Scott Fowler

After mediocre free agency, will Charlotte Hornets actually improve next season?

The Charlotte Hornets re-signed Nic Batum to a five-year, $120 million contract.
The Charlotte Hornets re-signed Nic Batum to a five-year, $120 million contract.

When the Charlotte Hornets’ season ended May 1 with a blowout loss to Miami in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference’s first round, it was obvious this was a good Charlotte team that was nowhere close to being a great one.

As we stand here two months later, that’s exactly where the Hornets still are.

Even after committing close to $200 million in player salaries over the next several years – Nic Batum alone will consume $120 million of that – the Hornets look like they are running in place.

They didn’t get decimated in free agency like, say, Atlanta, but they also didn’t win big like Golden State. They in large part have fought hard the past few weeks to stay about where they were in terms of personnel in 2015-16 – when the Hornets fielded a 48-win team that lost in the first round of the playoffs.

If you want to get excited about the Hornets’ chances to actually win a playoff series next season – something no Charlotte NBA franchise has done since 2002 – then this is what has to happen.

The team didn’t get better externally. So it must get better internally.

That certainly is possible. The No. 1 item on the agenda has to be a healthy season for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who plays basketball like he’s linebacker Thomas Davis and sustains injuries at roughly the same rate. Davis, though, overcame his late in his career and became an enormous part of the Carolina Panthers’ last three playoff teams. MKG must do the same thing. His resurgence is key.

Kemba Walker made a huge leap last year. This season that has to happen for someone else, like Cody Zeller or Frank Kaminsky.

With those sorts of internal improvements, the Hornets could get better. And they need to get better. They know they aren’t good enough yet.

“We can’t run from the fact that you’ve got to win a playoff series – or two,” Steve Clifford, the Hornets’ coach, said Thursday.

Exactly. Clifford still has trouble falling asleep some nights thinking of how the Hornets, with a 3-2 series lead, let Game 6 in Charlotte slip away. I believe if the Hornets had won that game they may well have beaten Toronto in the next round – although after that Charlotte would have gotten trucked by LeBron and company in Cleveland.

But while the most recent Charlotte team had some great moments, it ultimately fell well short of being memorable. And I don’t see that this roster has gotten any better.

I do agree with a couple of the Hornets’ biggest moves in theory. They absolutely had to re-sign Batum – who had no shortage of suitors. And Marco Belinelli is much more of a “win-now” player than anybody at No. 22 would have been, so I’m fine with trading away that first-round draft pick to acquire him. Belinelli can take Courtney Lee’s place and that’s fine.

But losing Jeremy Lin to free agency hurt. As nice a guy as his replacement Ramon Sessions is and as often as Sessions gets to the free-throw line, he’s just not as dynamic as Lin. And big man Roy Hibbert is going to have to prove to me and everyone else that he has something left, because he looked awful on a terrible Los Angeles Lakers team last season. The now-departed Al Jefferson was a much more natural post scorer than Hibbert, although Hibbert’s rim protection on defense will be a plus.

Signing Batum was monstrous. I’m not discounting that. He makes Kemba better. He shares the ball beautifully. And signing Marvin Williams to another contract makes sense given his variety of skills, although the money was ridiculous (four years, $54.5 million).

But the sum of the parts for the Hornets is roughly equal to what the sum of the parts was in early May. No Kevin Durant or Al Horford cavalry charge will be riding into Charlotte.

So there’s only one way that the Hornets will win a playoff series or two this upcoming season: MKG must have an enormous impact, and several players who were already here for the last playoff series simply have to get better.

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