The Charlotte Hornets have an abundance of needs and lack the off-season tools of recent summers.
The past two summers they entered the July free-agency period with many millions in salary-cap room. This summer their best opportunity to sign a veteran is the mid-level exception, which means a player making about $5.5 million next season.
They also have 11 guaranteed contracts for a maximum of 15 roster spots.
So there isn’t much latitude in improving a team that went a disappointing 33-49 last season. They need to get impact from the No. 9 pick in Thursday night’s NBA draft (7:30 p.m., ESPN).
That’s no given. Over the 10-year history of this expansion team, the Bobcats/Hornets have used top-10 picks on a total bust (Adam Morrison) and some forgettable role players (Raymond Felton and D.J. Augustin). They’re still figuring out what they have in recent lottery picks Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh.
Thursday night, general manager Rich Cho runs his second draft as the singular head of basketball operations. Cho didn’t offer much detail of his plans in a media availability last week, but he continuously repeated one message about his philosophy concerning drafts:
Don’t let need distract you from your draft board.
“We’re taking the best player available,” Cho said. “If it was neck-and-neck, you might address need, but in general we would go best player available.”
Cho fielded lots of “need” questions because it’s so obvious what this team’s greatest need is: They finished last season as the NBA’s worst 3-point shooting team at 31.8 percent. That was tied for the eighth-worst 3-point percentage in the league’s past 10 seasons.
That has raised speculation about the Hornets using the ninth pick on Kentucky shooting guard Devin Booker, who turned pro after one college season making 41 percent from the 3-point arc.
Undoubtedly Booker will be among a circle of players the Hornets would consider. Other possibilities, should they last to No. 9: Kentucky big man Willie Cauley-Stein, Arizona forward Stanley Johnson, Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker and Wisconsin center-forward Frank Kaminsky.
Cho said he will definitely address the shooting problem this summer whether by the draft, free-agency or trade.
“There are some very good shooters in this draft, that is one of the strengths of the wing players. We feel like some of those will be available at nine,” Cho said.
“We definitely want to address shooting. At some point we want to get a third point guard. We don’t have a ton of spots left. We have 11 players under contract and we’ve got some free agents, the ninth pick and the 39th pick. We’ve got our mid-level (exception) and our bi-annual, too, so there are a lot of things that can happen.”
That’s assuming they stay at No. 9. Cho said he has and will continue to explore all trade possibilities.
“We’ve been talking to a lot of teams about moving up, moving backwards, moving the the pick all together. A lot of things are in play,” Cho said.
Asked specifically about trading higher into the lottery, Cho said, “It depends on what we’d have to give up, but I’d love to move up.”
The difficulty in that is moving up even a couple of spots in the top 10 would likely come at a high cost. The assets other teams would most likely request: small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or power forward Vonleh (both still playing on the affordable rookie pay scale) or a future first-round pick.
Cho said most likely any serious trade discussion would come during the draft, perhaps even during the five minutes the Hornets would have to make their selection after the Detroit Pistons pick eighth overall.
That’s because teams want certainty as to who’s available before making a trade. From about the fourth pick on that gets murky. Kentucky center-forward Karl-Anthony Towns is expected to go first overall to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Duke center Jahlil Okafor and Ohio State guard D’Angelo Russell look to be the next two players chosen, one way or the other, by the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers.
The New York Knicks with the fourth pick become a wild card, with Phil Jackson now running the Knicks’ basketball operation. There’s been speculation Jackson could either trade down from the fourth pick or make some unexpected selection (such as Kentucky power forward Trey Lyles), which could blow up the anticipated draft order.
In the unlikely event that happens, the Hornets could benefit if a talent such as Croatian shooting guard Mario Hezonja or Duke small forward Justise Winslow was still available at No. 9.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell