The Charlotte Hornets’ open 15th roster spot is intriguing, isn’t it?
They are currently at 14 guarantees, plus the maximum two two-way contracts for J.P. Macura and Joe Chealey, playing for the G-League Greensboro Swarm.
There are only a handful of the 30 NBA teams that didn’t fill all 15 spots this season. Of course, some of those spots on other rosters are for players with contracts that are unguaranteed, so not everything is locked in.
At the outset of the season, Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said leaving that roster spot open wasn’t some grand plan, but he saw advantages to the flexibility it provides. The Hornets haven’t had a depth problem over the first 30 games, so I don’t think they’ve been hurt by leaving that spot open.
When I solicited questions for this week’s Hornets mailbag, a couple of you mentioned the open slot:
Q. Would adding Austin Rivers for the open 15th roster spot make sense for the Hornets?
A. The Washington Wizards traded Rivers as part of a package to the Phoenix Suns to acquire veteran Trevor Ariza. Rivers didn’t particularly fit the Suns’ rebuilding mode, so he accepted a modest buyout of his contract to be waived with the intent of becoming a free agent.
Would Rivers be a good fit for the Hornets? And just as importantly, would the Hornets be a good fit for him?
I view Rivers as a combo guard, someone who can play some point guard, but is primarily a perimeter scorer. So Rivers would be redundant in size and skill set to Malik Monk, a young player who cost the Hornets a lottery pick. Also, with Tony Parker playing so well and rookie Devonte Graham flashing potential, there aren’t really minutes available behind Kemba Walker at point guard.
If I were Rivers, I’d look somewhere else for an opportunity to play. And if I were Kupchak, I don’t know that I’d see Rivers as having great potential for immediate impact.
Q. If the Hornets foresee any possibility of trading a big man this season, would it be wise to add Zhou Qi to the roster on a minimum salary?
A. First off, kudos for thinking creatively in regards to the NBA waiver wire. However, I’m not sure that’s a great match.
Zhou is a Chinese 7-footer and former Houston Rockets second-round pick. The Rockets waived him this week. Even if the Hornets trade one of their three backup centers for a future pick, I don’t think it would so harm their depth at the position that they would have to add another big man.
I can’t read Kupchak’s mind on this, but I’d make an educated guess he would rather keep that roster spot open, in case an opportunity like a two-for-one trade occurred over the next six weeks.
Q. When (Knicks guard Emmanuel) Mudiay got hot Saturday, the Hornets seemed to have no answer. The answer often is a physical “enforcer” who will commit the hard foul and get rough with the other hot hand to send a message (e.g. Dennis Rodman, Anthony Mason or Rick Mahorn). Do the Hornets have that guy on the roster?
A. Note that the three players you mentioned are long out of the NBA. This is a different time with different rules. The league now calls flagrant fouls for the “enforcer” tactics you describe. Also, there is a restriction on hand-checking the dribbler. In this NBA, you have to play defense a lot more with your feet and less with your muscle.
Having said that, there is still a place for physicality. The Hornets have a rim-protector type of center in Bismack Biyombo. He hasn’t played a lot so far this season because he’s limited in what he can provide offensively compared to the other options at center.
Q. Does Nic Batum hear the noise from the fan base? I love the way he plays and he’s a great teammate, but it just seems like he’s in his own head.
A. There is obviously a level of fan frustration with Batum’s statistics, relative to the money he is being paid. Do I think he’s feeling a crush of pressure? No.
Batum has a lot more defensive responsibility than he once did when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist started. I think Batum can have more impact at the offensive end. But that isn’t just as a scorer. He and coach James Borrego have to keep working through how his decision-making with the ball can be better exploited.
Q. It appears there is a clear top-5 in the Eastern Conference (standings). Does that change the Hornets’ playoff ambitions at all, since it would be incredibly hard to beat any of those teams in the playoffs?
A. I agree there are five teams in the East — Toronto, Milwaukee, Indiana, Philadelphia and Boston — that look like locks to make the playoffs. But I don’t think there is such a huge gap between those five and everyone else in the East that it’s pointless to go all-out for a playoff spot.
It’s been three seasons since the Hornets last qualified for the playoffs. It was pretty exciting last time, extending the Miami Heat to seven games before losing. There are tangible benefits to reaching the post-season: Particularly exposing young players such as Monk, Miles Bridges and Dwayne Bacon to that level of intensity, because it is very different from the regular season.
Q. Do you expect Kidd-Gilchrist to accept his player option for next season?
A. I do. I think the sure thing of making $13 million next season is worth waiting until the summer of 2020 to test free-agency, particularly when you consider MKG is a reserve this season with an injury history. He likes Charlotte, his teammates and the organization that drafted him. Don’t fix what isn’t broken.
Q. James Borrego has used 309 lineups so far this season and only two have been used for 10 games or more. Is his rotation calculated experimentation or random, gut-feeling chaos?
A. I certainly wouldn’t use the word “chaos.” I think this is partially Borrego’s experimental nature and partially the reality of a roster with depth but only one star (Kemba Walker).
When I asked Borrego before training camp about his approach to rotations, he said the players would decide playing time with their performance. I did not expect that to be quite so literal. For better or worse, every player on a guaranteed contract, including second-round rookie Devonte Graham, has played meaningful minutes.
It should be noted Borrego started the same five players in 27 of the first 29 games and those two other lineups were injury-driven. So this isn’t just arbitrary tinkering.