well enough to play power forward, and his three-point stroke helps spread the floor. Steve Clifford and the team found success playing four-around-one, and Williams was great as one of those four on the perimeter. He has indicated that he wants to return, and the Hornets may be able to work out a deal below his technical market value to keep him in Charlotte while they work out a long-term replacement.
Jeremy Lin: Like Williams, Lin has been clear that he would like to return next season. Despite that, he’s likely to exercise his player option and opt out of his contract. He’s on a pretty small deal and could definitely draw a bigger contract than the one he's currently on, especially after such a great season. If the Hornets can stay out of any bidding wars that escalates Lin's price any further, they should be able to handle paying him a fairer deal.
Group Two: If the Price is Right
Al Jefferson: Jefferson has said that he feels Charlotte is the best situation for him and that he’s not interested in the largest paycheck, which bodes well for his chances to return. The team could survive without him, but his ability to score in the post is a great backup plan if the rest of the offense isn’t quite working. He’s a fan favorite and has been a major piece in the franchise's resurgence, but in a league that keeps getting smaller and smaller, the Hornets just can't afford to pay an aging traditional big man too much.
Courtney Lee: Lee was a huge part of the team after they traded for him, and his offensive rebounds in the last few minutes of Games 4 and 5 would gone down in Hornets lore had the team managed to win the series. With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist returning from his injury, however, Lee will likely end up being surplus to the team’s needs. Lee is a very good shooter and can really defend, and skills like that are in high demand in today’s NBA. At 30 years old, Lee may be looking for the biggest deal he can find, and that probably puts him out of Charlotte’s price range.
Tyler Hansbrough: Psycho T is probably a bit overqualified to only play 8 minutes per game on a minimum salary, as he did this season. For a team, it’s great to have a player like that, one who can step in if someone gets hurt and play at a somewhat high level. For a player, it’s not exactly an ideal situation. Like Lee, Hansbrough is 30, and may want to maximize his earnings as his career winds down. No one will be giving him the max, but a short deal worth several million per year isn't entirely out of the question. Charlotte could probably handle that, but they might be better off looking elsewhere for a cheaper player, even one that isn’t quite as talented. Having such a talented emergency big man comes in handy, but only if they're being paid like an emergency big man.
Troy Daniels: Daniels is a restricted free agent, giving the Hornets the option to match any contract offers from other teams. The little-used guard likely won’t have too many teams lining up for his services, but he’s proven to be a deadly shooter and is still only 24. A team anticipating next summer’s cap boom and desperate for a shooter with some upside could give him a big deal and steal him away, but it’s likely that he will come back to Charlotte next year at a reasonable price.
Jorge Gutierrez: The team’s third point guard did exactly what was expected of him this year; no more, no less. He probably can’t give Charlotte much if he’s ever forced to start, but he shouldn't be expected to. Besides, him starting would mean that Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lin were either hurt or with another team, and the Hornets would have bigger problems to deal with. There shouldn’t be any kind of bidding war for Gutierrez, and the Hornets may want to bring him back just because of his cheapness and familiarity with the team.
If I had to guess, I’d say that Batum, Lin, Williams, Jefferson, Daniels, and Gutierrez all return, while Hansbrough and Lee go off to find greener pastures and bigger contracts. That all changes if Charlotte can sign a big-name free agent, of course – a deal with Hassan Whiteside, for example, could push someone like Jefferson out the door earlier than expected.
This is a big summer for Charlotte. The right signings could propel them to the next level; the wrong ones could doom them to years of bad basketball. Their big decisions begin with their own team.