Welcome to offseason coverage of Hoosiers In The NBA! Today I am looking at Cody Zeller’s Charlotte Hornets, who have some very crucial free agent decisions that will dictate the franchise’s future. Please try to spread the word by liking it on Facebook or retweeting this on Twitter if you enjoyed it. Of course this is completely optional but it is greatly appreciated. Otherwise I hope you enjoy and for more coverage follow me on twitter at @QTipsForSports or just look for the hashtag #HoosiersInTheNBA:
The Charlotte Hornets are coming off their most successful season since the franchise was reborn back in 2004 (and were called the Charlotte Bobcats). While key players such as Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and IU’s own Cody Zeller are under contract for next season, the Hornets actually enter the offseason with more than half of last year’s team currently scheduled to be free agents.
After such a successful year, it would only make sense to bring back as many players as possible but management knows it probably can’t bring everyone back. So for this edition of Hoosiers In The NBA, I’m going to look at the five biggest free agents and how the decision of either keeping or parting with them will affect Cody Zeller’s role on the Hornets next season.
While he’s always been a good player, Nic Batum really flourished in his lone season with the Hornets. Posting career-high averages in points (14.9) and assists (5.8), his passing took some of the pressure off of Walker (letting him focus a little more on scoring) while his defense helped compensate for the loss of Kidd-Gilchrist for most of the season.
If He Returns: Batum’s overall play has earned him a chance to land a max contract this offseason, and all indications are that both he and the Hornets are very interested in making that happen. While the size of the contract won’t likely affect Zeller when he has to re-sign next offseason, it will affect how Charlotte will handle the rest of this offseason as Batum’s new contract will limit how much the team will spend with the rest of its free agents. Chances are that if Batum returns with a max contract, at least one or maybe two of the five players on this list won’t be returning unless they take a considerable pay cut.
If He Doesn’t Return: While the Hornets could just hold on to the remaining cap space after re-signing everyone else, the pressure to remain competitive may force management to spend it which could lead to the Hornets trying to go after some big-name free agents. While that doesn’t sound that bad, it should be mentioned that all of the big free agent names who would be interested in coming to Charlotte are big men like Dwight Howard, Al Horford, and Hassan Whiteside, all of which would greatly hamper Zeller’s role on the team and will likely lead to him signing elsewhere after this upcoming season.
The cornerstone of the franchise since he was signed in 2013, Jefferson earned a spot on the All-NBA third team for helping Charlotte make the 2014 playoffs. Since then, Jefferson’s numbers have decreased dramatically (from 21.8ppg and 10.8rpg in 2013-2014 to 12.0ppg and 6.4rpg this past season). Some of the decline may be in part to the many injuries he has suffered the last two seasons, but the more likely cause is that Jefferson will be entering into his 13th NBA season next year and his body is breaking down. No decision this offseason directly affects Zeller more than the decision to re-sign Jefferson.
If He Returns: Keeping Jefferson could mean one of two things for Zeller. It could mean that the Hornets want to move forward with Zeller as their center but they still don’t think he’s a big offensive threat yet and need a backup that can score when needed. Unfortunately it could also mean that the Hornets are not yet convinced Zeller is their future center and both will likely compete for the starting job with the loser likely to be gone by the 2017-2018 season.
If He Doesn’t Return: By combining this with re-signing Batum, Charlotte’s management would be showing complete confidence in Zeller’s abilities. Of course, it’s very possible that even if Jefferson doesn’t return that the Hornets may still sign a veteran big man, but Zeller will have a huge advantage over most players the team could possibly sign to the veteran minimum because Zeller would be much more familiar with Head Coach Steve Clifford’s system.
Brought in during the middle of the season to add shooting and fill-in for the injured Kidd-Gilchrist at small forward, Lee is probably the most expendable of Charlotte’s five key free agents. With a healthy MKG and the likely re-signing of Batum, Lee would likely play a sixth man role next year. For a guy who can start for a number of NBA teams, coming off the bench for the Hornets probably isn’t his preferred choice.
If He Returns: While Zeller still has a ways to go offensively, having a great three-point shooter such as Lee gives Zeller the much needed space to operate in the post. He also gives the Hornets another solid defender, which could help solidify Zeller’s role as starting center. The Hornets have talked about signing a rim protector in free agency, but if the team has more solid defenders that don’t let their man get past them to the rim, the need for a rim protector becomes less important.
If He Doesn’t Return: Losing Lee’s shooting and defense will be tough to replace with one player but could be easily replaced by two. Kidd-Gilchrist, if he stays healthy, should take over defensively for Lee while getting a shooter should be rather easy. There are always good three-point shooters available in free agnecy, including former Hoosier Eric Gordon. Also the Hornets could use their first round draft pick to select a shooter, with wings such as Malik Beasley (FSU), Patrick McCraw (UNLV) and Isaiah Whitehead (Seton Hall) all likely options when Charlotte picks at 22.
Although it seemed his 15 minutes of fame had vanished after “Linsanity” left the New York Knicks after the 2011-2012 season, Lin has seemingly found a home in Charlotte as Walker’s backup and the Hornets’ sixth man. While his numbers don’t look that impressive (11.7ppg, 3.2rpg, 3.0apg), Lin always seemed to have big games when the Hornets needed him the most. He also formed a pretty formidable pick-and-roll tandem with Zeller.
If He Returns: While Lin’s situation has some similarities to Lee’s situation, the biggest difference is that Lin has already proven that he can be successful and is willing to come off the bench for the Hornets. Lin and Zeller form a great pick-and-roll team so Lin’s return could help Zeller try to increase his scoring for the fourth consecutive season. Lin’s shooting also helps provide the spacing Zeller needs to work in the post. He’s not as good of a defender as Lee but the return of MKG should offset that.
If He Doesn’t Return: As much as Lin could help Zeller score more, he isn’t mandatory for Zeller’s points to increase. Zeller also has good pick-and-roll chemistry with Walker and if he improves it along with his chemistry with Batum than Zeller should have plenty of opportunities to score more this upcoming season.
Once Zeller’s main competition for playing time, Williams has now turned into the player Zeller needs most to succeed with the Hornets. Thanks to the Hornets switching to a more up-tempo and spaced-out offense, Williams has turned into an excellent stretch power forward without sacrificing his rebounding. He also provides a perfect mentor for Frank Kaminsky.
If He Returns: It can’t be stated enough how much Zeller benefitted from Williams playing power forward alongside Zeller. Williams shot 40.2% from deep while also grabbing a team-high 6.4 rebounds per game. This compliments Zeller perfectly as it gives Zeller the space he needs to score in the post on offense and also helps cover one of Zeller’s weak spots on defense (rebounding). He also provides a veteran leadership that would be gone if the Hornets part with Jefferson.
If He Doesn’t Return: While Zeller could still succeed with the Hornets next year without Williams, he would need Kaminsky to take his place and provide the same shooting and rebounding. While I do believe that Zeller and Kaminsky are primed to be Charlotte’s frontcourt of the future, I think Kaminsky is still a year away from being a full-time starter. If this scenario plays out, Zeller will need “Frank the Tank” to adapt quickly or both could be playing for different teams in the future.