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Hornets Enter Free Agency With Options, Opportunities

The new Charlotte Hornets are definitely starting things on a high note. They came away from Thursday’s draft with a high-upside prospect they can develop at their own pace, and an NBA-ready gunner that addresses their biggest need and still has enough potential to grow into a starting role. They also dumped Brendan Haywood to Cleveland for Alozno Gee, whose $3 million contract is fully non-guaranteed.

Even better: They enter free agency with an opportunity to splurge a bit. Here’s a back-of-the-envelope look at their live salaries today:


Again, Gee’s contract is unguaranteed, so it’s easy to shave that $3 million off the bottom.

Those numbers come from the indispensable ShamSports. With next year’s cap tentatively set at $63.2 million, they could have upwards of $20 million to play with when with targeting free agents.

(Exactly how much they’ll have to spend depends on who you ask. ESPN pegs it at just over $23 million, but that depends on unlikely moves like cutting Jeff Taylor and/or trading their first-round picks. The Charlotte Observer’s Rick Bonnell says the “working, practical number” is closer to $15 million, which assumes the team retains Josh McRoberts’ cap hold and Bird Rights. It’s all very confusing, but you can ignore the CBA dandruff and still play along.)

Coach Steve Clifford has said they’ll likely keep a roster spot open and go into the season with 14 players, which means they currently have three openings to work with. (Again, Gee could/will be cut to clear up another.) Coincidentally, they have three main objectives while shopping:

Land A Star, or Something Resembling One

With so much cash to spend, and extensions to Kemba Walker and others looming in the next few years, this could be one of the team’s last complication-free chances to land a top free agent.

If they do get a big fish, it’s almost definitely going to be a wing player. Al Jefferson is locked in as a starter, and Walker is a good option for now. Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh fill out the frontcourt rotation, and the team hopes to bring back McRoberts as starter. Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, on the other hand, are an awkward fit with each other, and replacing one (or both) as starter could launch the team to another level.

I think you can rule out LeBron, Melo and company, but there are still some interesting options in the second tier. Unfortunately, they each come with a catch:

Gordon Hayward, Shooting Guard/Small Forward

Hayward might be the best fit for the team: He’s young, he brings size at small forward, he’s a good if inconsistent shooter, and he’s an above-average rebounder and passer for his position. There are questions about his defense, but he could start at small forward right away and help fix some of the team’s major issues on offense.

The major problem is that Hayward’s a restricted free agent, and he expects to be paid. He and the Utah Jazz couldn’t come to an extension agreement before the season, with Hayward reportedly angling for a four-year, $50-million contract. To land Hayward, Charlotte would have to:

  • Beat out other teams to sign him to an offer
  • Hope the Jazz don’t match the offer (when they seem likely to)
  • Hope other free agents are patient, as even making the offer ties up Charlotte’s cap space for 72 hours
  • Hope he’s worth $50 million dollars

It’s scary on a few levels. Whiffing on a big deal can be crippling, as you might remember from the Tyrus Thomas situation. Hayward could live up to a big-money extension, but paying anyone in this free agent class close to 10 figures a year comes with risk.

Chandler Parsons, Small Forward

Speaking of white young restricted free agent small forwards with three-point range and good passing and rebounding, Parsons could also be available. He’s been the more consistent shooter and a more efficient scorer, but he’s also never been the centerpiece of an offense like Hayward was this last season. That may actually be a positive: Walker and Jefferson will need their touches, and Parsons can obviously function well without the ball in his hands.

Restricted free agency would make this signing difficult, too, but the Houston Rockets have their eyes on Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, or any superstar that will have them. There’s a good chance Houston strikes out, but they have more options than Utah and are more likely to let Parsons walk in the right situation. It’s still a gamble, but one with better odds.

Lance Stephenson, Shooting Guard/A Giant Red Flag That Grew Limbs And Plays Basketball

Stephenson splits from the previous two candidates in several ways — he’s more of a shooting guard, his biggest strength lies is his defense, and he’s an unrestricted free agent. He’s also a risky signing for much different reasons.

Stephenson’s a wrecking ball on the court and reportedly in the locker room, getting into scuffles with multiple teammates and messing with opponents while playing and in the media. He’s also been accused of some actual, real-life heinous stuff. It overwhelms almost all the discussion of his game, which is pretty good. Grantland’s Zach Lowe, as usual, has an excellent breakdown here.

Lance and Kidd-Gilchrist would be a killer defensive pair, and Stephenson would bring some of the long-range shooting and offensive tenacity that Henderson can lack. He’s also just 23, and would have plenty of room to grow.

But just from the types of players general manager Rich Cho has targeted in the past, I’m not sure Lance will be a top choice. Cho has talked  repeatedly about building the locker room culture and finding players that are coachable — you can put some of that aside for the right player, but I do think Stephenson might be a little too out there for them. They’ll also have to fight off Indiana with a stick.

Luol Deng, Small Forward

Deng’s a good fit, but he just hit 29 and there’s a chance he’s cooked after five years of heavy minutes under Tom Thibodeau. That makes him more of a short-term fix than other options, but if he can bounce back after a miserable half-season in Cleveland, he’d be a good starter and great mentor for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Deng’s never been terrific on three-pointers, but he has the range and he’s a solid shooter overall. He’s also been a key cog in Thibodeau’s excellent defenses, and should fit right into Clifford’s system. A big-money, short-term deal would give Charlotte a reliable piece without zapping their flexibility.

Player To Be Named Later

I’m sure some fans would consider this offseason a failure if they don’t come away with a big free agent, but it could honestly end up being their best course of action. None of the players listed above figures to make the Hornets a contender; if you think Gordon Hayward is the last missing piece, you’re a lot more optimistic than I am.

Using that money instead to retain McRoberts and sign quality backups at point guard and small forward would give Charlotte an already very good starting lineup, incredible depth, and a variety of interesting pieces to play with moving forward. At the trade deadline, they can see what’s working and what isn’t, and address it with a few smart trades. If there’s a star available, they’d have a ton of ammo to make a deal happen.

Staying flexible and taking their time has worked so far; there’s no real need to push their chips in just because it’s starting to pay off. Which brings us to Objective No. 2:

Re-Sign Josh McRoberts

Vonleh’s a project, and while Zeller improved his play down the stretch last season, he needs to show a little more consistency before taking the wheel. McRoberts was a near-perfect fit last year, bringing shooting, passing and solid team defense to a team that needed all three to compete.

The team retains his Bird Rights, which means they can go over the salary cap to re-sign him. If they end up splurging on one of the players listed above, they’ll likely need to. McRoberts seemed to enjoy his time in Charlotte, and there aren’t many teams (especially playoff teams) where he’d have a guaranteed starting spot. He should test the market and see what he can get, but it’s hard to imagine him leaving unless the landscape changes quickly.

Sign a Back-up Point Guard

It’s a deep free agent crop at point guard, with borderline starters like Shaun Livingston, Patty Mills, Greivis Vasquez and Steve Blake available, and solid backups like Mario Chalmers, Jerryd Bayless and Ramon Sessions out there. Sessions would be an iffy fit, but I like the idea of bringing him back — there’s continuity there, which counts for something, and he was part of some very effective lineups for Charlotte last year. His lack of a shooting touch would be less of an issue playing next to floor-spacers like PJ Haiston, Gary Neal, Jeff Taylor (maybe) and (maybe) Noah Vonleh (maybe).

It was a fun draft, and free agency should be just as good.