We now essentially know who the Charlotte Hornets will be next season.
Sure, general manager Rich Cho might do some fine-tuning. But, for the most part, the money has been spent and this is who they will be.
With that in mind, five observations about the roster as currently configured:
Nic Batum must play even better
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I don’t think the Hornets had much choice but to pay Nic Batum what will be $120 million over five years. Trading for him is arguably the best thing this front office has done since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004.
Batum has to live up to that contract. If he’s the Hornets’ second- or third-best player, they’re not going anywhere.
That doesn’t mean he must score the most or compile the most assists or rebounds. But he needs to be up there in all three categories and play defense and lead.
The beauty of Batum last season was, when healthy, he did a little of everything well. He was what they wanted when they signed Gordon Hayward in 2014 to the offer sheet the Utah Jazz matched. Batum was what fans hoped Lance Stephenson could be.
And now, based on his salary, Batum has to distinguish himself as the connector who wins games.
Kemba Walker must find another gear
Walker did a great job last summer of improving his 3-point shot, improving from 30 percent in 2014-15 to 37 percent in 2015-16. He finished the season averaging 20 points with the look of an All-Star.
I think he can be even better, and he needs to be.
Not being able to afford guard Jeremy Lin is the worst hit this team took in free agency. Lin was great for Walker, as far as helping with the ball-handling and drives into the lane. He allowed Walker to focus on what he does best, which is attack offensively.
Ramon Sessions is a solid backup point guard, but he won’t replace what Lin provided. So Walker has to be that much better, particularly as a facilitator, for this team to match a 48-victory season.
MKG must avoid injuries
When Cho was asked in Thursday’s news conference if the Hornets can sustain the momentum from last season, he correctly noted that small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played only seven games because of injury.
Kidd-Gilchrist tore the labrum in his right shoulder twice last season. Were those freak accidents, or will he always be susceptible to injury?
I love the way Kidd-Gilchrist plays. His defensive intensity always raises this team’s game. I hope he doesn’t end up like former Charlotte star Gerald Wallace, whose all-out style invited a string of injuries.
Part of Batum’s long-term success here hinges on Kidd-Gilchrist’s ability to stay healthy. The plan was for Kidd-Gilchrist to guard the opposing team’s best wing scorer, allowing Batum to devote a majority of his energy at the offensive end. We have yet to see that combination on a regular basis.
Center by committee
I understand why Cho didn’t bring back center Al Jefferson. The $30 million the Indiana Pacers will pay him over the next three seasons is more than I saw him receiving, considering all of the 31-year-old’s mileage after 12 seasons in the league.
But he will be missed. Jefferson’s low-post scoring improved the bench and provided balance on a team that has become highly dependent on jump shots.
The Hornets will now get by with Cody Zeller, Roy Hibbert and Spencer Hawes (assuming there is no trade partner to absorb Hawes’ contract). Zeller improved considerably last season when Jefferson was out with a knee injury. The Hornets were never going to turn him into a “stretch 4” type of power forward. Jefferson’s best NBA position is center.
Hibbert seems highly motivated to restore his reputation after two poor seasons. Coach Steve Clifford has a knack for these reclamation projects. Remember, Batum and Lin were both coming off disappointing seasons when they arrived in Charlotte a year ago.
I think the question with Hibbert is whether he still has it physically. He needs to be like forward Marvin Williams last summer, totally devoted to getting in great shape in a late phase of his career.
Frank Kaminsky must shine in second season
Since the Hornets don’t have the cap room left to significantly improve the talent base, the improvement needs to come internally. Best candidate for that improvement is second-year power forward Frank Kaminsky.
The surgery he had to fix an air pocket in his chest will cut into his off-season development time, but Kaminsky showed promise his rookie season. He’s highly skilled as both a post scorer and a 3-point shooter. Most 7-footers can’t dribble and pass with his proficiency.
Also, he’s really smart. One of the things Clifford so liked about Kaminsky last season is you corrected him once on some technical point and the next day he’d absorbed the point in practice.
If there’s a candidate on this roster for making major progress, it has to be Kaminsky.