It’s two months out from the start of NBA training camps and most of the off-season roster-building for the Charlotte Hornets is likely complete.
They have 14 guaranteed contracts for a maximum of 15 roster spots. In addition, they have two two-way slots (players destined for the G-League’s Greensboro Swarm) under contract with Mangok Mathiang and J.P. Macura.
That doesn’t mean new general manager Mitch Kupchak or new coach James Borrego are done tinkering. Playing time is up for grabs, and there is a crowd at the wing positions. It’s no given the starting lineup next season will resemble the one from last season, with an entirely different front office and coaching staff.
So Hornets fans asked questions. My best shot at answers:
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Q. Is this a make-or-break season for Frank Kaminsky?
A. The term “make-or-break” sounds overly dramatic, but I certainly agree Kaminsky, a former lottery pick and the Hornets’ backup power forward, has a lot at stake. Kaminsky, the ninth overall pick in 2015, enters the fourth season on his original rookie-scale contract. That means he’d be a free agent in the summer of 2019 (restricted, assuming the Hornets make a qualifying offer of about $5 million for the 2019-20 season).
Kaminsky has been decent as Marvin Williams’ backup, averaging 10 points and 4.1 rebounds over his first three seasons. However, he has yet to shoot better than 43 percent from the field for a season and his defense is mediocre to poor. He hasn’t challenged Williams to be this team’s starter.
In previous years, the Hornets signed lottery picks Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller to second contracts before they ever reached unrestricted free-agency. Will they repeat that strategy in regard to Kaminsky? I think he’d have to play much better next season to look that essential to the new front office.
Q. Your best guess at who starts at shooting guard and small forward?
A. That could be the most interesting subplot of the Hornets’ preseason and I won’t pretend to know how this will play out. I think Nic Batum will continue to be a starter, but I don’t know whether that will be at shooting guard (where he played for former coach Steve Clifford) or small forward (which the 6-foot-8 Batum has called his natural position and where he played with his first NBA team, the Portland Trail Blazers).
I think it could be wide open who the other starting wing is. Does Kidd-Gilchrist continue as a starter? Could Malik Monk start? Is rookie Miles Bridges a factor in this? Borrego can walk into training camp in Chapel Hill without any preconceived notions and let this play out over the three weeks until the season-opener.
Q. If the Hornets are out of contention at the (February) trade deadline, which player could you see them selling off?
A. That concept of buyers and sellers at the trade deadline is more a baseball construct because it’s commonplace in that sport for contenders to swap minor-league prospects for veteran help, even if it’s just a “rental” for the rest of that season. But similar strategies do happen in the NBA on a smaller scale.
If the Hornets are slipping out of contention for a playoff spot by early February, I could see them trading Jeremy Lamb, who becomes a free agent next July, for a future draft pick. That would be similar (but in reverse) to the trade a few years ago when the Hornets acquired Courtney Lee from the Memphis Grizzlies to fill the hole left by Kidd-Gilchrist’s injury.
The Hornets have a lot of options at the wing positions so it’s not essential they re-sign Lamb. Getting something for him before he’s an unrestricted free agent is an option worth considering.
Q. What is Kidd-Gilchrist’s trade value?
A. Not much right now. Between his offensive limitations and the two seasons left on his contract ($13 million for next season, plus a player option for another $13 million in 2019-20), teams aren’t craving MKG. That could change next summer when he would represent an expiring contract.
Q. What similarities and/or differences do you see between Clifford and Borrego?
A. My sample size on Borrego is small; I haven’t seen him yet after a frustrating loss or when a player is suspended, so I don’t know how he’ll react when things get rough. But in the handful of times I’ve interviewed him, I do see this trait that reminds me of Clifford:
When you asked Clifford a direct question, you almost always got a direct, authentic answer. Clifford was all about transparency and the players appreciated that. It built an atmosphere of trust in which the players knew what he told them — whether it be praise or criticism — was what he really thought of them.
So far, I’ve found Borrego to be a straight shooter with good people skills. That will be tested, because there are some difficult decisions pending with a roster that could turn over a lot over the next couple of seasons.
Differences? I don’t know yet because I’ve yet to see Borrego coach beyond a few teaching moments in a minicamp leading up to summer league.
Q. Is Mathiang going to carry his two-way contract into the regular season?
A. The Hornets still control Mathiang for next season under the two-way contract he signed last summer. I didn’t see anything at summer league that would distinguish him from dozens of other big men on the fringes of NBA rosters. While Mathiang is obligated to the Hornets, there’s really nothing that would preclude the Hornets from cutting him if they saw a player they’d rather develop under the two-way system.