Charlotte Hornets

With each big shot made, Jeremy Lamb adds to the Charlotte Hornets’ complex summer

Hornets Jeremy Lamb hits key basket to defeat Raptors

Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lamb scored a basket over Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard for the go-ahead basket that proved to be the game winner on Friday, April 5, 2019 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC.
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Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lamb scored a basket over Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard for the go-ahead basket that proved to be the game winner on Friday, April 5, 2019 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC.

I don’t know how the Charlotte Hornets can afford to bring back Jeremy Lamb.

I also don’t know how the Hornets can afford not to bring back Lamb.

The Hornets haven’t had a closer other than point guard Kemba Walker in several seasons. Now, Lamb has hit three huge game-winners, most recently the catch-and-shoot 3-pointer he made Friday to beat the Toronto Raptors. That’s the second time in two weeks Lamb beat the Raptors, the prior shot a 50-footer off the backboard in Toronto.

Call that half-court shot flukish if you want, but it’s clear Lamb’s confidence has grown this season. He is averaging a career-best 15 points in his seventh NBA season, his fourth in Charlotte. Walker drove in the game’s final minute, drew a crowd of defenders, and didn’t hesitate to pass out to Lamb for that 3.

Unfortunately for the Hornets, both Walker and Lamb become unrestricted free agents in July, so it’s possible their two most reliable clutch scorers might depart. Or the Hornets could choose to pay big to retain Walker and Lamb. That would eat up capital without adding talent to a team that probably will miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season.

There is considerable risk, no matter what course general manager Mitch Kupchak takes this summer. All that is further complicated by the late-season uptick, with the Hornets winning six of their last nine games.

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Great timing

Lamb was good two seasons ago, but he has truly thrived since Borrego chose to start him at the outset of this season. Lamb was later switched back to the second unit, but he plays starter’s minutes (28 1/2 per game) and is consistently in the lineup at the end of close games.

He’s proven himself in those pressure-filled situations.

“You learn about guys as you coach them, and he’s someone who doesn’t get rattled or fazed down the stretch,” Borrego said.

Former Hornets general manager Rich Cho acquired Lamb in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the summer of 2015. Cho quickly signed Lamb to a contract extension that pays him $7 million this season. That’s nearly as much a bargain as the $12 million All-Star Walker makes this season. Bargain time is about to end.

Walker figures to draw maximum-salary offers from other teams. That means the Hornets might have to offer him their own max number under NBA rules: $190 million over five seasons, and as much as $221 million if Walker qualifies for a super-max contract by making the All-NBA team in May.

Committing all that guaranteed salary to Walker would make it hard to also justify paying big for Lamb, who should draw offers of at least $10 million a season, possibly as much as $13 million.

But if the Hornets lose Lamb, don’t they take a step back? And would Walker be less receptive to returning if Lamb isn’t also back?

Starting over

If Walker chooses to sign with another team, how do the Hornets regroup? Is it practical then to pay to retain Lamb?

Borrego is emphatic about the youth movement of late. As he said post-game Friday, “I’m extremely excited. These young guys are only getting better.”

Based on recent playing time, that young core definitely includes rookies Miles Bridges and Devonte Graham and second-year pro Dwayne Bacon. It may or may not include Malik Monk and Willy Hernangomez.

None of those guys has proven yet he’s ready to make game-deciding shots at the end of NBA games. If Walker leaves, can the Hornets also move on from the only other player with a proven ability to make big shots?

Kupchak built championship contenders with the Los Angeles Lakers. He understands the risk-reward balance of contracts in the tens of millions in salary.

But these are heavy questions, the type that can haunt a franchise the better part of a decade. The answers are far from obvious.

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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