Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford believes three factors decide where NBA free agents sign:
“Money, of course. … Who you play with. … And can I win?” Clifford said Wednesday, two days removed from his team being eliminated from the playoffs by the defending-champion Miami Heat.
The Bobcats, Clifford notes, grade out pretty well in all those areas. They could have up to $19 million in salary-cap space this summer. They have a healthy locker room atmosphere. And the improvement from 21 victories in 2012-13 to 43 in 2013-14 suggests an upswing.
The Bobcats made the first major free-agent signing in franchise history last July when center Al Jefferson accepted a three-season contract worth $13.5 million per season. Jefferson dramatically improved this team offensively. Now the coaches and front office hope the chance to play with Jefferson and point guard Kemba Walker will attract other talented players to Charlotte.
“I would hope so,” Clifford said at his season-ending news conference. “Guys want to come to a nice place to live and where they have a chance to win. This is a step there.
“And guys know we have good guys.”
That’s one of the nuances that played a role in the Bobcats’ unexpected success this past season: Players seemed genuinely vested in each other’s success. Veteran shooting guard-small forward Chris Douglas-Roberts said that’s a luxury in modern-day professional sports.
“The moment I came here I could tell that,” said Douglas-Roberts, who signed with the Bobcats in December as an injury-replacement for Jeff Taylor. “There are no overpowering egos that can destroy a locker room. That’s rare in sports.”
Clifford said that was by design; he lauded president of basketball operations Rod Higgins and general manager Rich Cho for how carefully they paired personality types in building the roster.
“You need guys with common traits,” said Cho. “Good people, good teammates, competitiveness.”
Now they would like to package that atmosphere with Jefferson’s and Walker’s abilities and the cap space to go improve the roster. That isn’t exclusively a free-agency mission. The cap space could also facilitate trades to add rotation players.
But Higgins and Cho were emphatic Wednesday that when free-agency begins in July, they will have authority to spend similar to what had last summer, when the Bobcats amnestied Tyrus Thomas (at a two-year cost of about $18 million) to sign Jefferson.
“Of course. That’s why we created this kind of flexibility; to get an Al Jefferson,” Higgins said. “Our owner (Michael Jordan) is motivated to get our team better. We’ll hit the ground running.”
The Bobcats are barred from discussing impending free agents. But Higgins did talk about areas of need, specifically more perimeter shooting and a backup point guard. Among those who might help: Small forwards Luol Deng or Trevor Ariza, shooting guard Lance Stephenson or ex-Bobcats point guard Ramon Sessions.
On the trade front, it could make sense, for instance, to explore the availability of Orlando Magic shooting guard Arron Afflalo.
If the Bobcats tried to shoot really high, NBA stars LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh could all opt out of their deals this summer.
However Higgins is realistic about the challenge in pursuing players of that renown. Jefferson was available primarily because his former team, the Utah Jazz, was in rebuilding mode just as he hit free-agency.
“Yeah, you’d want to get superstar talent,” Higgins said. “(But) those guys are hard to sign.”
Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell