Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak is exploring ways to trade up from the team’s current No. 12 spot in the first round of Thursday’s NBA draft.
Confirming an Observer report from Wednesday, Kupchak said he’s contacted teams picking before the Hornets’ first-round selection. Though it would be expensive as far as trade capital to make such a deal, it demonstrates Kupchak’s urgency to improve the roster as All-Star Kemba Walker hits free agency next month.
“We’re talking to a lot of teams. We would like to move up,” Kupchak said in his pre-draft media availability Friday. “Historically, if you look at what it costs to move up four slots or two slots or five slots, a lot of times it’s an expensive” transaction.
If the Hornets don’t move up or trade the pick for a veteran or salary-cap relief, it’s likely they would stay at No. 12: “I don’t anticipate us trying to move back,” Kupchak said.
Thursday’s draft, while important in a vacuum, is a prelude to a free-agency period of great consequence. The Hornets want to re-sign Walker, who was named third-team All-NBA, and the price to do so — as much as $221 million over five years — could push the Hornets into the NBA luxury tax for the first time in franchise history.
Owner Michael Jordan in the past has expressed resistance to pay tax — which would add millions to player costs — for a team not in championship contention. In addition to Walker, the Hornets have another significant unrestricted free agent, shooting guard Jeremy Lamb.
Free-agency following the draft on the NBA calendar (the opposite of how it works in the NFL) complicates Kupchak’s decision-making. For instance, team needs heading into the draft are a moving target.
“The draft is going to be at least eight days prior to free-agency. I’m not sure that they’re going to be correlated,” Kupchak said.
“Certainly, we’re going to think about the what-ifs: ‘What if we don’t sign this player back? What if we don’t sign that player back?’ But once again, I think we’ll hopefully be in position just to take the best player.”
Kupchak and coach James Borrego have both said the team’s interior defense needs an upgrade, based on last season. However, Kupchak doesn’t want a hole in the roster to dominate how to use the 12th pick.
“Sometimes if two players are of similar talent, then maybe you go by need, by position,” Kupchak said. “But I’m hopeful that when it comes time to draft, it will be a clear-cut decision” based on talent.
Kupchak wasn’t surprised that Walker said Thursday he’d consider accepting less than the full supermax salary he’s eligible for to help the Hornets build around him. Then, Kupchak joked Walker’s agent, Jeff Schwartz, might have a different reaction going into negotiations:
“I don’t know if his representative approved those comments, to be honest with you. I guess we’ll find out.”
Kupchak reinforced what he said in April — that the Hornets’ intention is for three-time All-Star Walker to finish his career in Charlotte — but he acknowledged Walker will have many suitors with maximum-salary slots:
“He’s healthy and he’s going to have a lot of options.”
The Hornet have a trade exception from the Dwight Howard deal that would allow them to acquire a contract with a salary for next season of up to $7.8 million. But the prospect of going into the luxury tax to re-sign Walker makes it unlikely they utilize that.
“If we’re above the tax threshold, I don’t see us — unless it is an unusual opportunity — using that exception,” Kupchak said.
The Hornets have about $98 million in guaranteed player payroll for next season, including what they would pay the No. 12 pick.
Kupchak said the team hasn’t yet decided whether to make a qualifying offer of about $4.5 million to restrict the free agency of forward-center Frank Kaminsky.
Kupchak sees wing players — shooting guards and small forwards — as the strength of the 2019 draft class. The point-guard position drops off after the first three or four players, and he sees a few big men who fit the more perimeter-oriented style of the current NBA game.
A year ago, Kupchak drafted Lithuanian Arnoldas Kulboka 55th, with the plan of Kulboka playing in Europe with the Hornets retaining draft rights. Kupchak said he believes the player he selects 36th Thursday will definitely be a roster candidate next season, and it’s not a given the 52nd pick would be a draft-and-stash pick, like Kulboka was.