Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho, not prone to showing his cards in advance of off-season moves, couldn’t have been more direct Wednesday about free agent-to-be Nic Batum.
"Nic is a huge piece. He is our No. 1 off-season priority," Cho said at an end-of-the-season media availability.
"He knows that. We told him that in our exit interviews. We love having him here, thought he did a great job this year," Cho continued. "He had a few injuries, but overall he did a great job at both ends of the floor. He also did a great job in the locker room."
Small forward Batum, who Cho acquired from the Portland Trail Blazers in a June trade, was the Hornets’ do-it-all guy with season averages of 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists. Cho acknowledged Batum will be "widely coveted" around the NBA, so bringing him back will be expensive – probably in the $20 million-plus per season range.
Batum said Monday when the players had exit interviews that he very much enjoys playing for coach Steve Clifford and his first option would be returning to Charlotte.
"He definitely wants to be here," Cho said. "He’s grown to like the city. As you know he just had a child and his family likes it here. He loves the coaching staff, loves his teammates and I think he likes his GM.
"He wants to be here, we want him to be here, and he’s a big priority for us."
Batum is the most prominent of five free agents-to-be who played in the Hornets’ rotation this season. The others are forward Marvin Williams, combo guard Jeremy Lin (who plans to opt out of his current contract), center Al Jefferson and shooting guard Courtney Lee.
Cho said he’d like to bring back as many of those players as is feasible, in part to establish a sense of continuity. Last offseason the Hornets brought in seven new players via trades, the draft and free agency.
"If you look at a lot of the better teams around the league, like Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, one thing that has helped them is continuity," Cho said. "We want to maintain some sense of continuity. But at the same time, we don’t want to be complacent. We want to improve the team."
Asked about areas of need, Cho concurred with Clifford that the playoff loss to the Miami Heat indicated the Hornets should acquire more rebounding and physicality. In addition, Cho said, the Hornets could use a rim protector, a shot-blocking big man.
Cho said it will be "tricky" to bring back all five free agents, partly because of how the rules work in each case. Lin, for instance, is a non-Bird rights free agent, so the Hornets would likely have to use cap space to re-sign him. Williams is an "early Bird" free agent, limiting how far over the cap the Hornets could go to re-sign him.
Cho addressed several other areas of off-season business:
▪ On the draft, he anticipates the 2016 class to be deep enough that the Hornets will get a decent player with the 22nd-overall pick.
▪ On the new Development League franchise the Hornets will start next fall in Greensboro, Cho said he hopes to hire a coach for the Swarm in time for that coach to be at summer league in July. It’s key that coach runs the same offensive and defensive systems as Clifford.
▪ On the upcoming spike in the salary cap because of the new national television deals, Cho said he’s played out 75 hypothetical scenarios for how free agency might go.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell