Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak didn’t equivocate Friday when asked how far the team would go to re-sign All-Star Kemba Walker.
Naturally, fans are curious what that might mean: Not only what the Hornets would pay Walker, but addressing Walker’s stated desire to play on a team talented enough to win consistently. Fans’ questions for this week’s Hornets mailbag reflect that:
Q. If the Hornets were to luck into a top-3 pick in the draft lottery, do you think they are more likely to make that pick or deal it to get Kemba more immediate help?
A. Great question, as far as whether the urgency to make a statement to Walker would influence a more long-term decision.
Walker can’t sign a new contract before July, and the draft is June 20. The Hornets can communicate with Walker along the way, and I’m confident they’d keep him informed about what they’re trying to improve the roster.
I’m sure Kupchak would listen to trade offers for a top-3 pick. But in the absence of Walker promising to re-sign if the Hornets made “X” trade, should they deal a top prospect, who would be playing on an affordable rookie-scale contract, for an expensive veteran?
If Walker leaves, it points the Hornets toward a rebuild. That’s when a rookie with star potential would be even more valuable. So Kupchak would have to be extremely confident that trading a high pick for a veteran would both induce Walker to stay and put the Hornets in position to win in the playoffs. That’s an awfully high bar.
Q If you’re the Philadelphia 76ers, and you don’t make the Finals, would you trade Ben Simmons for Walker?
A. No, because it’s impractical for the Sixers to trade Simmons, still playing on a relatively cheap rookie-scale contract, for Walker, about to make more -- maybe lots more -- than $25 million a season. The Sixers have acquired lots of big-name veterans and are sorting through how to pay them. Another player on a big contract isn’t really an option for them, as far as cap management.
Q. If Kemba decides to go elsewhere, how much money would the Hornets have under the salary cap this summer?
A. That’s part of the problem. Walker made only $12 million this season, one of the most cost-effective salaries in the NBA. So taking him off the payroll wouldn’t offer cap relief with five other players on the books for $13 million or more next season.
If Walker signs with another team, the Hornets would likely get no compensation for his departure. Sign-and-trade deals are still allowed, but they don’t happen often anymore and don’t offer much consolation to the team losing a top player.
Q. Can Devonte Graham develop into a solid backup or even starting NBA point guard?
A. He already demonstrated as a rookie he’s a keeper as a backup. It’s way too soon to say whether he’d end up a starter.
Most players enter the NBA with little college experience. Graham was at Kansas all four seasons. He had a different vibe than most rookies: more experienced, more mature in a variety of ways. That helped make him a fast learner. We’ll see how his development continues, but he’s wired to succeed.
Q. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist mentioned he’s not 100 percent certain he’d play next season under his contract option. I find that hard to believe. Do you see him realistically declining the last season on his deal?
A. I think MKG was sincere when he said money wouldn’t be the only factor in whether he’d exercise the option for next year. Coach James Borrego chose not to play him four games this season, and that was unprecedented not only in MKG’s NBA career but throughout his time playing basketball.
However, if I were his agent, I’d strongly advise him to ride out next season, collect his $13 million salary, and see how free-agency goes in the summer of 2020.
Q. In your opinion, would it be better to let the contracts of Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams and Kidd-Gilchrist expire after next season, or try to find some trade for one or more of them?
A. Those three contracts expiring in the summer of 2020 means Kupchak will have choices. In the absence of specific trade proposals, it’s impossible to say what’s best.
Trading an expiring contract would likely acquire a player with a contract beyond next season. That’s reason to be cautious. But everything at this point has the subtext of looking to give Walker more reason to stay.
Q. Why can’t the Hornets buy out Nic Batum’s contract?
A. Buyouts usually are player-driven, not team-driven. If a player is unhappy enough to give up some guaranteed salary in return for his release, he or his agent approaches the team. Batum is owed about $52 million over the next two seasons, and I’ve never heard him indicate he wants out of Charlotte. So buyout, at least right now, doesn’t sound like a solution.
Q. Does amnesty still exist in the NBA? Would that make sense for Batum’s contract?
A. Amnesty is not part of the current NBA collective bargaining agreement. At one time, an NBA team could waive a veteran and stop counting his remaining salary against the cap.
Even if amnesty still existed, I doubt they’d use it on Batum now. They’d still owe him all that guaranteed money; only the cap implications disappeared. When the Hornets used the amnesty provision on Tyrus Thomas’ contract in 2013, it was for a very specific purpose: signing Al Jefferson in free-agency. In the absence of such a compelling opportunity, I doubt it would happen again.
Q. What is the Hornets’ greatest need?
A. Kupchak and Borrego both pinpointed rim protection as a significant problem. I certainly agree. The Hornets’ flaws this past season were more defensive than offensive.
Starting center Cody Zeller isn’t a great shot-blocker, but having him for only 49 games contributed to the problem of shaky defense in the lane. Still, I don’t know whether the needed improvement can come from within the current roster, or whether the Hornets must address this with new personnel.
Q. What do you think happens with Frank Kaminsky? Can the Hornets still guarantee the last season on his contract?
A. It’s more complex than that: Under the terms of Kaminsky’s rookie-scale contract, the Hornets have the choice to restrict his free-agency with a qualifying offer of about $5 million for the 2019-20 season.
It won’t surprise me if the Hornets make that qualifying offer, but that doesn’t guarantee Kaminsky being back. He could get an offer sheet from another team, and then the Hornets would have to decide whether to match. Also, if Walker chooses to re-sign with the Hornets, Kupchak would have to make some hard choices, and they could include not re-signing Kaminsky and/or Jeremy Lamb.