Charlotte Hornets

A Charlotte Hornets mailbag full of Kemba Walker ‘what-if and what-next?’ questions

Charlotte Hornets’s Kemba Walker on loss to the Miami Heat

Hornets’ Kemba Walker on how effectively the Heat trapped the ball out of his hands Sunday.
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Hornets’ Kemba Walker on how effectively the Heat trapped the ball out of his hands Sunday.

Very understandably, Charlotte Hornets fans are in “What next?” mode.

The team’s playoff chances are dwindling, three-time All-Star point guard Kemba Walker is months from unrestricted free-agency, and what should be this team’s direction?

Those topics dominate your questions for this week’s Hornets mailbag:

Q. If Kemba leaves this summer, do you believe the Hornets will sign a quality free agent or play the young guys and create salary-cap space for the future?

A. I’d think the most likely path is riding out the situation until the summer of 2020, when the contracts of Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist all expire. (All three could opt out of next season, but I don’t anticipate any of them doing so.) Does that mean Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak should just mark time? Of course not, but I’d be wary of giving up draft picks to unload a contract unless there is a great opportunity readily available.

It took a long time to get into this mess. Trying to dig out on the quick is perilous.

Q. If Kemba leaves, who plays point guard next season and can the Hornets win 25 games?

A. If the Hornets don’t use their first-round pick on a point guard, I wouldn’t have a problem with them exploring next season what Devonte Graham can be. Graham hasn’t been your typical rookie and certainly not your typical second-round pick. He’s mature, he’s a quick learner and he’s clearly benefited from his time with Walker and Tony Parker, and from extended stretches with the G-League Greensboro Swarm.

If they’re going to be bad next season, they might as well use those games as extended auditions for the young guys already under contract. I don’t know if Graham ends up a starter, but he looks like a keeper.

Q. Is Dwayne Bacon proving he can be a starter in the NBA?

A. I don’t know that he’s proven anything yet. But Bacon shows positive signs, and the fact that he is effective as both a scorer and a defender is appealing. If the team goes into deep-rebuild mode, he could play a lot next season at small forward with Nic Batum at shooting guard.

Bacon’s presence doesn’t necessarily eat into the development of Miles Bridges because Bridges is effective at small and power forward. I would anticipate Williams playing less next season; he has said several times he wouldn’t have a problem with coming off the bench.

Q. Do you think the All-Star Game being in Charlotte had an impact on the Hornets choosing not to trade Kemba?

A. That was a popular theory; that the Hornets were so concerned with having an All-Star when the event came to Charlotte in February that it affected their basketball judgment. I just don’t buy that appearances would have kept them from doing something they believed was best for the roster.

I think that once Walker started the season here, the chances of the Hornets trading him were slim. His optimum trade value would have been prior to last summer. Once he was in the final season of his current contract, teams were going to give up less to acquire him.

Q. If Walker does decide to leave, would a sign-and-trade with the New York Knicks make sense?

A. I wouldn’t bank on a sign-and-trade as a way for the Hornets to salvage the situation if Walker chooses to exit. It’s a possibility, but not likely.

Keep in mind that once Walker becomes a free agent, he and his agent control the process. If Walker leaves, his priorities understandably would be what is best for him and the team he is joining, not the Hornets.

The Knicks would have the salary-cap space to offer Walker a maximum contract without a sign-and-trade arrangement. No team can offer Walker more than the Hornets (Charlotte can offer one more guaranteed season), but I don’t know if that difference will decide what Walker does.

Q. How is Kemba’s relationship with this coaching staff? Do you think that relationship has any influence on his decision in free-agency?

A. I have no reason to think Walker is unhappy with the coaching situation. However, I doubt that would be much of a factor in whether he re-signs with the Hornets. The composition of the roster and what other teams would provide as far as a chance to win would be of much greater consequence, I’d think.

Q. How has the Jeremy Lamb-off-the-bench thing worked out?

A. Right after the All-Star break, coach James Borrego moved Lamb back to the bench to start Bridges. I’d call that a net positive, but not of much difference ultimately.

It got rookie Bridges some additional experience and Lamb is effective as both a starter or sixth man. It changed Batum’s role a little, giving him less responsibility defensively and more offensively. It was worth trying but was no game-changer.

Q. With the Hornets’ playoff chances dwindling, any chance of a 10-day call-up from the Swarm?

A. The Hornets don’t have an open roster spot. So a 10-day contract probably isn’t in the cards. However, I could see them having J.P. Macura, on a two-way contract with the Hornets, in Charlotte the last couple of weeks of the season.

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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