Tuesday, July 29, 2014

New England got better of Panthers in Gaffney claim

SPARTANBURG -- I don't ultimately think it will be a huge deal, but the Panthers got snookered by New England in the Tyler Gaffney situation.

Waiving Gaffney after he tore up his knee at Fan Fest Friday was a calculated risk and one the Panthers did not have to take at this point. But NFL teams so rarely claim players off waivers the Panther thought it was worth it and that they would simply get Gaffney onto their own injured reserve list. New England then stepped in and claimed Gaffney, leaving the Panthers no longer holding rights to their sixth-round draft pick of 2014 and also out the $96,000 signing bonus they gave him.

Panther coach Ron Rivera called New England's claim "disappointing" and "surprising" but said that it wasn't against any unwritten rule. He also echoed Panther general manager Dave Gettleman's defense that Carolina needed the roster spot for a healthy running back. "Wow, that was a tough one," Rivera said when asked about losing Gaffney Tuesday afternoon. "Surprising, you know. We had him slated to have surgery and all that. But new England, I knew they liked him coming out of the draft. So they made a move so we'll go from there. Disappointing. You'd love to be able to keep him."

It's true the Panthers needed the roster spot -- eventually -- but they certainly could have waived any of a number of other guys at other positions and not exposed Gaffney so quickly. I don't ultimately believe Gaffney is going to be anything close to an NFL star, but on this one the Panthers messed up. Gettleman likes to call draft picks "gold" in his pre-draft conversations. A bit of Carolina's gold was stolen Monday.

-- What's interesting about this, too, is that Carolina and New England keep bumping into each other in strange ways. There was Luke Kuechly's "Immaculate Perception" in the end zone against Rob Gronkowski last season -- no pass interference was called on a play that sure looked like PI -- that clinched Carolina's win over the Patriots. And of course there was that Super Bowl.

-- I keep looking down at my roster to see who No.83 is, because he keeps coming up with the ball in the end zone. It's rookie free agent Marcus Lucas, out of Missouri, and he's going to be a factor in the preseason.

Monday, July 28, 2014

On Kelvin Benjamin, Cam and other notes from Spartanburg

5 observations from Monday at Panther training camp in Spartanburg:

1. Panther coach Ron Rivera sounded very happy Monday afternoon that first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin (shown above in a pre-camp workout in Charlotte) only had a bone bruise and no structural damage in his knee. This is an injury that will require a little while to "calm down," as Rivera kept saying, but it sounded like a matter of days, not of multiple weeks. The Panthers dodged a bullet.

Nevertheless, I bet the Panthers will hold Benjamin out of the first preseason game Aug.8 at home vs. Buffalo as a precaution. Benjamin has to be very good very fast for Carolina, and the Panthers must be careful here.

2. I don't think there's any question Melvin White will start at one of the cornerback positions on opening day. White had an excellent day in coverage Monday.

3. The Panthers have turned quarterback Cam Newton into a dropback QB by design early in training camp as they try to keep him from testing that surgically repaired ankle too much. Newton said Monday that his ankle is a "semi-flat tire" that he is trying to pump back up. I thought Newton looked pretty sharp throwing the ball, though, even without Benjamin out there (he had gone to Charlotte to get his knee looked at). Newton put a couple of balls in good spots that weren't caught, including a laser on a 20-yard slant that went right through the hands of Jerricho Cotchery.

4. You've got to love this guy's name -- and he can play a little too. Carrington Byndom, an undrafted rookie cornerback from Texas, has had an interception in team drills in each of the past two days. Watch for him to do something in the fourth quarter of some preseason game.

5. Tiquan Underwood said that the Panthers' new wide receiving corps is leaning on veterans Jason Avant and Cotchery for advice. That hasn't stopped them from teasing the two of them, though. Underwood said some receivers have taken to calling Avant and Cotchery "unc" (short for uncle) or "grandpa."

Underwood also said something interesting about Benjamin. "Man, just a big guy, a great competitor -- the sky is the limit for that kid," Underwood said.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Calm Stephenson says Hornets are ready to win

The Charlotte Hornets introduced Lance Stephenson Friday, and anyone expecting a circus would have been disappointed.

Stephenson seemed determined to say all the right things and distance himself from the "blowing in LeBron's ear" incident. He said his favorite things on the court were "defense" and "assists" and that he first and foremost wanted to make his teammates happy.

"I'm a winner," Stephenson said. He said Hornets owner Michael Jordan "loves my game" -- Jordan was involved in Stephenson's signing -- and his competitive edge.

On the court, Stephenson said, "I don't have friends." But off the court, he said: "I'm funny."

Of his antics in the Eastern Conference finals, which included both the ear-blowing and him trying to infiltrate a Miami Heat huddle, Stephenson admitted he went "overboard." Later, he also said the ear-blowing incident had been "overblown," which was unintentionally ironic, I'm pretty sure.

"I'm a little upset about that," said Stephenson, who led the NBA in triple-doubles last season but was also top-5 in the NBA in technical fouls. He said the publicity about his playoff "antics," as he called them, had "overshadowed" how good of a player he is. And in that respect, he's probably right.

Stephenson said he and Kemba Walker had known and played against each other for years, starting in high school in New York, and that the two of them in the backcourt would be a great combination. He also said that coach Steve Clifford would "push" him, and that as a young player he needed to be pushed.

The Hornets signed Stephenson to a three-year, $27.4-million deal, with the third year being at the team's option. Hornets GM Rich Cho said Stephenson was one of the best young players in the league and that "we couldn't be more thrilled."

Asked what he will bring to the Hornets, Stephenson said: "I"ll help bring that edge and playoff experience.... I think we're ready."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Should Hornets have taken chance on Lance?

I wrote last week that the Charlotte Hornets should not take a chance on Lance.

Now they have, signing Lance Stephenson to a three-year contract after an all-night negotiating session, according to The Observer's Rick Bonnell.

You know what? I would love to be wrong.

Stephenson at his best will make the Hornets so much more dangerous. He is the reliable third scoring option last year's team never really had. The former Indiana Pacer will stretch the floor for Al Jefferson, help out Kemba Walker and irritate opponents defensively.

The best-case scenario is Stephenson becomes Charlotte's version of Dennis Rodman for the Chicago Bulls in the late 1990s -- a bizarre personality, but so effective on those Bulls' title teams that they kept him around (with Michael Jordan keeping Rodman in line).

And the price the Hornets have paid for Stephenson -- at least by NBA standards -- strikes me as quite reasonable. He will cost about 40 percent less than Gordon Hayward would. And in terms of sheer talent, Stephenson has more. He led the league in triple-doubles last season.

But I haven't changed my mind in only a week. This was a late-night gamble in Las Vegas -- yes, the deal was literally struck while the Hornets were playing summer-league ball in Vegas. And anyone who has seen "The Hangover" movies knows how late nights in Vegas often pan out.

As I wrote in last week's column: Ride with Stephenson and you have an occasionally faster car, but also one with no safety devices, as well as a car missing both its headlights with brakes that work only occasionally.

Maybe Jefferson and Walker can lead this team well enough that Stephenson falls into line. Maybe the Hornets' locker room is good enough it can get Stephenson not to blow into LeBron James' ear or walk over into the Heat's huddle and start listening to the plays. One thing is for sure: You don't want Stephenson and P.J. Hairston out on the town, alone, anytime this season during a road trip.

It will be fun to watch, though. As a journalist, even though I don't like the move, I am going to enjoy the heck out of it. Stephenson is a sports columnist's dream -- an electrifying extremist that everyone has an opinion about. Even him coming to Charlotte is bizarre in its own way -- he took less guaranteed money (three years, approximately $27 million) from a worse team to come to North Carolina. He's obviously betting on himself, thinking his next contract will be even bigger.

As for the Hornets, what happened in Vegas won't stay in Vegas. Charlotte didn't want to do this deal originally -- remember, Hayward was the first choice -- but ended up doing it anyway as its other "proven wing scorer" options dried up. And this sort of thing worked once before for awhile for the then-Bobcats -- when Stephen Jackson helped lead the team to a playoff appearance in 2010. And Jackson had done a lot worse stuff than Stephenson ever had.

So here we go.

Crank up the rollercoaster.

That click-click-click sound you always hear as the coaster gets pulled to the top of the tallest hill? That's what the Hornets are hearing now. Hold on tight, because there will be no getting off now.

Photo: Miami Heat fans display a large cutout of Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson during the first half Game 6 in the NBA basketball playoffs Eastern Conference finals on Friday, May 30, 2014, in Miami. AP

Monday, July 14, 2014

Are the Charlotte Hornets really any better?

The Charlotte Hornets have made a flurry of moves in free agency over its first few days. They lost Josh McRoberts to Miami. They made a huge offer to Gordon Hayward, only to have Utah match it. They then raided the Jazz anyway for forward Marvin Williams (right), who is going to be paid like a poor man's version of Hayward (although certainly not like a poor man, given that he's going to get $7 million per year over the next two; Hayward will average a little more than twice that, at $15.75 million over the next four years -- but in Utah).

The Hornets also signed a backup point guard I had barely heard of (Brian Roberts) and saw their two first-round draft choices go a combined 2-for-29 -- yes, 2-for-29 -- in their first NBA summer-league game. Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston, it should be said, did play better in the second game in Las Vegas.

So there has been a whole lot of Hornet buzz the past few days. But what I am wondering is whether the Hornets are really any better than they were when this whole free-agency process began.

I would say no -- they are not. The big splash they hoped for required the Jazz opting not to match the Hayward offer. But Charlotte backed the wrong horse in regard to that -- Houston did not match Chandler Parsons at very similar numbers, and so Dallas got Parsons away from the Rockets.

It turns out restricted free agents' offers are matched a little less than 50 percent of the time over about the last decade, but the Hornets keep picking the wrong ones in their history. They now have made three RFA offers in their history, and all three times the other team matched.

The McRoberts loss, of course, was big. McRoberts was a deft passer and almost a point forward for Charlotte -- a lot of the offense ran through him. Williams, who was the sixth man for the 2005 UNC championship team, isn't the same kind of player in that he doesn't see the floor that well, although on certain nights he will be a better scorer than McRoberts was and he could certainly start in front of Cody Zeller.

Now notice I didn't say that Charlotte is no better than it was at the end of the 2014 season, when the then-Bobcats made the playoffs and lost four straight games to Miami. Charlotte is better than it was two months ago. Adding Vonleh and Hairston certainly will make some sort of positive difference, assuming Hairston doesn't get in trouble again and stays on the court (this, of course, is not a sure bet).

But so far in free agency, the Hornets have been only so-so. They have certainly not done anything like the Al Jefferson signing from a year ago. I like a couple of their smaller moves -- Roberts, for instance, came cheaply by NBA standards and sounds like he can shoot -- but the big one that is really a difference-maker? That one is either still on the horizon, or else it is simply not going to happen this offseason.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Antawn Jamison calls Rashad McCants a clown

Former North Carolina basketball star Antawn Jamison called Rashad McCants a "clown" Thursday in an interview and also said he would like to finish his NBA career with the Charlotte Hornets.

Jamison, who starred for UNC from 1995-98 and had his number retired by the school, did not overlap at UNC with McCants. But Jamison said he got to know McCants a little over the years when he went back over the summers to Chapel Hill and always noticed both McCants' talent and his lack of focus.

McCants, a star on UNC's 2005 national championship team, has alleged in two ESPN television interviews that he saw a variety of academic misconduct at UNC. He has said that tutors frequently wrote his papers, that he only went to class about half the time and that coach Roy Williams knew about the no-show courses McCants took in the African and Afro-American Studies Department (Williams has strongly denied that allegation).

I interviewed Jamison Thursday before he played in a celebrity golf tournament at Ballantyne that benefited Hornets president Fred Whitfield's "Achievements Unlimited Basketball School" for underprivileged kids.

"I just think he's a clown," Jamison said of McCants. "I think he's in a situation where he's looking for attention. It's just sad."

Jamison left a year early for the NBA draft but earned his degree from UNC by going to summer school. He said McCants was trying to "throw a black cloud over everyone who's done it the right way."

"I worked and I earned everything I've ever done," said Jamison, who majored in African American studies and said all his classes were legitimate. He also said of McCants: "Rashad's a good cat.... I just think he's searching.... But don't try to bring down a university because you don't have a good relationship with the coaching staff."

Jamison, 38, is a 16-year NBA veteran who grew up in Charlotte and went to Providence High. He most recently played for the L.A. Clippers last season, although he was not on an NBA roster at the end of the season.

"I still have a lot left in the tank," Jamison said. "I'm trying to play at least another year. Right now I guess we're waiting on the dominoes to fall."

Jamison, a power forward with a career 34.6 three-point percentage, said his agent has reached out to the Hornets about the possibility of a roster spot this coming season but not gotten a definitive answer back. "All they need is a nice 16-year veteran like myself," Jamison said with a laugh. "It'd be good to finish out here."

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Hayward max contract a gamble worth taking for Hornets

The Charlotte Hornets have swung for the fences with Gordon Hayward, a restricted free agent who is going to sign a four-year, $63-million contract with the team on Thursday.

That is according to The Observer's Rick Bonnell, who broke this story late Monday night. Hayward was in for a "recruiting" visit Monday, and the Hornets displayed his picture outside on the marquee of their arena and inside on every TV screen in the place.

So is Hayward really worth a max contract? Yes and no. Read Bonnell's excellent analysis for more on this.

The Hornets offered him all they could by NBA rules, because that is the only way they can possibly expect to wrest him away from Utah (which, with Marvin Williams also drawing Charlotte's interest, is in danger of turning into the Hornets' Triple A team).

I still expect the Jazz to match the offer, in which case the Hornets will strike out instead of hit a home run with this big swing (a sign-and-trade is also a possibility, and that compromise may also be the way this ends up going). But this obvious overpayment is about the only way you can get a guy who averages 16 points, five assists and five rebounds and who is healthy and only 24 years old.

I like it. I like the gamble. If the Jazz don't match -- and they are reportedly $30 million under the salary cap, with far more room than Charlotte -- then Hayward will make more than Al Jefferson and everyone else on the Hornets, and he obviously will not be their best player. That would be either Jefferson or point guard Kemba Walker, and Walker is going to command a similar max contract at some point.

But Jefferson and Walker want to win, and this is how you do it. You sign a guy like Hayward instead of a loose cannon like Lance Stephenson. You play Hayward more at shooting guard -- he can do either that or small forward, but if he stays at shooting guard more you can still use MKG's defensive prowess more effectively. He becomes more of a scoring threat immediately than Gerald Henderson is from outside, which gives Jefferson (who Hayward knows how to play with, having done so in Utah) more room inside.

Now the Jazz have said all along they are going to match whatever Hayward gets, but remember they also apparently balked at paying him $13 million a year at one point last season (and offered $12 million). This contract averages $15.75 million per year.

If the Jazz really want to mess with the Hornets, they will hold them hostage for the maximum of three days starting Thursday at 12:01 a.m. when the NBA contract moratorium is lifted and then say they are going to match at the last minute over the weekend. That will hurt the Hornets in terms of trying to sign someone else, because all their salary-cap freedom will be tied up with Hayward as of Thursday.

But that's OK. This is the way you do business in the NBA. The salaries are never going to work out perfectly, and some guys will be underpaid and some guys overpaid on every roster. Hayward is not a superstar, and this is superstar money. But if you are going to get better, this is the sort of gamble you must occasionally take.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

You have got to be kidding us, P.J.

I originally thought the Charlotte Hornets made a smart move when they traded for former UNC player P.J. Hairston late in the first round of last month's NBA draft (he was No.26 overall). But the first warning flag is flying now and it's a big one: Hairston got in an "altercation" in Durham Sunday while involved in a pickup basketball game.

Hairston and a high school basketball player named Kentrell Barkley first pushed each other and then punched each other in Durham Sunday, Hairston's agent told The Observer's Rick Bonnell. Here is an updated story.

But P.J., are you kidding me? Seriously, are you kidding me?

This, of course, is the same Hairston who got in so much trouble as a Tar Heel that he ended up playing last season in the D-League instead of in Chapel Hill. He would have been the best player on the court most of the time for a UNC team that could have sorely used him.

Hairston is the player the Hornets interviewed over and over and talked about repeatedly in staff meetings as they tried to figure out whether he would do something else that would cause the wrong sort of headlines, the one who said "I'm a changed man" after the eligibility problems and the traffic stops. He made a lot of people believe it, and a lot of those people are wondering exactly why they believed it at the moment.

This is the man who should have walked away from a potential fight Sunday. He had to walk away.

He didn't walk away.

Barkley, in fact, says he didn't throw a single punch but got hit twice. I wasn't there and don't know what happened exactly. You also can see a lump on Barkley's forehead in this video, although it is unclear whether it is from the punch. I know pickup basketball gets heated with all those hard fouls, and I've played enough of it and seen enough of it to not be surprised when tempers flare.

But punching a 17-year-old, rising high school senior?! Really, P.J.?! You are the first-round draft pick and the older guy and the one with by far the most to lose in this situation. Did any of that go through your head when you wound up for that punch?

Many things are left unknown at the moment, although Hairston did issue an apology through the Hornets Monday afternoon. He is now with the team for a summer-league practice.

But the Hornets need to do something. Certainly, Hairston can recover from this. But it looks bad -- both for Hairston and for the Hornets.