Bobcats hit free agency with needs at center, guard

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The first day of NBA free agency largely centered around the circus that’s become Dwight Howard, but there was major news in Charlotte as well, with the Charlotte Observer reporting that the Bobcats are after center Al Jefferson.

With $21 million in cap space, it was hard to see the Bobcats not being major players this summer with a marquee free agent. Jefferson fits the bill. He’s exactly what they need in the frontcourt: an interior scorer who can play center or power forward.

Jefferson’s game would augment recently drafted power forward Cody Zeller’s game nicely, too. Zeller’s more of a face-up stretch four, while Jefferson’s your interior bull that’s going to most of his damage inside 12 feet.

Perhaps the best thing about Jefferson is he doesn’t make them into a playoff team immediately. That sounds counterintuitive, but the Bobcats need another year to be in the lottery’s top five, and the 2014 Draft’s one of the strongest we’ve seen in years.

Meanwhile, Jefferson would show the fanbase they’re serious about improving and gives the franchise a veteran in the post that can play either position. A likely starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and Al Jefferson’s nowhere close to a playoff team — that’s a good thing, at least for another year.

The Bobcats’ first-round pick in 2014 is top-10 protected but is owed to the Bulls, so ideally that pick would fall in the top 10 in 2014 and then they could make a run at the postseason in 2015 (they owe the Bulls their 2015 pick, too). They’re also going to be the recipients of a first-round pick from the Pistons (top-10 protected in 2014, top-8 protected in 2015), and the Blazers (top-12 protected in 2014 and 2015) over the next couple of years. That’s why chasing Jefferson’s important: it shows the franchise is building and it offers plenty of flexibility without sacrificing for the future.

But how cheap can the Bobcats get Jefferson?

When there’s talk of Tiago Splitter getting $9-10 million per year, this isn’t likely going to end cheaply. Jefferson received five years, $65 million in his last contract, but he’s 28 now. Charlotte has to hit the salary cap floor of $52.65 million anyways, but it would still like to have some flexibility for next summer’s strong free agent class when you shed Ben Gordon’s $13 million a year.

If they’re unable to get Jefferson, selecting Zeller likely forces them to chase a center and the free agent cupboard’s far from full at that position. They could go after Andrew Bynum and those questionable knees or go hard after Nikola Pekovic. Neither big man has been associated with Charlotte yet.

They’ve already issued a qualifying offer to shooting guard Gerald Henderson and after bypassing Ben McLemore in the draft, shooting guard has to be a top priority in free agency as well. They’ll likely add $8 million more in salary cap space by amnestying Tyrus Thomas’ contract — i.e. more flexibility in filling out the roster.

There haven’t been any leaks out of Charlotte to suggest that the team plans on doing anything besides matching whatever offer comes in for Henderson. However, after New Orleans got the free agency party started with the most absurd contract of the offseason thus far — a four-year, $44 million offer to Tyreke Evans — you can’t help but wonder just how ugly Henderson’s offer is going to get for the Bobcats and whether it will remain affordable.

Signing Henderson for $7 million a year and below is probably worthwhile. Anything above that reaches dangerous territory. And if Evans is the market gauge, it’s hard to see Henderson’s offers not tracking in the range of $7 million per. Evans’ and Henderson’s numbers are eerily similar: Evans averaged 15.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists on 47.8 percent shooting last season; Henderson, meanwhile, put up 15.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists on 44.7 percent shooting. Both shot the same from deep (33 percent).

Take into account the fact that Henderson averaged 20.8 points in his last 20 games, and this contract’s looking like it’ll get deep in a hurry for the Bobcats.

It’s hard for front offices to stomach drafted talents like Henderson walking away for free but it could be harder to stomach the contract of a guy who doesn’t fit the roster they’ve built already. Henderson’s a below-average shooter for his position and they’ve already got two of those — Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — that they’re trying to pair Henderson with. It’s far from an ideal fit.

There are options at shooting guard in this class but none that look like an ideal fit. Monta Ellis is an even worse shooter than the current Bobcats backcourt. JJ Redick and Kevin Martin are the shooters the Bobcats need but lack upside at their age and seem to want to sign with contenders. J.R. Smith is obviously the volume scorer they’ve missed late in the shot clock, but he shoots a poor percentage (41 percent), frequently takes questionable shots and isn’t as elite of a 3-point shooter (36 percent) as his quick trigger would suggest.

The best fit would be O.J. Mayo, who is the same age as Henderson (25) and has extremely similar numbers, but shot 41 percent from three last year.

Besides grabbing someone at the veteran minimum, as a backup point guard or backup big, the roster seems pretty set. They’ll likely let Byron Mullens walk and attempt to resign Josh McRoberts to back up Zeller at power forward. Ramon Sessions is a quality backup point guard and Ben Gordon (and his expiring $13 million deal) provides depth at shooting guard. You can then bring along Jeff Taylor and Bismack Biyombo as backups for Kidd-Gilchrist and whoever they bring in at center.

But this summer must find a starting shooting guard and center — Henderson and Jefferson, or not — and it appears so far they’re heading down that course.