Searching through significant free-agent signings by the Charlotte Hornets, you have center Al Jefferson and...what?
Jefferson signed with the Hornets (then-Bobcats) in 2013, played three seasons here and made an appearance on the All-NBA team. Nothing else of great consequence has happened in free agency since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004.
Then-general manager Rich Cho signed Gordon Hayward to an offer sheet in the summer of 2014. Predictably, the Utah Jazz matched on restricted free agent Hayward and the Hornets ended up with Lance Stephenson, who was such a bad fit the Hornets dealt him to the Los Angeles Clippers after one season.
A couple of readers asked, for this mailbag column, why the Hornets aren’t bigger players in NBA free agency. On to your questions:
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Q. I understand the Hornets don’t have salary-cap space right now, but why can’t (owner) Michael Jordan get free agents to come to Charlotte?
A. I always had misgivings on whether Jordan’s presence as owner would make a difference in recruiting free agents. Maybe playing with Jordan, in his prime with the Chicago Bulls, would have been a selling point, but an icon signing the checks probably doesn’t close the deal 15 years removed from Jordan last playing (with the Washington Wizards).
As you mentioned in your question, this is a moot point right now because the Hornets won’t have significant space under the salary cap in the immediate future. Money is the No. 1 factor in free agency. Secondary factors are the prospect of winning quickly (as in the San Antonio Spurs signing LaMarcus Aldridge) and the city (Los Angeles, Miami and New York will always have an advantage, although it’s hard to measure just how much of one exists summer-to-summer).
The Hornets would have to build a young core, via the draft and trades, that is contender-ready to attract a top-10 player. And even then, this will always be an iffy strategy.
Q. Just to piggyback on that question, why can’t Jordan be a closer like Magic Johnson?
A. I think you’re giving Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations Johnson a bit too much credit. Did he close on LeBron James? Yes. He was also selling the Lakers’ legacy and Los Angeles’ lifestyle and business opportunities to a superstar in the latter stages of his career.
I’m guessing if Jordan had been pitching the Lakers to James, the same result would have happened. If the Hornets approach team-building on a parallel path to the Lakers, that’s a plan doomed to failure because the situations are so different.
Q. What if next season the Hornets pay Kemba Walker the same money and somehow Jordan’s shoe company gives him (an endorsement) contract for more money or something like that? Is there any penalty fee?
A. You’re referring to Walker being a Jordan Brand endorser, along with several other Hornets players. Jordan Brand is a division of Nike. Obviously, Jordan has a lot of sway, but don’t misconstrue Jordan Brand as a slush fund for its namesake. When Jordan first had equity in an NBA franchise (the Wizards and then the Bobcats), the league made sure everyone understood the line between player contracts and sneaker deals. Salary-cap circumvention would be about as big a violation of league rules as there is.
So, no, there’s no way to fudge on Walker’s Hornets compensation, via the sneakers he wears, without risking the worst of NBA consequences.
Q. Do you see Michael Kidd-Gilchrist being moved during the season? What do you think is a realistic option?
A. As I wrote in July, it would be no surprise if Kidd-Gilchrist has a lesser role playing for new Hornets coach James Borrego than he did under Steve Clifford (due primarily to Kidd-Gilchrist’s offensive limitations). Kidd-Glichrist has started all but four of his 357 career games played, and that could shift significantly under new management.
Kidd-Gilchrist makes $13 million for the coming season, plus a player option for another $13 million the following season (all guaranteed). I don’t see another team accepting that contract without sending the Hornets a similarly unappealing deal. It might be easier to trade MKG at the February deadline, particularly if Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak is receptive to taking back one or more seasons for another veteran’s contract beyond the 2019-20 season.
Q. Any trades before the start of training camp?
A. The Hornets trade as often as any NBA franchise, so I never dismiss that possibility. I would guess Kupchak would be open to moving a wing player, since there are more capable ones than minutes to play them all. However, I’m guessing Borrego would like to have a preseason to evaluate before any weeding out of the current roster.
Q. With a new coach, care to speculate what we will see as different on the court this season?
A. The signs were there in summer league: His priority is quick decision-making. He doesn’t want players holding the ball without choosing to drive, shoot or pass. That was a significant factor in center Dwight Howard’s departure. I’m very curious how Borrego will look to get more out of Nic Batum, and how much Malik Monk and rookie Miles Bridges play.
Q. Is Bridges this season’s draft sleeper?
A. If you mean, “Will Bridges’ rookie season look like Donovan Mitchell’s?” I doubt it because that’s an awfully high bar. However, I was impressed with Bridges’ summer league. Specifically, how much his weight loss (roughly 20 pounds since last season with Michigan State) tightened up his body and his ability to handle the ball and create scoring advantages.
I suspect Borrego will experiment some in the preseason with using Bridges as a small-ball power forward. Small forward should be Bridges’ primary NBA position, but he presents other possibilities with his skill set.