As season ends, Kemba Walker not the only Charlotte Hornet with an uncertain future

Any offseason discussion of the Charlotte Hornets’ future undoubtedly starts with one point: Kemba Walker’s impending free agency.

As the team’s lone All-Star and perennial captain, that makes sense. Walker, 29 in May, will be a free agent this summer for the first time in his eight-year career, and where he’ll play next season remains very much up in the air, especially after Wednesday’s 122-114 season-ending loss to the Orlando Magic.

Unfortunately for Charlotte fans, Walker isn’t the only Hornet with an uncertain future in teal and purple.

The team’s second-leading scorer, Jeremy Lamb, is also an unrestricted free agent this summer. Then there’s forward Frank Kaminsky, a restricted free agent.

It’s entirely possible all three have seen their Hornets tenures run their course.

‘He had the best season of his career’

Coach James Borrego said postgame Wednesday that Lamb was one of the players who surprised him most.

“I went into the season open to starting this kid, not really knowing what he could become,” Borrego said, “and through development, through our system, through coaching him, demanding, he had the best season of his career.”

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The statistics back that assertion up. For the first time in his six-year career, the 6-foot-5 Lamb was a starter for the first 55 games of the season. The results?

He averaged the most points (15.2), rebounds (5.5), and steals (1.1) per game of any season in his career. That would be impressive enough development without factoring in that he was doing so against starters for the first time ever.

“I’m not sure too many people thought he had upside in him,” Borrego said. “When you look at it this season, he’s shown he has upside. He has an ability to score, to play-make. His defense was probably better this season than most people would think he could play, and he performed especially well in the fourth quarters.”

That fourth-quarter point is especially valuable. For a Hornets franchise snake-bitten in recent history by a failure to close out tight games, Lamb became something of a trump card this season, hitting three game-winners. Two of those came in the past three weeks against the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors, including one 50-foot heave that made SportsCenter’s top plays.

And while the Hornets were fortunate to enjoy Lamb’s career season, they now face the possibility that he’s played — and priced — himself out of Charlotte.

Lamb’s current three-year deal, which expires this summer, paid him an average of $7 million a year. For the second-leading scorer on one of 32 NBA teams, that’s a relative bargain. Lamb’s next deal, according to former NBA front office executive and ESPN analyst Bobby Marks, could reasonably be for anywhere from $10 million to $14 million a year.

Given the Hornets’ salary-cap issues, that may make Lamb too expensive. If Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Bismack Biyombo all opt into their contract options as expected, Charlotte could have as much as $102 million already tied up in salaries for next season. That already would have the team pushed up against the brink of the luxury tax, something owner Michael Jordan has repeatedly said he does not want to pay for for anything less than a championship contending team.

Even with Lamb and Walker back next season, that would largely be the same roster that just missed the playoffs entirely.

To offer, or not to offer?

Then there’s Frank Kaminsky, who played as well over the last month of the season as anyone on the Hornets roster.

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Since March 1, when he rejoined Borrego’s regular rotation, Kaminsky has averaged 13 points and five rebounds per game, all while shooting 37.4 percent from 3. His size, at 7 feet and 242 pounds, makes him a valuable floor-spacing big man, forcing opposing bigs out of the paint and allowing for drives to the basket behind them. Especially recently, defenses have had to honor Kaminsky’s 3-point shot, giving both him and the Hornets’ litany of slashing guards and wings a better line to the hoop.

But Kaminsky didn’t play that efficiently all season, which was part of the reason Borrego dropped him from the lineup for most of January and February.

“I didn’t go into the season saying Frank wasn’t going to play, but the season evolved,” Borrego said. “He was out of the rotation, but he stuck with it. I kept watching this guy, kept watching him, and he continued to play well in practice, and we put him out there and obviously he finished very strong.”

Kaminsky is a restricted free agent this summer, which is slightly more complicated than Walker and Lamb’s unrestricted status. The Hornets have until July to extend a one-year qualifying offer to Kaminsky, and if they do not, he then becomes an unrestricted free agent.

But if they do extend that qualifying offer, any team would still be free to sign Kaminsky to an offer sheet, although the Hornets would then have the ability to match any opposing offer — thus the “restricted” part.

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The same salary cap restrictions are still apparent, only Kaminsky doesn’t have the body of work or consistency Lamb has.

Whether Walker, Lamb, or Kaminsky — or any combination of the three — are back in a Charlotte uniform for next season will be uncertain until closer to July.

Either way, this promises to be a summer of change for the Charlotte Hornets.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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