Charlotte isn’t a destination city like Miami, Los Angeles or New York for 20-something NBA superstars, so free agency doesn’t ever figure to be the centerpiece of a Hornets roster plan.
Team owner Michael Jordan has said as much to me in the past..
But free agency can supplement the draft and trades in what general manager Mitch Kupchak is doing. The Hornets signing Al Jefferson in 2013 worked out well. He was an All-NBA selection in 2014.
Signing Lance Stephenson in 2014? Not so much. He was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers after one season of minimal impact.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Because the Hornets’ player payroll was so clogged with veteran guarantees, it didn’t look like the Hornets would have much opportunity at all in free agency this summer. But the trade that will send center Dwight Howard to the Brooklyn Nets in July, taking back Timofey Mozgov’s contract, will open some short-term flexibility below the NBA’s luxury-tax threshold.
Mozgov will make about $7.5 million less than Howard next season. That gets the Hornets far enough below the tax line that they will have access to this season’s midlevel salary-cap exception (a first-season salary of up to $8.6 million).
That puts the Hornets on even footing with most franchises this summer. Teams can start meeting with free agents on Sunday.
This isn’t considered a particularly deep free-agent class and only a handful of the NBA’s 30 teams have major space under the cap heading into the league’s new fiscal year.
What the Hornets need
Kupchak made it clear two days before the draft that he wouldn’t let roster needs determine which rookies he selected. So I asked if there is any need urgent enough that it must be addressed before training camp in September, whether that be via draft, trade or free agency.
Kupchak responded that he didn’t see a “gaping hole” in the roster, but that he would like to add another guard, particularly with last season’s backup point, Michael Carter-Williams, a free agent. Thursday the Hornets added forward Miles Bridges in the first round and Devonte Graham in the second. While Kansas’ Graham is a point guard, Kupchak said post-draft he’d still like to add a veteran guard.
There isn’t another obvious need. That’s not to say Kupchak wouldn’t like to upgrade at forward or center, but in terms of balance and depth, the roster makes sense going into camp.
As Kupchak said on Tuesday, “Quite frankly our coach (James Borrego), who we’ve had now for five or six weeks, he likes the roster.”
If you view this realistically — the Hornets aren’t going to be a candidate to sign a LeBron James or Paul George — here are some possibilities, based on Kupchak’s description:
Shelvin Mack, Orlando Magic, unrestricted: The Magic released him this week to avoid all but a million of the $6 million he would have been owed next season. He got longer minutes the second half of last season after the Magic traded Elfrid Payton.
Seth Curry, Dallas Mavericks, unrestricted: More jump-shooting would be a plus and obviously the Charlotte connection has appeal. Curry missed last season with a stress reaction, but he is recovered and back in the gym. He's also somewhat undersized, and the Hornets are a team already with some guards who fit that description already.
Shabazz Napier, Portland Trail Blazers, restricted: Technically, he’s already been a Hornet (drafted and rights traded to Miami in 2014). He has bounced around the league, spending last season as Damian Lillard’s backup. He was a good 3-point shooter at 38 percent last season.
Raymond Felton, OKC Thunder, unrestricted: Once a lottery pick by this franchise, he’s at the tail end of his NBA career and used to being a reserve. Would he welcome coming back to the Carolinas?
Dante Exum, Utah Jazz, restricted: An Australian who has yet to live up to having been chosen fifth overall in 2014. His 6-6 height would make him an attractive contrast to Kemba Walker and Malik Monk.
Ty Lawson, Washington Wizards, unrestricted: He had a playoff spot with the Wizards and averaged 19 minutes in the first-round loss to the Toronto Raptors.