Offseason Outlook: Charlotte Hornets

June 18 at 8:40am CDT By Cray Allred

Guaranteed Contracts

Options

Non-Guaranteed Contracts

Free Agents / Cap Holds

Draft Picks

  • 1st Round (9th overall)
  • 1st Round (24th overall)
  • 2nd Round (45th overall)

Cap Outlook

  • Guaranteed Salary: $41,156,697
  • Options: $2,771,340
  • Non-Guaranteed Salary: $915,243
  • Cap Holds: $15,004,672
  • Total: $59,847,952

The Hornets are looking to turn the page on what was a mostly abysmal chapter played in Charlotte as the Bobcats, hoping to build on a playoff berth and some promising signs from a young roster. They’re set up well to do just that, with two first round picks and cap flexibility this offseason. While the recent resignation of Rod Higgins as president of basketball ops could be seen as a sign of a dysfunctional organization heading into a pivotal summer, owner Michael Jordan explained the move as if GM Rich Cho was going to be handling personnel moves going forward regardless of whether Higgins remained in the front office.

It would be hard to imagine the Eastern Conference putting forth a worse field than it did this past year, but the Hornets have a legitimate chance to move up the ranks even if the teams around them strengthen. As the seventh seed this season, they finished only a game back from the fifth-seeded Wizards, and just five games behind the third-seeded Raptors. While some Eastern foes are desperate to recover and compete next year, there are still plenty of teams due another year of struggling and retooling. Jordan seems to prefer to pursue immediate success, and that mindset will likely frame what kinds of moves the Hornets make this summer.

First-year head coach Steve Clifford was able to turn a roster devoid of many heralded defenders into one of the NBA’s better defensive teams this season. The Hornets ranked sixth in defensive rating, but also found themselves near the bottom of league in offensive rating (per NBA.com). Al Jefferson excelled in the post, but interior offense has become more important as a means to open up opportunities around the perimeter in recent years, and the Hornets haven’t packed much punch on the outside. Kemba Walker improved his overall efficiency while maintaining a 17.7 PPG average, but remained a below-average shooter from distance, making just 33.3% of his three point attempts.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been a part of the problem on offense. He has been the elite wing defender the Charlotte brass envisioned when they selected him second overall in the 2012 draft, but his lackluster shooting has stuck with him thus far in his career. Charlotte will have to decide whether to pick up his team option, worth slightly more than $5MM, for the 2015/16 season by this fall, but that salary seems perfectly fair for a top-shelf perimeter defender as young and full of potential as Kidd-Gilchrist is.

One of the biggest dominoes to fall for the Hornets will be the Josh McRoberts contract situation. McRoberts, one of the league’s best passing bigs, has yet to formally decide whether to pick up his $2.8MM player option for next season, though it seems likely that he will opt out. If he does so, he’ll almost certainly attract offers at a higher salary for multiple years. Clifford said his team needs McRoberts, so the Hornets’ cap space will likely shrink if the power forward opts out. Even if they didn’t bring back McRoberts, the only way they could reasonably expect to replace him with a starter at or below his current salary would be through the draft, and finding an impact starter for a playoff-hopeful where Charlotte is drafting is far from a given. The Pistons pick was conveyed to the Hornets at No. 9, so Charlotte possesses the No. 9 and No. 24 selections this month.

Considering Jefferson’s role, the possibility of McRoberts’ return, and the continued development of in Cody Zeller, last year’s No. 4 draft pick, the Hornets would presumably prioritize wing players in looking to improve next season. The Hornets haven’t leaked much about their leanings in the draft, but Doug McDermott is a rumored possibility at No. 9. A player like McDermott, who can shoot extremely well from the wing, would make sense as a fit either in the starting lineup or a heavy rotation piece off the bench.

In addition to McDermott and others, the Hornets have worked out some point guards, including Tyler Ennis. Moving Walker off the ball at least part of the time would be an intriguing strategy of optimizing the team’s offensive weapons, although at 6’1″, Walker could be overmatched against non-point guards on defense to the point that such lineups wouldn’t work. Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer has opined that the Hornets will package their picks in a trade for a veteran contributor. Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour were brought in at the trade deadline this season and made positive contributions down the stretch. Both have proven capable of being quality backup guards, giving the Hornets some backcourt flexibility looking ahead. Neal is signed through next season, but Ridnour will become a free agent.

With the salary cap projected to increase to at least $63.2MM next year, the Hornets could clear upwards of $20MM in cap space if they need it to sign a marquee free agent. Various reports have cast Charlotte as a likely suitor for Luol Deng, Greg Monroe, and other notables. Jordan is optimistic about the team’s ability to draw “superstar” free agents to Charlotte, and Jefferson is embracing the role of recruiter. While the likes of Carmelo Anthony and trade candidate Kevin Love have shown no interest in Charlotte, an improving roster and a lottery pick in what is thought to be a loaded draft could help the Hornets land a significant piece, if not an All-Star. Other intriguing players who will be available, either through unrestricted or restricted free agency, include Gordon Hayward, Lance Stephenson and Trevor Ariza. A two-way player like Deng or Ariza could move the needle offensively without sacrificing the team’s defensive identity, while a talent like Hayward or Stephenson could inject life into the offense while fitting into a scheme to limit their deficiencies on defense.

Should the Hornets renounce Ridnour’s rights or re-sign him to a smaller contract, they could free a significant chunk of cap room to devote to McRoberts if needed, or to the pursuit of another team’s free agent. If the Hornets keep and use both of their picks on non-draft-and-stash prospects, the rookie scale will govern that they add nearly $3.8MM in salary for next season, providing they give the draftees the standard 120% of their scale amounts.

Chris Douglas-Roberts is considered likely to re-sign, and could fetch a significant raise for 2014/15. “CDR” played more total minutes this season than he had since 2009/10. Even the veteran’s minimum would amount to an increase on his pro-rated earnings on a minimum deal this year. Jeffery Taylor has a non-guaranteed $915,243 on the books, and Anthony Tolliver and Jannero Pargo could be let go or brought back on modest deals. Tolliver is a competent three-point specialist, and Pargo has bounced around the league as an emergency point guard in recent years.

However the Hornets handle their offseason, they begin it in a position that a majority of teams in the Eastern Conference would envy. A solid coach, a stable of assets, and plenty of cap room will make this team one to watch as summer heats up.

Cap footnotes

* — If McRoberts declines his option, as he’s widely expected to do, his cap hold would be $5,038,800.
** — Taylor’s salary becomes fully guaranteed if he’s not waived on or before June 30th.

ShamSports and Larry Coon’s Salary Cap FAQ were used in the creation of this post.

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