Charlotte Hornets

Hornets questions: Would Kemba opt for a shorter contract? Trade pick for a veteran?

Any chance Kemba Walker signing elsewhere wouldn’t end his Hornets career once-and-for all? Could he boomerang back to Charlotte in a couple of years?

That was one of your questions for this week’s Hornets mailbag.

Q. Is it possible Kemba signs elsewhere for two years to have a chance to win a ring, then comes back to the Hornets? Sort of like what LeBron James did, going back to the Cleveland Cavaliers?

A. For all the different ways Walker’s free-agency could play out, him signing for less than the most guaranteed years allowed under NBA rules would really surprise me. (That would be five years if he returns to the Hornets and four years with another team.)

The comparison to James doesn’t fit because James made max money before he left Miami to return to Cleveland. Also, James has had so many endorsement opportunities beyond what Walker has had that their comparative net worth is nothing similar.

Walker made $48 million in salary over the last four seasons. That’s huge compensation for 99 percent of the world, but way below what a three-time All-Star point guard could make on the open market. He’s going to be 29 when he reaches free-agency in July, so this could be his last great opportunity to cash in. Anything short of the most guaranteed years doesn’t seem a sensible approach to this process.

Q. Would Walker qualifying for a super-max contract change the Hornets’ position on re-signing him?

A. When Kupchak said the Hornets would do “everything that we can to bring him back here,” does that mean everything allowed under the rules? Or everything they view as prudent?

I don’t know owner Michael Jordan’s view of this, and Kupchak wouldn’t get into the super-max hypothetical. For Walker to qualify for a super-max, he’d have to be one of the six guards named All-NBA. for this season. I’d say the odds of that are no better than 50-50.

Right now, the most the Hornets could pay Walker is about $190 million over the next five seasons. If he is super-max eligible, the most the Hornets could offer him is $221 million over five seasons. The most another team could offer him (the super-max wouldn’t apply to other teams) is $140 million over four seasons.

If I were the Hornets, I’d approach the pitch to Walker with three themes: Generous, organized and transparent.

Upfront, offer the most money you feel you can, without destroying the ability to assemble a competitive team around him. (He has no obligation to do a hometown discount, but that doesn’t mean he has to have a super-max, either). Show him any moves you can make to improve the team now (they can and should keep him apprised between now and July). And be transparent with him in a way that treats him as a partner in this process, not just an employee.

If that works, then five more seasons of Kemba. If not, start the rebuild and wish Kemba the best.

Q. Would the Hornets trade a top-3 pick (other than Zion Williamson) for established talent?

A. That requires the Hornets jumping into one of those top-three picks via the draft lottery May 14.

I’m sure Kupchak would listen to trade offers. I think he’d do that under any circumstance, but particularly so in this situation, where there is an urgency to give Walker a reason to re-sign.

But the bar would be very high to trade a top-3 pick for multiple reasons. That rookie would be foundational to a rebuild should Walker leave. He might also be the best way to improve the roster with Walker, even considering the rookie’s learning curve. And he’d be controlled for at least four seasons by a relatively cheap rookie-scale contract, when the Hornets’ payroll is already so stretched.

I would guess Kupchak would trade a top-3 rookie for a veteran only if he knew it would result in keeping Walker.

Q. What do you see as Dwayne Bacon’s better fit; shooting guard or small forward? Or is that moot because of “position-less” basketball?

A. As you said, basketball isn’t as position-specific as it once was. That’s particularly true in the minimal difference between shooting guard and forward, grouped together in basketball jargon as the “wing positions.”

That Bacon improved his 3-point range (26 percent as a rookie to 44 percent in his second season) is important to him playing some guard. But a player’s ability to match up with opponents is more about who he can defend. Bacon’s big, strong body is important, allowing him to defend the likes of Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard and Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler. That’s what could separate him from teammate Malik Monk.

Q. Is there any chance of the Hornets trading their first-round pick for Hassan Whiteside? They could also include Marvin Williams or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to make salary-exchange work. (Coach) James Borrego and Kupchak have said they need rim-protection.

A. As you mentioned, Borrego and Kupchak both identified rim-protection as an area of need. The Hornets were tied for 18th among 30 teams in shots blocked at 4.9 per game. Whiteside, who grew up in Gastonia, is no longer a starter for the Miami Heat, but he does still average a strong four blocks per 100 defensive possessions played.

Is the juice worth the squeeze in acquiring Whiteside? He makes $27 million next season on a player option (which I assume he exercises). So he is to the Heat what Nic Batum is to the Hornets: A player whose salary and impact don’t match.

I wouldn’t give up a top-15 pick and expiring contracts such as Williams or MKG in a package for Whiteside. I might offer an incentive to the Heat to exchange Whiteside for Batum to exit the $27 million on Batum’s contract for 2020-21.

Q. Why would Frank Kaminsky re-sign with the Hornets, even if he’s offered a decent contract?

A. Your question implies Kaminsky has a lot of leverage in this situation, which I don’t think is the case. The Hornets can restrict his free-agency by making a qualifying offer of about $5 million for next season. I don’t know if they will do that, and if they do, it’s possible other priorities could later cause them to withdraw that qualifying offer (as they did with D.J. Augustin in the summer of 2012).

That Kaminsky was still with the Hornets after the trade deadline suggests there wasn’t much interest from other teams. He bounced back with solid scoring off the bench the last 20 games, but I doubt there would be a clamor to sign him to an offer sheet. And if so, the Hornets might just pass on matching.

Kaminsky’s best course might be playing on the qualifying offer next season and becoming an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2020.

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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