Is Jeremy Lamb playing himself right out of the Charlotte Hornets’ grasp?
I’ve thought about that increasingly as this season has transpired, and Wednesday’s 108-94 victory over the Atlanta Hawks brought it to a head: Lamb, who never started in the NBA on a regular basis before this season, is an unrestricted free agent in July. If he continues playing the way he has the past two weeks, I don’t know if they can afford him.
Lamb had a game-high 22 points Wednesday on a night when Hornets superstar Kemba Walker shot dreadfully: 6-of-19 from the field and 1-of-6 from 3-point range. Walker deserves a pass for an occasional clunker, and in a sense it’s encouraging the Hornets can still win a game by double digits with him playing so far below his standards.
This was the seventh time in eight games that Lamb scored 18 or more points. He’s doing that efficiently, shooting 45 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3-point range. He’s also contributing more than jump shots: Hornets coach James Borrego said Lamb is a better driver and passer than he appreciated from afar when Borrego was an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, Just as importantly, Lamb hasn’t been a liability as a defender.
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It’s a rarity in the NBA that a player in his seventh season would make this kind of leap in productivity. It’s a credit to Lamb’s off-season work the past two summers and to Borrego for seeing Lamb’s potential when he picked a starting lineup in the preseason.
“We’re starting to expect this out of Lamb now,” Borrego said postgame. “Which is a good thing, this sort of aggression and consistency.”
But all this has an unintended consequence for the Hornets: Could Lamb perform so well that there becomes no practical way to re-sign him come July?
At 6-foot-5, Lamb can play either shooting guard or small forward. He currently makes about $7.5 million in the final year of a three-year, $21 million extension then-general manager Rich Cho signed Lamb to after trading for him in the summer of 2015.
Say what you want about some other decisions Cho made in Charlotte, but he had conviction Lamb had considerable unrealized potential, stuck on the bench of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Cho preemptively signed Lamb to that extension a few weeks into Lamb’s first season here.
Based on Lamb’s performance last season and this one, that contract has been a bargain. I asked a player-personnel executive from another NBA team to estimate Lamb’s market value next summer. Off the top of his head, that front-office executive said he could easily see some team paying Lamb an average of $14 million a season.
That’s where this gets sticky. If you assume the Hornets will have to offer Walker a maximum-type contract to retain him, then Walker’s next deal will be at least roughly $190 million over the next five seasons (more potentially if he is selected All-NBA for this season).
The Hornets would technically have the ability to re-sign both Walker and Lamb within the rules of the salary cap. But there’s obviously a difference between what the rules allow and what would be practical, particularly when owner Michael Jordan has not exceeded the luxury-tax threshold in the past and has called that a risky strategy for something short of a roster clearly in contention to win big.
You would hate to see Lamb leave after his best season as a Hornet, particularly for no compensation in free-agency. However, any early discussion of what becomes of Lamb has to take into consideration the macro of the total roster.
One, the Hornets have a lot of options at the wing positions. Two, they have a lot more financial obligations for next season than they necessarily would prefer.
They have Malik Monk, Dwayne Bacon and Miles Bridges all under contract for next season or longer on very affordable salaries. Cho used to say that a well-managed NBA player payroll has to include a significant percentage of players still controlled by the rookie pay scale. That applies to Monk and Bridges as former first-round picks, and Bacon is even cheaper as a second-rounder on a multi-year contract.
Beyond that, the Hornets have veterans Nic Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, both of whom make sizable salaries next season. Those guaranteed deals won’t just vanish, and if general manager Mitch Kupchak traded one of them, he’d almost certainly have to take back comparable salary to make a deal work.
So that’s where this gets difficult with Lamb. Remember the summer of 2016, when the Hornets had a handful of free agents? They prioritized re-signing Batum and Marvin Williams, knowing that would sacrifice the chance of retaining Courtney Lee and/or Jeremy Lin.
Salary caps are about forcing teams to make hard choices. If Lamb keeps playing the way he is right now, that choice for the Hornets could feel brutal.