What Hornets must do to retain Kemba Walker.
Kemba Walker’s comments in Japan suggest he is now more likely than not to re-sign with the Charlotte Hornets. If so, how does that impact the building strategy?
Paying All-Star point guard Walker the supermax — $221 mlllion over five years — would certainly add to the urgency to get Walker the roster help to improve a team that has reached the playoffs only twice in Walker’s eight-season career. But how much can general manager Mitch Kupchak really accomplish on the quick?
That leads your questions for this week’s Hornets mailbag:
Q. If Kemba returns, does that automatically signal an intent to build a supporting cast quickly? Would this also mean drafting a player ready to contribute now over a prospect?
A. That word “automatically” I can’t buy because it implies that making impactful roster changes is entirely within the Hornets’ control. You want general manager Mitch Kupchak to be urgent, but not desperate, and there is a difference: You could argue that shortsightedness in the past contributed to the mess Kupchak is now trying to clean up.
Specific to the No. 12 pick, need and circumstance play a role in draft decisions, but I sure wouldn’t reach for a player just because he’s a little closer to contributing, if that means passing over a player of significantly greater potential. That’s not how drafts work, particularly with a lottery pick.
Q. What’s the possibility of stretching the final year on Bismack Biyombo’s contract to create some salary-cap flexibility?
A. The stretch provision in the collective-bargaining agreement gives the Hornets the option to waive Biyombo and count next season’s $17 million salary against the cap in smaller segments over the next three seasons.
But the word in that sentence fans often gloss over is “waive.” The Hornets would still pay Biyombo all that money not to play here. Owner Michael Jordan would need to hear a compelling reason to agree to do that.
Something similar happened in the summer of 2013 when the Hornets waived Tyrus Thomas under the amnesty provision (which no longer exists). Jordan signed off on waiving Thomas with about $18 million left on his contract at the time to enable signing Al Jefferson (who went on to an All-NBA season in Charlotte).
So it’s impossible to handicap the likelihood of the Hornets using the stretch provision in the absence of knowing what they could do as a result.
Q. Do you buy the idea the Hornets would be interested in Chris Paul?
A. I don’t buy that they could justify paying the remainder of Paul’s contract unless the Houston Rockets would take on Nic Batum’s contract in return, and why would that happen?
Paul is 34, and his remaining three seasons of salary are $38.5 million, $41.3 million and $44.2 million. Any misgivings Hornets fans would have about paying Walker the supermax should double at the prospect of trading for Paul’s contract.
Q. Since it seems to be a foregone conclusion that Jeremy Lamb is gone, why has Cam Johnson not been mentioned more as a possible Hornets draft choice?
A. I would not call it a foregone conclusion that Lamb departs. I would say the chances of him re-signing with the Hornets are less than 50 percent, but it’s not inevitable he leaves.
I think North Carolina’s Johnson will have a solid NBA career, but I don’t think he sizes up as one of the 12 best prospects in this draft. I doubt Johnson would last until the first of two Hornets second-round picks (36th overall). So if the Hornets are looking to get Johnson, they would likely have to acquire a pick in the latter stages of the first round, in the 20s.
Q. If the Hornets think Kemba is staying, wouldn’t they be likely to trade their first-round pick to try and pick up another asset, while unloading a contract?
A. Kupchak has made it clear over the past year he views draft picks as commodities, so he’d certainly be receptive to exploring trades. But I don’t think Kemba’s decision would significantly affect that assessment.
Keep in mind the 2019 draft class isn’t viewed as particularly deep, while this free agent class is pretty appealing. That might make it harder to find a trade partner willing to sacrifice salary-cap flexibility in return for acquiring the 12th pick.
Q. Can the Hornets trade their pick prior to the draft?
A. Yes, but often a trade exchanging a draft pick for a veteran contract can’t become official until after the new salary-cap year begins in July. That’s no big deal; the Hornets would pick someone on another team’s behalf, as they did when they drafted Malachi Richardson for the Sacramento Kings in 2016. They couldn’t complete the trade for Marco Bellinelli until July.
Q. What’s the likelihood the Hornets trade for an expiring contract, like a J.R. Smith or a George Hill?
A. About $4 million of Smith’s $15 million-plus salary for next season is guaranteed, so I’m sure the Hornets would be happy to send salary to the Cleveland Cavaliers for that deal. But what do the Hornets have (and are willing to discard) that a rebuilding team like the Cavs want? If the Hornets did acquire Smith, I’d think it’d be either to trade him on or to waive him, not to keep him.
Hill’s situation is more complex if the Milwaukee Bucks decide not to keep him. The Bucks need cap flexibility more than they need to get something back in trade. So cutting Hill (only $1 million of his $18 million salary is guaranteed next season) seems more likely than trading him.