Can the Charlotte Hornets take the next step in 2016-17?
Charlotte had its best season since gaining re-entry into the NBA in 2004-05. The Hornets went 48-34 last year, which was a 15-game improvement over the previous season, and finished sixth in the Eastern Conference. Charlotte lost to the Miami Heat four games to three in the first round of the playoffs, marking the third time the third straight time the Hornets have lost in the first round, but at least they won a game this time around.
Charlotte was good on both ends of the court last season, finishing ranked 11th in scoring (103.4) and ninth in scoring defense (100.7). The truth is the Hornets were actually better than those numbers indicate, as they had the ninth best offensive rating (107.1) and eighth best defensive rating (104.3), per Basketball Reference. Charlotte also finished with the fewest turnovers in the NBA with just 12.6 a game.
The Hornets have a lot of decisions to make this summer as they have just six players under contract for the upcoming season. That means Charlotte will have eight free agents when the free-agent period begins on July 1, as reserve guard Jeremy Lin decided to decline his player option on Tuesday. Nicolas Batum, Tyler Hansbrough, Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee, and Marvin Williams join Lin as unrestricted free agents. Jorge Gutierrez and Troy Daniels are slated to be restricted free agents if they are tendered qualifying offers. Aaron Harrison has a non-guaranteed contract valued at $874,636, but the Hornets don't have to make an immediate decision as the contract isn't fully guaranteed until January 10.The good news is that Charlotte will have dynamic point guard Kemba Walker back as well as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Walker had his best season of his career across the board, averaging 20.9 points along with 5.2 assists and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from beyond the arc. Kidd-Gilchrist only played seven games before a torn labrum ended his season, however, he seemed to have an improved jump shot and played solid defense. Cody Zeller, who is expected to be one of the frontcourt starters next season, along with Frank Kaminsky, Spencer Hawes, and Jeremy Lamb, will also return. Zeller has improved in each of his first three seasons, albeit slowly, while Kaminsky had an up-an-down rookie campaign. Kaminsky averaged 7.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in 21.1 minutes a contest. The seven-foot center also shot 41 percent from the field and 33.7 percent on three-point attempts. Lamb was good on both ends of the court for the Hornets last season. The 24-year-old averaged a career-high 8.8 points a game and shot a career-best 45.1 percent from the floor. Hawes gives Charlotte another frontcourt player who can spread the floor with his shooting capabilities. In addition, Oregon Live reports that Batum plans on returning to the Hornets. The 28-year-old posted career highs with 14.9 points and 5.8 assists, along with 6.1 rebounds in 35 minutes per game last year.
Lee told Basketball Insiders that he would like to return as well.
"In an ideal world, I'd like to stay. With Charlotte, there's mutual interest. They've already expressed that they want me to come back, but in the same sense, there's four or five other [Hornets] free agents. So you have to see how the money plays out."
Lee added outside shooting, good defense, and gave the Hornets another ball-handler after coming over from Memphis at the trade deadline. The 30-year-old averaged 8.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game in his 28-game stint with the Hornets.
Charlotte also wants Williams back. The 30-year-old posted career numbers in three-point shooting (40 percent) and rebounding (6.4 per game). He always plays hard and is a physical defender. Williams is ranked No. 23 on the CBS Sports Top 50 free agents list.
Keith P. Smith of RealGM believes that the Hornets could get a more efficient backup point guard than Lin, if he decides to leave, and says it may be time for the team to move on from Jefferson.
Jefferson, 31, has been injury prone throughout his career and is coming off one of his least productive years. He has only played at least 76 games four times in his 12-year career. Jefferson averaged 12 points and 6.4 rebounds last year.
Jefferson would likely need to take a pay cut in order to return to Charlotte, which he reportedly would do.
"Most definitely. I've been in the league for a long time and I've done right by my money. So at this point, going into my 13th year and I'm 31 years old, this is the best situation. I'm not at the point in my career where I'm chasing the big check."
Who should Charlotte pursue in free agency?
If the Hornets are over the salary cap, they would only have their mid-level exception (around $5.6 million) to offer. Smith wrote that Matthew Dellavedova, Isaiah Canaan, and Tyler Johnson could be good fits in Charlotte due to their perimeter shooting prowess and playmaking ability. Dellavedova, Canaan, and Johnson are all restricted free agents.
Dwight Howard, Dion Waiters, and Trevor Booker have also been mentioned as fits for Charlotte.
Charlotte has only one draft pick in the 2016 NBA draft, which is No. 22 overall in the first round. The Charlotte Observer Reporter thinks that the Hornets may select Florida State six-foot-five shooting guard Malik Beasley. Beasley spent one season in with the Seminoles, averaging 15.6 points and 5.3 rebounds a game.
Beasley is very athletic and a good shooter with range. He can also get to the rim and finish. Defensively, Beasley can guard multiple positions.
Chad Ford of ESPN also thinks Beasley would be a good fit in Charlotte. Bleacher Report thinks the Hornets will end up with 18-year-old power forward/center Thon Maker while NBA Draft has them taking Patrick McGraw.
[Photo by Lynne Sladky/AP Images]