The Charlotte Hornets have much to do this free-agency period, and little financial flexibility to complete their to-do list.
They might need to sign two point guards to provide depth behind starter Kemba Walker at a crucial position. They might need another center, just as insurance, behind Dwight Howard and Cody Zeller.
Their salary-cap flexibility isn’t much, and the trade for Howard last week added several million to their player payroll. Hornets owner Michael Jordan has indicated in the past he wouldn’t favor becoming a payer of the NBA’s luxury tax unless it was for a roster equipped to advance deep into the playoffs.
There is no reason to assume that, with this team coming off a 36-46 season. General manager Rich Cho will have to be surgical in his strategy when the free-agency negotiating period begins Saturday.
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That’s quite a contrast to last July 1, when a Hornets contingent that included Walker and small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist flew to Dallas to sell shooting guard Nic Batum on re-signing. Batum agreed to a five-year, $120 million contract, then the Hornets went on to re-sign power forward Marvin Williams (four years, $54 million).
“It will be a lot different,” Cho said. “Last summer we had tons of free agents (to consider re-signing) and cap room. This summer we have just a couple of spots open.”
Technically, the Hornets could spend a first-season salary of up to about $8.4 million on a player via the mid-level exception. However, crossing the tax threshold (likely to be about $119 million) can have consequences beyond financial. A team $4 million above the tax number is “hard-capped,” in NBA terminology and loses some flexibility that season to make trades and signings.
Coach Steve Clifford always wants three players each at point guard and center. By comparison, shooting guard, small forward and power forward are more interchangeable, so Clifford can live with less depth there.
“Backup point guard has to be No. 1 priority,” Cho said. “Ideally, someone who can play with and without Kemba, who plays both ends of the floor.”
The more prominent free-agent point guards include Sacramento’s Darren Collison, San Antonio’s Patty Mills and Golden State’s Shaun Livingston. With the Hornets’ financial constraints, they might have to turn to a second tier at the point.
What does that get you? Perhaps a player such as Michael Carter-Williams, who was Rookie of the Year in 2014. But Carter-Williams has played for three teams in four seasons, and the Chicago Bulls didn’t plan to make a qualifying offer to restrict his free agency.
Other possibilities? Maybe Shelvin Mack, who has played for four teams in six seasons, most recently the Utah Jazz. Or Jose Calderon, who spent time with the Los Angeles Lakers and Atlanta Hawks last season. Or the Hornets could investigate retreads such as veterans Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole.
None of these options is ideal. But they might be the best the Hornets can do this offseason.