Point guard Kemba Walker says he wants to remain a Charlotte Hornet. Hornets ownership and management have indicated the same.
But with the Feb. 7 NBA trade deadline looming and Walker becoming an unrestricted free agent in July for the first time in his career, it’s inevitable other teams will inquire about Walker’s availability. Inclined as Walker seems to be to stay, it will cost a bundle (think $150 million or more) to retain him. The worst-possible alternative would be losing him without compensation in free agency.
So naturally I get questions about Walker’s trade value. That subject leads this week’s Hornets mailbag:
Q. What would it take for the Hornets to seriously consider a trade offer for Kemba?
A. A year ago, after word spread that then-general manager Rich Cho spoke with other teams about Walker’s trade value, team owner Michael Jordan told the Observer he loves what Walker does and wouldn’t consider any trade of Walker that wouldn’t acquire a player of similar All-Star quality.
I don’t presume that description still applies. It’s a different time, different general manager (Mitch Kupchak) and different circumstances. I think the most likely course is Walker stays and the Hornets look to re-sign him. But I don’t think he’s “untouchable.”
If another team craved Walker that much, I’d guess the three things a viable trade offer should include is salary-cap relief, draft picks and another young point guard. Would a team be willing to take Nic Batum’s remaining contract, for instance, without sending back something just as long and expensive? How about one or more first-round picks with little or no lottery protection? And what do they do for a starting point guard, because as promising as Devonte Graham is, that rookie is still a project. The Dallas Mavericks are reportedly open to moving former N.C. State star Dennis Smith, Jr., for instance.
Q Why not replace Batum in the starting lineup with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist? Defense would improve and Batum isn’t scoring.
A I don’t think it makes sense to mess with the very successful transition MKG has made to a sixth-man role. I actually think it helps him to play in shorter bursts off the bench, which avoids him having to ration his energy and fouls.
I don’t equate Batum not scoring much with him not being a factor offensively. He’s always been more of a facilitator than a scorer. Hornets coach James Borrego is asking more of him defensively this season - usually guarding the opposing team’s top perimeter scorer - which made it easier to replace MKG as a starter with Jeremy Lamb.
Batum isn’t having a great season, but this idea the team would be better off banishing him to the end of the bench isn’t constructive.
Q. What’s your opinion on Miles Bridges’ shooting regression? He was hot for the first 10 games of the season, and then seemed to miss every shot attempt.
A. The first five games of the road trip were just brutal shooting-wise for Bridges (5-of-26 from the field) before he went 4-of-5 against the San Antonio Spurs.
This is a somewhat typical rookie experience for all but the most elite players. These guys aren’t particularly familiar to opposing teams straight out of college, so they get a grace period to do what they do best at the NBA level. Then, scouting reports start catching up to their tendencies, and they are challenged to adapt. I really liked the way Bridges played Monday against the Spurs - not big numbers, but very efficient as far as good shots, rebounding and energy.
Q. Has Bismack Biyombo’s effort and rebounding of late played him into the lineup for good?
A. James Borrego experiments as much with his lineups as any of 12 NBA coaches I’ve covered, so “for good” is not a term I generally attach to rotations this season. I think Biyombo has done fine, and Borrego said the Spurs’ game was the best so far for a Biyombo-Willy Hernangomez combination at center.
However, the biggest impression from the past half-dozen games is how much the Hornets miss Cody Zeller as starting center. Zeller is more important to this team’s fortunes than fans generally realize because what he does best (setting precise screens, for instance) isn’t showy and doesn’t necessarily show up on his line of the box score.
Zeller might miss another month while his broken right hand heals. Tuesday, he was allowed to do some light individual drills with a split and padding on his hand.
Q. Which Hornets are expendable in a trade situation?
A. If we’re not talking about the veterans making a whole lot of money (that’s an entirely separate conversation), I should think Dwayne Bacon and Frank Kaminsky would certainly be available if other teams inquire.
It gets more complicated with Malik Monk (still on the rookie pay scale and still figuring out the NBA). I doubt the Hornets would move Lamb for anything short of a really valuable future asset, but Lamb’s contract expiring in July is a complicating factor. I would think Kupchak would be very reluctant to trade Bridges.
The wild card would be veteran point guard Tony Parker, playing on a $5 million guaranteed salary this season and a $5.25 million team option next season. If I were the general manager of a contending team, I’d love to rent Parker for a playoff run. I would hope the Hornets would only consider uprooting Parker with his approval, because him signing here at the end of a Hall of Fame career is a special circumstance.
Q. Considering that Borrego was hired to develop talent, do you think he has done enough in that regard?
A I think we’ve seen a greater emphasis throughout the franchise on player development, including a closer relationship with the G-League Greensboro Swarm. Graham’s meaningful minutes lately is a pleasant departure from the sorry history of second-round picks in Charlotte the past decade.
I like that Borrego makes the young guys earn their minutes. He has sat Bridges and Monk at times when he doesn’t get what he expects. Force-feeding minutes in the name of development isn’t good management.
Q. What’s the status on Arnie, the Hornets’ draft pick playing in Europe?
A. “Arnie” is Arnoldas Kulboka, a 21-year-old Lithuanian the Hornets selected late in the second round with the intention of him continuing to develop overseas. Kulboka is playing in Germany for Brose Bamberg. He’s played in about half that team’s games this season, averaging 6.2 points and 2.4 rebounds. That doesn’t sound like much, but keep in mind European teams generally lean to veterans over young prospects, even prospects with some NBA potential.
Drafting Kulboka was a low-risk long-term bet since the Hornets had no immediate obligation to sign him. He played for the Hornets’ summer-league team in July, and I’d think he will again next July.
Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell