CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Nicolas Batum was asked for his input on the Charlotte Hornets potentially trading for guard Marco Belinelli, his response was swift and definitive.
“Do it right now,” Batum excitedly told his head coach Steve Clifford.
Batum believes that with the addition of Belinelli, center Roy Hibbert and guard Ramon Sessions — along with the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who was limited to seven games last season due to a shoulder problems — the Hornets will be better than the team tied for the third-most wins in the Eastern Conference a year ago. Yes, even after losing Jeremy Lin, Al Jefferson and Courtney Lee to free agency.
“We replaced all of the things we lost with other people who bring something different,” Batum said Monday at media day. “I hear people are saying we got worse. I don’t think so. I think we got better.”
Clifford and his staff have a knack for bringing in players who are coming off disappointing seasons and resurrecting their careers.
Marvin Williams has flourished in his two seasons in Charlotte.
Batum, Lin and Lee all had breakout seasons in their first year with the Hornets and parlayed that success into huge free agent contracts this past offseason.
Batum signed a five-year, $120 million deal to stay with the Hornets. Lee got a four-year, $48 million contract from the New York Knicks, while Lin played so well in a reserve role he got a three-year, $38 million deal — and an opportunity to start — with the Brooklyn Nets.
While Clifford downplayed the impact of the coaching staff, Hornets point guard Kemba Walker said that’s only because his coach is humble.
“Cliff has that effect on guys,” Walker said. “He knows how to talk to guys and he knows how to get guys to take their games to another level. He’s done it with me and a lot of other guys.”
Williams said Clifford and his staff excel at taking players’ strengths and using them on the court.
“They never ask you to do anything you are not comfortable doing or not used to do doing,” Williams said. “They want you to do what you do best and I think that is why guys are so successful here, and that guys want to play for him.”
The question this year is can they do the same for Belinelli and Hibbert, who are coming off disappointing seasons.
Since shooting a career-best 43 percent from 3-point range in 2013-14 with the San Antonio Spurs, Belinelli hasn’t seen as much action the past two seasons starting only 16 games. He’ll still be a reserve in Charlotte, but it is clear Clifford is ecstatic the Hornets were able to get Belinelli from the Kings in exchange for their 22nd pick in the draft.
“I’m a huge fan of Marco,” Clifford said. “The thing I like about him is he has played his best in the biggest games and he can do a lot of the things we lost offensively with Jeremy and Courtney.”
Hibbert was an All-Star in 2012 and 2014 with the Indiana Pacers, but averaged just 5.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game — well below his career averages — in 81 starts last season with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Hibbert said as free agency was approaching he had hoped to land with the Hornets, but figured the team would re-sign Jefferson. When Jefferson signed with the Indiana Pacers, Hibbert told his agent to get him to Charlotte, where he could work with assistant coach Patrick Ewing, whom he considers “an uncle” because he’s known him since he was a teenager.
Hibbert refused to put the blame on anyone other than himself for his sagging numbers, but feels like he’s about to turn things around.
“The onus rests on me to go out there and play with effort and energy,” Hibbert said. “And I feel like this is the best situation to me to do that. I’m ready to go out and help this team win and as a byproduct of that hopefully I can back to play at the level I was before.”
Clifford said he doesn’t feel like the 7-foot-2 Hibbert has lost anything physically, and expects that he’ll compete with Cody Zeller for a starting spot at center playing alongside Walker, Batum, Kidd-Gilchrist and Williams.
“I think he is hungry and the way we play will benefit him,” Clifford said.