The Charlotte Bobcats had a great opportunity in the spring of 2010 to trade for point guard Kirk Hinrich and receive a first-round pick from the Chicago Bulls as compensation for taking on Hinrich’s salary.
But the team was so hamstrung by its used-up salary cap that it could never pull off that deal. That’s when Curtis Polk, vice chairman of the franchise, pushed hard for better strategic planning in how the Bobcats manage their player payroll.
It took about two years to straighten this out, but the Bobcats now have as much as $20 million-plus under next season’s cap. How do they put that to use?
“Because of the cap flexibility, we plan to be ultra-aggressive in trying to get a free agent that we deem as a good piece,” president of basketball operations Rod Higgins said.
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“What we don’t want to do is go and pay a marginal talent $40 million, (to a) player who might not be a difference-maker.”
The Bobcats’ use of free-agency over their first 10 years was limited and not particularly successful. Probably the best thing they did was sign backup point guard Ramon Sessions last summer to a two-year deal at $5 million a season. Sessions had a significant impact (14.4 points, 3.8 assists) before missing the last month of the season with a sprained knee.
The Bobcats tried unsuccessfully last summer to recruit Kris Humphries and Antawn Jamison to play power forward in Charlotte. Humphries re-signed with the Brooklyn Nets and Jamison signed with the Los Angeles Lakers.
To create a large kitty of cap room the Bobcats would probably have to waive forward Tyrus Thomas under the amnesty provision. That would allow the team to stop counting the remaining two years and $18 million on Thomas’s contract against the cap.
The Bobcats will have a seven-day window in early July when they could exercise that amnesty provision, and there seems a strong chance they will.
Then it becomes a matter of choices: Sign a free agent or free agents? Work a trade? Bank the flexibility for the summer of 2014?
“That’s where your knowledge of personnel, the information you get from your staff, is vitally important,” Higgins said.
Bobcats owner Michael Jordan has said he still hopes to sign a major free agent to become the team’s franchise player. He has said the team tried to get in the mix for now-Houston Rockets guard James Harden when the Oklahoma City Thunder decided to trade him rather than give Harden a maximum contract.
But two years into their plan to build a team that can compete deep into the playoffs, the Bobcats still face two issues in acquiring a big-name free agent: One, Charlotte is not a major media market and doesn’t have the allure of New York, Los Angeles, Miami or Chicago. Two, the Bobcats are still likely years away from being ready to win a playoff round.
The Bobcats added staff last summer, hiring Todd Quinter, a former Phoenix Suns scout, as director of pro scouting. They were well covered in college scouting but felt they needed someone evaluating the other 29 teams’ rosters more proactively.
This is a good summer for unrestricted free agents, but not a great one. When you eliminate superstars who probably wouldn’t sign with a rebuilding team (Chris Paul and Dwight Howard), you’re left with solid big men (Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, David West and J.J. Hickson) and perimeter scorers (Monta Ellis and O.J. Mayo).
The problem is most of those players are eight or more seasons into their careers, which calls into question whether they’d still be impactful years from now when the Bobcats could be in position to win a playoff series.
“I don’t know if it’s anything substantially more than in previous years,” general manager Rich Cho said of the talent in this free-agent class. “The vast majority of those guys were drafted at that same time” when they’d age out as an impact player in the next few years.
The Bobcats have typically used trades more than free-agent signings as a way to acquire veteran talent. They used cap room and the eighth pick (the rights to Brandan Wright) in 2007 to acquire Jason Richardson, then dealt Richardson the following season to Phoenix to acquire Boris Diaw and Raja Bell.
Aggressive as Higgins hopes to be, he says they’ll be careful not to spend up the cap room on something frivolous.
“We can always maintain that flexibility for another year,” Higgins said. “Maybe in 2014, there would be some names that would attract you more.”
The 2014 free-agent class could have some impactful young players in Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins, Indiana forward Paul George and Washington point guard John Wall, but all three would be restricted.