CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -As Bernie Bickerstaff was honored Wednesday night after coaching his final game for Charlotte, Bobcats part-owner Michael Jordan appeared on videotape thanking him. It was uncertain if Jordan was in the building.
A few minutes later, Bickerstaff pointed to the suite where Jordan may or may not have been sitting.
``He's probably somewhere smoking a cigar,'' Bickerstaff said, joking.
Jordan was rarely seen by fans and media in his first year with the team. But Jordan, who has the final say on all basketball decisions, is in for a busy summer.
Jordan must hire a coach, attempt to re-sign leading scorer Gerald Wallace, try to sign top rebounder Emeka Okafor to an extension and keep free-agent Matt Carroll. The Bobcats have two first-round picks - one a lottery selection - and have the most money to spend in free agency.
After failing in his previous role running a team in Washington, Jordan will guide the Bobcats in the most important offseason of their three-year history.
``We have to ascertain what we need to get over the hump,'' Bickerstaff said.
Under Bickerstaff, Charlotte steadily improved, from 18 wins to 26 last year to this season's 33-49 record. But to become a playoff team, owner Bob Johnson is going to have to spend big money for the first time. Charlotte may have to double its league-low $41 million payroll.
``I've always said that it's important that you keep your core group,'' Bickerstaff said. ``We've got some people we need to reach out to.''
The starts with Wallace, a benchwarmer in Sacramento who blossomed since Charlotte took him in the expansion draft. He averaged a career best 18.1 points and 7.2 rebounds this season, while leading the team with 144 steals. An athletic slasher who has played four positions, he almost certainly will opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent.
Wallace, who made $5.5 million this season, will likely command $10 million or more per season.
``I just play for them. As far as talking to them about (a new contract), I let my agent deal with all that,'' said Wallace before adding, ``I like it here.''
Okafor, who averaged 14.4 points and 11.3 rebounds, is eligible for an extension. Okafor is invaluable on defense, and Charlotte might have been in the playoff mix if Okafor didn't get hurt just before a winless West Coast road trip in early March.
Carroll, a 3-point specialist who Bickerstaff found in the developmental league, averaged a career-best 11.9 points and will be a free agent.
``Stability means a lot to me,'' Carroll said. ``This is where I want to be.''
But Jordan's first move will be to replace Bickerstaff, who is staying in a front office role.
``I will be involved with that decision and we do have a specific type of young man/old man that we're looking for,'' Bickerstaff said.
Bickerstaff is close with Toronto coach Sam Mitchell, who Bickerstaff hired as his top assistant a month before the Raptors hired him in 2004.
If the Bobcats land Mitchell, it would be a sign that Bickerstaff will have power and not merely be the public face of the team so Jordan can remain hidden.
The Bobcats likely will have a coach in place before they can start working out potential draft picks in early June. Winning seven of their last 11 games hurt their lottery chances. Pending a tiebreaker Friday with Sacramento and Chicago, which holds New York's pick, the Bobcats will have only between a 1.1 and 2.8 percent chance at getting the No. 1 selection.
Ohio State's Greg Oden would be an ideal fit because Charlotte's biggest weakness was center. Primoz Brezec, taken in the expansion draft, played in only 58 games and averaged five points and three rebounds. Backups Jake Voskuhl and Othella Harrington are journeymen.
The Bobcats also hold Toronto's first round pick, the 22nd selection.
When free agency begins, the Bobcats could decide to spend big on something they've never had: a go-to scorer. Vince Carter, a North Carolina product, could become a free agent and would help sell tickets.
It will be an important offseason for rookie Adam Morrison and forward Sean May. Morrison, the No. 3 pick in last year's draft, needs to add strength and improve defensively. May acknowledged he needs to lose weight to help offset knee problems the past two years.
But Jordan has the most work to do, four years after he was fired as the Wizards' team president.
``I don't think we're that far away,'' Bickerstaff said.
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