The 2013-14 season ended sooner than any Charlotte Bobcat wanted, or probably expected. They knew playing the defending-champion Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs was a huge challenge. But falling 4-0 still surprised and hurt.
“It’s embarrassing to be swept. Embarrassing to go out the way we did,” power forward Josh McRoberts said of the second postseason appearance in franchise history.
Still, the players feel optimistic about the future. Going 43-39 this season and finishing the regular season 8-1 showed them they can compete.
“It’s just our stepping stone,” point guard Kemba Walker said of the completed season, his first in the playoffs. “Michael (Jordan, the team’s owner) talked to us last night and said that summer is when you really get better.”
That’s not just true of individual players but the organization as a whole. The next five months the Bobcats can either progress or risk stagnating. They have plenty of tools – cap room and future draft picks – and they showed with center Al Jefferson a willingness to spend for impact free agents.
With all that in mind, Observer NBA writer Rick Bonnell addresses five keys to the Charlotte Bobcats’ off-season:
McRoberts’ opt-out: McRoberts is scheduled to make $2.77 million next season, but he can opt out of that contract to become an unrestricted free agent in July. McRoberts said Tuesday he didn’t know what he’d do, but based on this season, it seems he’s due a raise.
Jordan said in October the season would ride on McRoberts’ ability to “connect the dots” as a secondary ballhandler to Walker. That he did, according to coach Steve Clifford and the players.
“McRoberts has proven to be a very good every-night starter at power forwards,” Clifford said.
Jefferson added, “Josh is our point guard and our power forward. He’s the guy who made everything go.”
McRoberts said his preference is to keep playing for Clifford for many years. But this is likely about market forces this summer.
The team’s own free agents: Luke Ridnour, Jannero Pargo, Anthony Tolliver and Chris Douglas-Roberts all become unrestricted free agents in July.
Of those four, the player who seems the best fit to return is Douglas-Roberts. He’s versatile both as a multi-position player (shooting guard and small forward) and as a player of comparable ability defensively and offensively.
Douglas-Roberts was out of the NBA when small forward Jeff Taylor ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in December and the Bobcats needed quick help. He’d worked with Clifford before in the Los Angeles Lakers’ training camp, so Clifford pushed for the team to sign him.
“I feel like I have loyalty to him,” Douglas-Roberts said, when asked about the prospect of re-signing here. “He’s the one who gave me the opportunity.”
Free agents off other rosters: It looks like the Bobcats need some help at shooting guard and small forward – particularly better scoring – and a backup point guard. Here are four unrestricted free agents of varying prominence who the Bobcats could consider
Trevor Ariza (Wizards) – He attacks offensively, particularly off the dribble, and he’s a decent defender, too, at small forward.
Luol Deng (Cavaliers) – The former Duke star is a strong defender and a more proven scorer than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. However, one of the reasons the Bulls traded him to the Cavaliers was his future salary demands. This wouldn’t be cheap.
Ramon Sessions (Bucks) – The Bobcats traded him to the Bucks to bring in outside shooter Gary Neal. Sessions left on good terms and said later in the season he’d welcome a return to Charlotte.
Lance Stephenson (Pacers) – He’d add scoring punch at the shooting guard position, but the playoffs demonstrated how high-strung Stephenson can be. One of the Bobcats’ strengths is a locker room free of disruptive egos. Would he fit in?
The salary cap: The Bobcats player payroll for next season is currently at about $44 million. The 2014-15 salary cap is projected to be at least $63 million. So the Bobcats can go on a spending spree this summer, right?
Yes and no. They will have flexibility to sign one or more free agents or to take back more salary in a trade than they would send out. However, they have to plan for how and when they would re-sign Walker, who becomes a restricted free agent after next season. Walker figures to cost them at least $8 million a season once he comes off the rookie scale.
Draft picks: The Bobcats know they have lost their own first-round pick (No. 16) to the Chicago Bulls, completing the Tyrus Thomas trade. They know they’ll have the Portland Trail Blazers’ pick (No. 24), completing the Gerald Wallace trade. They know they’ll pick 45th overall in the second round.
What they don’t know is whether they’ll get the lottery pick owned by the Detroit Pistons. That will be settled the night of May 20 at the draft lottery.
The Pistons had the eighth-worst record in the NBA this season and the pick Detroit owes the Bobcats (from the Ben Gordon-Corey Maggette trade) is top-eight protected in 2014. So at least one of the lottery teams with a record better than the Pistons would have to grab one of the top three picks, pushing the Pistons to ninth or worse in the draft order for the Bobcats to receive that pick.
The Pistons pick is top-one protected in 2015 and unprotected if this lasts to 2016.
Among players who might be available with the 24th pick: Forwards Jerami Grant from Syracuse, Glenn Robinson III from Michigan or Adreian Payne from Michigan State. Picking that late in the first round it’s unlikely need would play much role in the pick, since that rookie probably won’t play much his first season.