The Charlotte Hornets kick off the playoff season today with a game against the Miami Heat.
The Hornet team that takes the floor today might be vastly different than the one that starts next season.
As the sixth seed taking on a third seed, Charlotte isn’t expected to make it past the first round, which means the offseason could be upon team officials very shortly. And they have some big decisions to make on players.
First, let’s look at the payroll. The Hornets are right in the middle of the pack in salary at $76.86 million. That’s far below the Cleveland Cavaliers at $108.3 million, but well above Portland at $61.69 million.
Like most teams, the pay is heavily slanted toward a few players at the top.
More than half the payroll ($39.3 million) goes to four players: Al Jefferson ($13.5 million), Kemba Walker ($12 million), Nicholas Batum ($11.86 million) and Marvin Williams ($7 million).
Four more players fall in the second tier, between $4 million and $7 million: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist ($6.33 million), Courtney Lee ($5.68 million), Spencer Hawes ($5.54 million) and Cody Zeller ($4.2 million).
At the low end of the scale are Jeremy Lamb ($3.03 million), Frank Kaminsky ($2.61 million), Jeremy Lin ($2.14 million), Tyler Hansbrough ($1.19 million) and Troy Daniels ($947,000).
Also on the squad, but seldom activated is rookie guard Aaron Harrison at $525,000.
Of the 14 players named, eight of them are not under contract next season.
Five players are under contract: Walker, Kidd-Gilchrist, Hawes, Zeller and Kaminsky. Lin has a player option for the season, but hasn’t announced his intentions yet.
The five contracts are sizable, but still only amount to $38.7 million. Including Lin’s option, the Hornets would be at $41 million.
Compare that to the Cavs and Clippers who are both on the hook for more than $80 million.
While the Hornets are 15th in salary right now, they are 25th in salary on the books for next season. This gives Charlotte tremendous flexibility in chasing free agents.
However, don’t look for any wallet-busting mega-deal this offseason.
For one thing, despite the team finishing with an impressive 48-34 record, Charlotte doesn’t have a tradition of winning to woo potential free agents. It wasn’t long ago Charlotte was the laughingstock of the league with a 7-59 record. People have accused Michael Jordan of not knowing what he’s doing.
What gets lost in all this, however, is that general manager Rich Cho has been steadily making this team better.
Cho is one of the reasons that the Hornets are (a) very competitive and (b) financially flexible.
Cho was the GM of the Thunder when the team acquired Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Jeff Green, Shaun Livingston and Thabo Sefolosha.
He had already been with the then-Bobcats more than a year when the Thunder made the questionable move to trade Harden to Houston for Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin.
In case you’re not a stats junkie, you might have missed that Cho has amassed a team of quality players, many of whom are interchangeable.
A favorite stat these days is player efficiency rating. An average starting player has a PER of 15.
There are squads in the playoffs this year that only have three or four players with a PER above 15.
The Hornets have eight players (who played at least half the season) at 15 or better. Then there’s Kidd-Gilchrist who would have been number nine, but played on seven games. And free agent pickup Jorge Gutierrez was fantastic in just five minutes a night in the final 12 games of the season.
That’s 10 of the 15 players on the roster at average or above.
Two who weren’t efficient were traded away in P.J. Hairston and Brian Roberts.
Last year the team was last in three-point shooting. This year they are one of the best with 10.6 makes a game and 36.2 percent accuracy. That’s because Cho built a good lineup.
However, Lamb ($3 million) and Daniels ($947,000), two of their better shooters, were relatively cheap and likely won’t be that price to re-sign.
For the first two years of his massive contract, Jefferson was considered a good deal by management because he produced big numbers. This year, however, he had injuries and lost effectiveness.
Even when he came back from injury, Jefferson had lost his starting spot to emerging center Zeller. The team probably wants him back, but not at the $13.5 million he made this year.
More important to the Hornets’ plans is Batum. Many analysts criticized Charlotte for adding a wing that struggled with his shot a year ago.
Batum did struggle for two months, but that was because of a wrist injury. By the end of the 2014-15 season, he was back on target and shot the deep ball at a decent 34.8 percent this year.
With 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and a team-best 5.8 assists, Batum showed his value and likely will be the team’s top priority to re-sign.
Marvin Williams played heavier minutes than most fans expected (28.9, third on the team among regulars). He produced 11.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, one block and 40.2 percent deep shooting. At $7 million, management likely believed he was worth every penny.
As he is about to turn 30, however, re-signing to a long-term deal would be an unwise investment.
Courtney Lee ($5.68 million) was a serviceable pickup in the P.J. Hairston trade, but the team should look for a better option with that much money coming off the books.
Let’s just hope the Hornets don’t regret passing on Justice Winslow in the 2015 Draft, who might be playing with a chip on his shoulder in this playoff series.
Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.