Now that Charlotte Hornets fans have had time to digest Kemba Walker’s departure, what next?
It’s roughly two months until the start of NBA training camps. The Hornets still have access to the mid-level exception, which would allow them to sign a player or players with up to about $9.2 million in salary next season. But it’s fair to guess the current roster is mostly what it will be.
I got the most basic of questions when I asked for mailbag submissions — who starts? — and that actually leads to some interesting nuances.
Q. Who are the starters next season, if you had to guess?
A. The short answer: Cody Zeller, Miles Bridges, Dwayne Bacon, Terry Rozier and either Nic Batum or Malik Monk. Now, the context:
▪ Point guard Rozier and center Zeller (assuming he’s healthy) are locks because there is a significant gap between each of them and any other player at those positions.
▪ I think coach James Borrego is inclined to start Bridges at power forward and Bacon at small forward or shooting guard. But those two won’t just be handed starting spots; Bridges will have to show he’s at least even with Marvin Williams as the best option at power forward. Bacon will have to reinforce that the progress he made late last season is lasting.
▪ Batum or Monk as the fifth starter is the real competition, much as Jeremy Lamb-Monk was last preseason. Investing playing time in the young guys makes sense in this situation, but that is not the same as just gifting minutes. Borrego will expect Monk to earn a starting spot. So far, Monk has been a liability defensively and an unreliable shooter. That has to change if he expects starter’s minutes entering his third NBA season.
Q. Will the Hornets try to trade Batum’s contract by packaging him with Monk?
A. I doubt Monk’s value as a trade commodity would induce another front office to do something it otherwise wouldn’t. I’m not saying Monk lacks any trade value, but it’s a reach to picture another team absorbing the remaining $52 million on Batum’s contract to acquire Monk.
You’d certainly have to add more to a Hornets package to make that sort of deal.
Q Would the Hornets trading for Steven Adams be a great addition?
A. In this situation, where the Hornets should be taking the long view on roster decisions, I’d rather have Zeller at $14 million as the starting center than Adams at $27 million.
Adams, the Oklahoma City Thunder center, is a free agent next summer. I wouldn’t give up future assets to acquire him. That’s a statement on the Hornets’ situation, not on Adams’ ability.
Q. With the departures of Walker and Jeremy Lamb, and the inconsistent shooting history for Rozier, who gets the ball when the Hornets need a basket late?
A. The Hornets are paying Rozier $19 million a season to be their point guard. As you note, Walker and Lamb, last season’s top two scorers, signed with the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers, respectively. Those two combined to average 41 points or 37 percent of the offense last season.
On this roster, Rozier will have the ball at the end of games. Probably not as much as Walker did, but a lot. Rozier’s stats say he was more efficient offensively as a starter with the Celtics than he was as a reserve. The sample size (30 starts) is quite small, and he won’t be surrounded by nearly as much talent in Charlotte as he was in Boston. The Hornets are betting on his continuing improvement.
The Hornets made Bacon the ballhandler in a lot of pick-and-rolls during summer league to explore if he can be more offensively. Next season’s offense will be a lot of trial and error.
Q. The Hornets signed Washington State’s Robert Franks to a two-way contract early, but he hardly played in summer league. Why do you think that is?
A. Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak sounded urgent right after the draft about assessing who was available among undrafted rookie free agents. I assume they felt some competitive pressure to lock down Franks with a two-way contract.
I don’t focus a whole lot on summer-league minutes. Frankly, after about the third game, what happens in Vegas should stay in Vegas — on the court, too.
Q. Do you see Williams as a buyout candidate?
A. Of the three expensive veterans entering the final seasons on their contracts — Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo — I think Williams is most likely to be traded, but least likely to be involved in a buyout.
As I’ve written a couple of times, Williams could help a contender. Teams wouldn’t be quick to absorb his $15 million salary, but his 3-point shooting and defense would fit on a wide variety of rosters. He’s a pro who would be fine with whatever role teams ask of him. That’s the profile of a trade commodity.
A buyout is typically player-driven. A veteran gives up a small percentage of his guaranteed salary to be free to sign elsewhere. I don’t know why Williams would ask for that.
Q. Is Kidd-Gilchrist the Hornets veteran most likely to fall out of the rotation next season?
A. Probably so; either him or Biyombo.
If the Hornets have an excess of anything on the roster, it would be power forwards: That would be the primary position, at least for now, for Bridges, Williams, rookie PJ Washington and Kidd-Gilchrist.
Kidd-Gilchrist’s primary position for most of his NBA career was small forward, but Borrego asked him to be a power forward last season. Playing small forward makes his poor shooting range more of a liability. It’s unclear where Kidd-Gilchrist fits going into training camp.
Biyombo might enter the season as the Hornets’ third option at center behind Zeller and Willy Hernangomez. But injuries have limited Zeller to 82 games over the past two seasons, and Hernangomez hasn’t established himself in 1 1/2 seasons in Charlotte. So Biyombo’s chances of playing aren’t that remote, even as third option.