Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Hornets prepare for free agency, summer of the great unknown

As free agency approaches, Nic Batum (right) figures to be the most expensive Hornets player since Michael Jordan (left) bought the franchise in 2010.
As free agency approaches, Nic Batum (right) figures to be the most expensive Hornets player since Michael Jordan (left) bought the franchise in 2010. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Think of this NBA offseason as the summer of the great unknown.

Each team’s salary cap is about to jump $24 million from last season’s number of about $70 million. That is primarily a result of a massive jump in national television revenue, based on deals signed with ABC-ESPN and Turner Sports.

That’s great for the NBA’s financial health. But it will set off a comparable spike in spending on player contracts, and for all the strategizing the league’s 30 franchises have done over the winter, no one is quite sure of the ramifications once free agency commences July 1.

"I think you’re going to see a lot of money thrown out there this summer that you haven’t seen in the past," Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho said.

"Every team is planning for it, but I still think you’ll see some things that will surprise you."

The Hornets will be knee-deep in this process because much of the core of last season’s 48-victory roster is about to hit the free-agent market. Four starters at the end of last season – Nic Batum, Marvin Williams, Courtney Lee and Al Jefferson – will be unrestricted free agents. In addition, the Hornets’ sixth man last season, versatile guard Jeremy Lin, chose to opt out of the final season on his Hornets contract.

The good news? All five of those players have expressed at one time or another that they’d like to re-sign with the Hornets. The bad news? It might be all but impossible to retain all five in what will inevitably be an inflationary labor market this summer.

This NBA free-agent class is solid, including two superstars in LeBron James and Kevin Durant. James plans to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers after winning the championship over the Golden State Warriors. Whether Durant returns to Oklahoma City is in a bit more doubt; there might be a way for the Warriors to sign him, which would arguably make the NBA’s most formidable roster even stronger.

Among star-level players who will be unrestricted free agents: Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, Atlanta’s Al Horford, Houston’s Dwight Howard, Memphis’s Mike Conley, Miami’s (and Gastonia native) Hassan Whiteside and Batum.

Each of these players figures to get a maximum, or near-max, contract this summer. Which raises a question of perception among longtime NBA fans…

Who qualifies as ‘max’?

So-called maximum contracts are not a new concept in the NBA. But that term used to apply to an elite few superstars like James, Durant, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Howard. Players who were annually All-Stars and capable of leading runs to the NBA Finals.

Then the max contract became a way of locking down rising stars like Derrick Rose (then with Chicago, now with New York) or New Orleans’ Anthony Davis.

Now? With so much money available and so few stars to spend it on, our whole perception of a "max player" is about to change.

The foreshadow of this was last summer when the Portland Trail Blazers signed big man Enes Kanter to a maximum offer sheet worth about $70 over four seasons. The Thunder matched that offer sheet. Kanter is a decent NBA big man, but far from a star. He plays behind starting center Steven Adams. But the Thunder still matched.

This summer’s version of Kanter could be Warriors small forward Harrison Barnes. He is, at best, Golden State’s fourth offensive option, averaging 11.7 points and 4.9 rebounds. He had a bad performance in the NBA Finals, shooting 35 percent from the field. And yet it’s been speculated Barnes will field a max offer sheet this summer.

In that atmosphere, it’s easier to accept the price the Hornets might have to pay to retain Batum.

The Batum question

It’s understandable why some fans find it hard to view Batum as a max player. His averages last season – 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists – are not superstar-like.

But it’s clear Batum’s versatility made the Hornets better and that trading for him was one of the best moves by this front office since the expansion franchise began in 2004. It’s also clear there will be competition for Batum’s services. One way or another, he appears destined to make in excess of $20 million each of the next several seasons.

This is new territory in Charlotte. Hornets owner Michael Jordan has always said he’ll pay what it takes to retain top talent. But that concept really hasn’t been tested by the talent level of past players on this roster.

To their credit, the Hornets don’t play coy in expressing their desire to bring Batum back. Cho has said repeatedly that Batum is his top priority and that he intends to meet with Batum and his agent as soon as free agency begins July 1.

Batum said the day after the season ended that he wants to re-sign with the Hornets, particularly because of all the responsibility coach Steve Clifford gave him to facilitate his new team’s offense.

Good feelings, but difficult circumstances

Cho knows the Hornets have created a healthy locker room climate where players enjoy working.

"We feel like from our exit interviews everyone wants to be back and our goal is to bring back as much of the core as possible," Cho said.

The key term in that sentence might be "as possible." Bringing back all five rotation free agents might be unrealistic, particularly if Cho intends to do anything else to improve the roster.

Cho has used the term "tricky" to describe this upcoming process.

"I say it’s going to be tricky just because you have to have a meeting of the minds when negotiating," Cho said. "Sometimes the numbers don’t pan out and you’re not able to bring back who you want."

Some of this is going to get very technical with salary-cap holds and maximum-salary limits that haven’t much affected this franchise’s offseasons in the past.

Cho says, after months of planning, he’s ready for whatever course this process takes.

"We’ve spent a lot of time dealing with contingencies,” he said. “We’ve got like 80 different scenarios going.

"The hard part will be you have so much time each agent will need to make a decision as well. That’s something we can’t put a time frame on right now."  

Hornets GM Rich Cho talks about Hornets trade of 22nd NBA draft pick for Sacramento guard Marco Belinelli

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell

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