Charlotte Hornets

Starting with Nic Batum at No. 1, how I’d rank Hornets’ other key free agents

Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho on free-agent Nic Batum (above): “He is our No. 1 off-season priority.”
Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho on free-agent Nic Batum (above): “He is our No. 1 off-season priority.” dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

For the first time in a while, the Charlotte Hornets’ offseason will be about managing success.

As general manager Rich Cho said Wednesday, that’s a nice problem to have. But it’s still a problem, or at least a challenge.

Last June the Hornets made four trades that redirected the franchise’s course. They got out from under the failed experiment that was Lance Stephenson. They acquired some shooting in Jeremy Lamb. They added another big body in Spencer Hawes.

And by far of most consequence, they exchanged Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh for Nic Batum. That might be the best trade in this franchise’s history.

Batum played so well, and with such versatility for the Hornets, that he’s going to make something like $100 million in his next contract. Cho sure made it sound Wednesday like the Hornets are prepared for what the NBA market will bear.

“Nic is a huge piece. He is our No. 1 offseason priority,” Cho said at an end-of-the-season news conference.

“He knows that. We told him that in our exit interviews. We love having him here, thought he did a great job this year.”

It’s hard for me to believe Cho would have been that open about the franchise’s intentions without signing off on strategy with team owner Michael Jordan. Jordan has always said he’s prepared to pay big for the right talent. Looks like Batum qualifies. For the Hornets not to retain Batum, particularly after he said how much he wants to stay in Charlotte, would send a terrible message to the fan base.

Batum is the most prominent of five unrestricted free agents-to-be who finished the season in the Hornets’ rotation. Cho would like to bring them all back, partially for the sake of continuity, but that’s probably not realistic.

With that in mind, how I’d rank the five unrestricted free agents (plus the yet-to-be identified rim protector Cho mentioned as a need).

1. Batum

Reasoning: Coach Steve Clifford described the Batum effect well: He makes the game so much easier for teammates just by being on the court.

“He knows how to play and where the ball should go,” Clifford said. “He has the size, the shooting and the passing ability to constantly make the game easier for his teammates.”

2. Marvin Williams

Reasoning: Williams is such a good fit for the one-in/four-out offense Clifford prefers. He made 40 percent of his 3-point shots and was co-leader in rebounding at 6.2 per game. Beyond that, he’s a terrific leader as far as setting a standard for professionalism.

The question regarding Williams might be what other teams offer. He looks like a player worth at least $10 million a season this summer, and the Hornets don’t have full Bird rights on him (which would allow them to exceed the salary cap up to the max to re-sign him.)

3. Jeremy Lin

Reasoning: Clifford says you don’t really know a player until you’ve personally coached him. Here’s what Clifford learned in one season of coaching Lin – “He’s a much better defender than I realized. He’s physical, he’s very confident and a very good competitor.”

Lin saw his job here as taking pressure off Kemba Walker. He succeeded, both playing point guard and shooting guard. If Lin is serious that money won’t dominate his decision process, then it makes sense for the Hornets to figure a way to bring him back.

4. “A rim protector”

Reasoning: The Hornets haven’t had a true shotblocker since they chose not to extend a qualifying offer (about $4 million in the summer of 2015) to restrict Bismack Biyombo’s restricted free agency (he signed with Toronto).

Whether or not Biyombo was the answer, the Hornets did miss someone with that skill set. Beyond that, Clifford said the playoff loss to the Heat showed this team needs more rebounding and physicality.

5. Al Jefferson

Reasoning: Jefferson was a breakthrough free-agent signing in the summer of 2013. He still offers low-post scoring and very much would like to end his NBA career in Charlotte.

The question becomes salary expectations and roster space. Cho has indicated he sees Cody Zeller as a starter at center. If the Hornets sign or draft a shotblocker, how much playing time would remain for Jefferson?

6. Courtney Lee

Reasoning: Just an educated guess, but I suspect Lee played so well for the Hornets that the market will price him out of their budget.

Lee is a terrific defender and a 39-percent shooter from 3-point range. I figure that makes him worth $10 million a season to some team. With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist already under contract and the Hornets planning to re-sign Batum, would Lee become a luxury?

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