With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The former Charlotte Bobcats.
Charlotte did it again, right?
It hired a defensive-minded, win-now coach. They traded away their first round draft pick for a player who couldn’t even stick with the team, cashed in on a free agent in his prime that might be limping through the last years of his eight-figure yearly contract, and they eked into the bottom of a crummy Eastern Conference playoff bracket, only to be summarily swept by the two-time champion Miami Heat. This is their peak, this is their ceiling, and this is exactly what owner Michael Jordan does when he gets bored every few years, right? Just like in 2010?
Well, maybe not quite. The Bobcats should be in better shape this time around. And, most blessedly, they won’t even be called the “Bobcats.”
The Charlotte Hornets won’t tilt the Eastern Conference in their favor any time soon, but the situation is far happier this time in comparison to when the squad was downed by the defending Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic in 2010’s first round. It starts with Jordan, who has somewhat ceded personnel decisions to general manager Rich Cho, his first hire that didn’t come out of Jordan’s personal circle of longtime executive friends. Not only is Jordan meddling less, but he has the benefit of the owner-friendly 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement helping his once-skinflint operation turn a profit.
Cho and Jordan hired head coach Steve Clifford, for years a highly-regarded assistant coach, and one that turned in a Coach of the Year-worthy campaign in 2013-14, vaulting Charlotte into a top-five defensive team. His five-year plan is far different from that of 2010 Bobcats coach Larry Brown, who is always angling to move, and more importantly always angling to have final say in personnel decisions – something he fought for at his last four NBA stops, and something he currently has in place while doling out scholarships at Southern Methodist University. Clifford is already great, he will get better, and there’s no reason to think he’s not long for the Hornets unless something goes terribly wrong.
It’s true that Jordan dealt a first round pick to Chicago for Tyrus Thomas in 2010, but what was once thought to be a surefire lottery selection for the Bulls (remember, the Bobcats went 28-120 between 2011 and 2013) has turned into a rather middling 16th overall pick. That’s a potential rotation player on a cheap contract, to be sure, but the Bobcats could also luck out if Detroit’s lottery luck goes sour in May.
If the Pistons’ pick falls out of the top eight, and Detroit’s statistical odds have them selecting eighth overall pre-lottery, the Bobcats will get their pick. If not, the pick is protected for the top overall selection in 2015, and unprotected in 2016. All for subjecting Charlotte fans to Ben Gordon for two seasons. And through the various machinations of Gerald Wallace’s recent, well-traveled career, the Hornets will have the Portland Trail Blazers’ 24th overall selection in June.
Of the team’s many free agents, it appears that Josh McRoberts and Chris Douglas-Roberts are the team’s two chief concerns. CDR has developed into a solid two-way player under Steve Clifford, and figures to re-sign with the team and coach that plucked him out of the unemployment line midseason. McRoberts will almost certainly opt-out of the $2.77 he’s owed next season to take on a deal in a players’ market that more suits his contributions. McRoberts didn’t pile up the gaudy assist totals as Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah did this year, but he remains the Frontcourt King of the Entry and/or Extra Pass, needed moves that don’t count for assists. There’s a reason why McRoberts tied for the Charlotte lead this year in Offensive Rating.
(Tied with Bismack Biyombo, sure, but I’m sure this can be explained away.)
Offense is a problem for Charlotte, the team finished 24th out of 30 teams in offensive efficiency this season, but internal development could aid this. Should he stay healthy, there’s no reason Al Jefferson can’t duplicate his shoulda-been-an All-Star season in 2014-15, because the typical top remedy for plantar fasciitis is a summer spent away from pounding the paint. Jefferson still remains a curious fit amongst players several years younger than him, but the Bobcats will be a tough out every night in 2014-15 should the health sustain, the attitudes stay the same, and in spite of an improving East.
Unlike 2010, the team will have cap flexibility as well. Even if the Hornets retain McRoberts and CDR and signs two first-rounders, the front office could have cap space in the double-figure range – presuming the incumbent free agent contracts are reasonable. Few high-end free agents are expected to flee their current teams, though, and certainly none of them are lining up to play for a so-so team in Charlotte (it’s not the city, it’s the roster), so Cho and Jordan will have to be judicious. This means backing off on overpaying Luol Deng into his 30s. Hopefully the Hornets can find a way to use that space to act as a liaison, between trading teams looking to either win now or tank now, picking up assets along the way.
This doesn’t look like a championship contender in the making, but this also doesn’t look like a team that has exhausted all its options for a fleeting playoff run that was limited to the month of April. For the Charlotte Hornets, that’s progress.
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