P.J. Hairston glad to be starting even after Hornets declined his contract option


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Hornets refused to guarantee P.J. Hairston all of $1.25 million — of an $89 million salary cap — for next season. The Hornets have started Hairston in all four games this season.

Hairston was the only 2014 first-round NBA Draft pick whose third-year option was not picked up by Monday's deadline. That's the kind of move that usually happens when a player is traded to a team that doesn't want him or simply has been a total bust and clearly is not an NBA-caliber player. And then there's Hairston.

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Hornets general manager Rich Cho was explicit if not specific when explaining the unusual move, which will allow Hairston to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason: “We feel like P.J. has to get more consistent and focused on and off the court,” Cho said Tuesday.

Cho spoke with Hairston and his agent to explain the issues. And Hairston, to his credit, seems to be taking this bizarre situation in stride.

"I have a starting job. I have Coach's trust," Hairston told Sporting News on Wednesday. "So like I said, I'm just going to take it from there. Whatever happens, happens."

The part about "Coach's trust" is the important one here. Steve Clifford has made perfectly clear on many instances that his players' draft and contractual statuses are not relevant to how he uses them. He'll go with the lineups he likes and trusts, every time. 

That has kept Hairston in the starting lineup despite dreadful shooting numbers. Clifford likes his defense and his improved attitude — after years of being mired in a wide variety of minor controversies. Hairston says Clifford's command has been to focus on guarding other teams' best perimeter players, essential for a team without its best defender in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Hairston's first assignment was Heat legend Dwyane Wade. 

"It was tough, but I think I did well, Coach told me I did well," he said. "Things like that just help me to get my confidence higher, so I feel like I can do whatever."

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The numbers somewhat reflect that; opponents are shooting 33.3 percent from the field when Hairston is the closer defender, and that role has been helpful on a more offensive-first Hornets roster than in recent years. Hairston's improvements on that end are particularly remarkable because he was known as a negative defender for most of his early years.

The problem is he has struggled with his own shots. Hairston is shooting 33 percent from the field himself, though he had a nice bounce-back game Tuesday against the Bulls, going 3 for 5 for 10 points along with five rebounds on a night when everyone for the Hornets played well — they won 130-105.

Shooting is what Hairston feels Cho was talking about most in those comments about his consistency. And he's not worried.

"I shoot the ball fine," Hairston said. "I feel like it's going in every time I shoot. It's just not falling for me. But my shots will come, and defense will get me started from there."

He also admits that he was out of shape last season, an issue that he visibly has improved on this year.

Still, fellow Hornets swingman Jeremy Lamb has come on strong since an injury limited him in the preseason and first couple games. And Lamb is the guy with the brand new contract extension, the guy whom the team chose to invest in.

Hairston is not that guy. For context, the Clippers picked up the third-year option on C.J. Wilcox, a 24-year-old shooting guard who has played only 101 minutes over the past two seasons compared to 22-year-old Hairston's 765 minutes.

And Hairston's starting. And that's the root of this awkward situation. If Hairston thrives, it's easy to imagine him getting an offer for up to four times as much as the Hornets could have locked him in for, and Charlotte would not even be able to match that contract because of a unique piece of the rule regarding third-year options. The team holding his rights at the start of free agency may not sign him for more than he would have made if his option had been picked up.

He also will have less trade value now that he can hit the open market.

But the most likely scenario seems to be that Charlotte uses Hairston as a stopgap, then lets him go on his way. Hairston's goal is to prove he's worthy of an NBA roster spot for next season and beyond.

"I think about the bad, I think about the good at the same time," he said. "I have the starting job, and it's just up to me to take advantage of it."

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Hairston's free agency status. He will be an unrestricted free agent, and the Hornets will not have matching rights.