The Charlotte Hornets did exactly what they had to do in the first hours of free agency, agreeing to a deal with do-everything forward Nic Batum to the richest contract in Charlotte sports history and making sure he stays in the Queen City for the next five seasons.
Shudder if you need to at the contract’s massive numbers – a reported $120 million over five years. It’s more than Cam Newton, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, signed for a year ago (five years, $103.8 million) with the Carolina Panthers. A whole lot more of Batum’s money will be guaranteed, despite the fact he is nowhere near the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
But it’s best to ignore the numbers for sanity’s sake. Let’s talk about basketball and remember what Batum does. He not only is a great player on his own, but he makes the Hornets’ very best player even better.
That would be point guard Kemba Walker, who told me in April of his French wingman Batum: “He’s been perfect for me, as well as for what we try to do here. Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve been the guy having to make all the plays basically. I haven’t had a lot of space to do it. And it’s been pretty tough.”
Not all the news was good for the Hornets Friday. Losing Jeremy Lin wasn’t unexpected -- he clearly outplayed his contract and Brooklyn gave him a lot of money -- but that will hurt Charlotte’s fourth-quarter scoring. Losing Al Jefferson wasn’t a great thing, either, although if Cody Zeller continues to emerge that won’t be too bad.
But making sure Batum was not just a one-year rental was essential. In what may end up being the best trade the Hornets ever made, they acquired Batum a year ago for Noah Vonleh and Gerald Henderson. Immediately, Batum asked for the keys to the Hornets’ balky car – Charlotte had not won a single playoff game since the “Classic Hornets” era ended in 2002 – and coach Steve Clifford gladly handed them over.
“When I came here,” Batum told me once, “I told the coaches: ‘Just let me help him make plays. Because if you let me do that, Kemba is going to take off. If he gets less pressure, we score more, and he will be more effective than he ever was before.’”
With Walker and Batum providing the 1-2 punch, the Hornets won 48 games in the 2015-16 regular season and then extended a good Miami team to seven games in the first-round playoff series before faltering.
Batum,27, plays basketball the way we all would like to think we would play it if we were 6-foot-8 and had preternaturally good instincts. He is unselfish. He plays defense. He scores when needed. He plays through pain. He averaged 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists last season, which he said the day after the season ended was “the first time I got to play like I want to in eight years in the NBA.”
So it made sense that Batum wanted to stay, and that the Hornets wanted to keep him. When Batum tweeted out in the wee hours Friday morning “We got a deal! #Buzz City,” the Hornets fans who were awake rejoiced.
By the way, do you know how many other players had averages of at least 14-6-5 last season? Five. They were Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Houston’s James Harden, Golden State’s Draymond Green and Cleveland’s LeBron James. That’s good company.
Batum’s money? Yeah, I know. Totally ridiculous. But the NBA is full of ridiculous contracts, and owner Michael Jordan has enough money he’s not going to miss it.
Listen, former Hornets owner George Shinn made a ton of mistakes, including the $84 million, 12-year contract he signed Larry Johnson to in 1993 – at the time the NBA’s richest contract ever. But Shinn said something that day that rings true now in the NBA just like it did when the LJ signing was announced: “The bottom line is that if you’re going to win, you have to pay the freight.”
This was Jordan and the Hornets paying the freight. There’s still more freight that will need to be paid for – free agency is only beginning, and Charlotte has a lot of money left that won’t be spent on Lin and Jefferson – but this was Job One.
And the Hornets – a symbol of disappointment for so long during their most recent incarnation, a franchise that went 14 years between playoff wins from 2002-16 – just got it done.