Charlotte Hornets

Is Hornets’ Nic Batum worth deal in excess of $20 million?

Steve Clifford reflects on season

Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford discusses the just-completed season.
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Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford discusses the just-completed season.

There are Charlotte Hornets fans who feel the franchise must do anything and everything necessary to retain free agent-to-be Nic Batum.

There are other Hornets fans who just don’t see small forward Batum as a maximum-salary type of star.

No right or wrong answers there. Both views can be justified. The middle ground is this: Batum has delivered on everything the Hornets hoped for when they traded for him last June. Now, he’s going to be a very attractive (translation: expensive) unrestricted free agent.

There’s a confluence of circumstance here that will make Batum different from every Hornets free agent who preceded him. That’s because the NBA salary cap is about to spike in the summers of 2016 and ’17 in response to all the new national television money ABC/ESPN and Turner Sports will pay.

That means cap room will be there to retain Batum and likely at least two or three of the five expected free agents in the Hornets’ rotation. But it also means plenty of other teams – including big-market, talent-starved franchises such as the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers – have the flexibility to pursue a Batum.

So is Batum worthy of a max-type contract that might pay him in excess of $20 million a season? Probably not under the prior definition of NBA “max player.”

But the league is changing. That was clear last summer when, for instance, the Oklahoma City Thunder matched an offer sheet that pays Enes Kanter, a big man of limited ability, more than $17 million per season over four years.

When fans hear the term “max player” they think of LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. Batum doesn’t have that star power; his name won’t sell tickets or move merchandise to any significant degree.

But he’s versatile as a scorer-passer-rebounder, a player who often flirts with triple-doubles. Hornets coach Steve Clifford said Monday Batum should be the team’s top priority. Between Batum’s length, skill and basketball IQ, Clifford said, the Hornets always play better with him on the court even when he played on a sprained ankle.

Batum’s abilities are no secret around the NBA. He’s not a Kevin Durant, but he definitely fits in the second tier of unrestricted agents alongside such players as Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and Atlanta’s Al Horford.

That’s why, to use Batum’s term Monday, the outset of free-agency July 1 will be “crazy.”

The Hornets need a plan, and I’m sure they will finalize one well in advance of July 1. This is both about Batum’s expectations and how the team deploys its resources. Three other starters – power forward Marvin Williams, center Al Jefferson and shooting guard Courtney Lee – will also be unrestricted free agents. In addition, combo guard Jeremy Lin can, and almost certainly will, opt out of next season on the deal he signed with the Hornets last summer.

The good news: Batum is very much inclined to stay a Hornet. He said that a half-dozen different ways during an interview with Charlotte media Monday.

“Why not?” Batum said of re-signing with the Hornets. “I don’t know (what will happen in) a crazy summer for a lot of people. But why not?

“I want to talk to them first, for sure. July 1 will be a crazy day, but will Charlotte be my first call? Yes.”

The key to that is Clifford’s relationship with Batum. Clifford gave him massive responsibility for running the offense, a role far larger than the one he had with the Portland Trail Blazers.

“When I came here they let me know they wanted me to be one of the (top) two options with Kemba” Walker, Batum said. “I liked that. I like that they trusted me.

“It was a pretty cool year. First time I got to play like I want to in eight years in the NBA.”

So Batum wants the Hornets and the Hornets want him. Now it’s about haggling over a price.

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