Charlotte Hornets

Hornets’ Nic Batum is going to make a bundle, hopefully here in Charlotte

Charlotte Hornets forward Nicolas Batum has stood up to even the most optimistic projections of what he could be.
Charlotte Hornets forward Nicolas Batum has stood up to even the most optimistic projections of what he could be.

If you were to rank the best moves in this franchise’s history since the 2004 inception of the Charlotte Bobcats, trading for Nic Batum would be in the select few.

So can they afford not to do what it takes to retain him once he becomes an unrestricted free agent in July?

This free-agency period is going to be wild. The NBA salary cap is going to spike in the summers of 2016 and 2017, thanks to all the new national television money.

People often ask me, “Is Batum really a max player?” I typically respond that (a) the new money is going to change our definition of “max player,” and (b) who else is going to sign here who would have more impact?

Wednesday was a great illustration of that. The Hornets came out flat for the second game in a row and fell behind the Orlando Magic by eight at home. Then Nic Happened in the second quarter. In those 12 minutes, he scored 16 points (on 7-of-10 shooting) and added four assists and two rebounds.

They got him in June for a guy (Gerald Henderson) who didn’t fit Steve Clifford’s 3-point shooting priority and a big kid (Noah Vonleh) who was a long way from producing on a team already full of power forwards.

Management and Clifford were bold in their vision of Batum’s impact. They wanted him as a do-it-all point forward in the style of what Hedo Turkoglu once was with the Magic. Fans of the Portland Trail Blazers, Batum’s old team, scoffed at the notion Batum could be anything more than a third or fourth option.

So what happened? Batum has stood up to even the most optimistic projections of what he could be.

The Hornets included a statistic in their pregame notes Wednesday that Batum is one of just four NBA players (who qualify among league leaders) averaging at least 14 points, six rebounds and five assists this season.

The other three? LeBron James, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. What’s that expression about you’re defined by the company that you keep?

Is Batum a superstar? No, and he might not ever be. But he’s a star on this team and an essential component in the surge to what will be the third playoff appearance since the 2004 expansion.

He allows Kemba Walker to be himself, not worrying every game about facilitating others’ scoring. Walker is best in attack mode. Batum (and to a lesser extent Jeremy Lin) takes responsibility off Walker that has helped him thrive. There’s a real argument Walker should be the league’s Most Improved Player. I’m not sure that discussion would happen had Batum not been brought to Charlotte.

Batum was pleased the Hornets extended Clifford’s contract. He stated then that no NBA coach has valued him more or given him more responsibility. Everyone wants to be appreciated and the relationships are in place, both with Clifford and general manager Rich Cho.

Appreciation eventually must translate to compensation. I agree with ESPN analyst Tom Penn that someone will surely pay Batum that max-level kind of money.

Hornets owner Michael Jordan has always said he’ll pay what it takes to find the talent to build a winner. July will be an interesting test of this franchise’s priorities.

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