Charlotte Hornets

Why I’d sacrifice the Hornets’ draft pick to help manage the salary cap

Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho spoke to media on Friday about Thursday’s NBA draft. The Hornets have the 22nd pick in the first round. With the pick, Cho said the team will consider “moving up, moving back or moving out of the draft altogether.”
Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho spoke to media on Friday about Thursday’s NBA draft. The Hornets have the 22nd pick in the first round. With the pick, Cho said the team will consider “moving up, moving back or moving out of the draft altogether.” jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Asked about options for Thursday’s draft, Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho said he’d consider “moving up, moving back or moving out of the draft altogether.”

If I were the Hornets, I’d seriously investigate the last of those scenarios. I wonder if there is a salary-cap friendly trade that might be a better choice than exercising the Hornets’ No. 22 overall pick.

I’m not a huge fan of this draft. There is probably a shooting guard or small forward out there who could wind up in Charlotte’s rotation eventually. But eventually shouldn’t be the Hornets’ primary objective.

This team is coming off a 48-victory season, tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Eight players on that roster will become free agents July 1. Five of those players were in the Hornets’ rotation, and one of them – Nic Batum – is Cho’s often-stated top priority (as he should be).

Cho hopes to retain as much of last season’s core as possible, without becoming complacent about chasing other talent. I wonder if you could find a trade partner for something like the following:

In return for the No. 22 pick, some team in rebuilding mode would agree to take on the remaining two seasons and $12 million on reserve center Spencer Hawes’ contract. The Hornets would get back something like a token second-round pick.

That would strip Hawes’ money off the Hornets’ cap and avoid another guaranteed salary to a rookie.

I’m not knocking Hawes in throwing out this idea. He was solid enough, and his shooting range helped space the floor last season. But I’m not sure what he’ll contribute the next two seasons will be commensurate with what the Hornets are obligated to pay him.

I’m guessing this sort of salary dump goes against Cho’s grain. He believes strongly in the strategy of accumulating assets, and he sees rookie-scale contracts as a big plus in building affordable depth.

I don’t disagree with either of those principles, but in this particular offseason, managing the salary cap might take precedence.

To use Cho’s word, managing the cap while trying to retain key players will be “tricky” this summer. This spike in the salary cap, because of the new national television contracts, means each team’s cap will rise to about $94 million. That’s about a $24 million jump from this past season.

On the macro level, this is a sign of great prosperity. It also means a team like the Hornets, with many free agents, could be in rough competition to retain its best players. And labor costs are sure to rise considerably.

Retaining Batum likely will cost well in excess of $20 million a season. The Hornets have some advantages in the competition: They can pay him slightly larger annual raises and an additional year of guarantees. Also, Batum has made it clear he’d be happy to return.

But none of that makes it less expensive. One way or another Batum will be a maximum-salary or near maximum-salary player. That’s a first for this expansion franchise that started in 2004.

Ideally, I’d like to see the Hornets retain at least Batum, power forward Marvin Williams and point guard Jeremy Lin. That won’t be easy during this inflationary summer of free agency.

So I’d be fine with sacrificing the 22nd pick to create that much more cap space for other needs.

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