Regardless of how this Charlotte Hornets season ends, the fans anticipate change.
That’s been obvious for months based on the questions I receive for these monthly mailbag columns. This franchise has reached the playoffs three times since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004 and has yet to advance beyond the first round in that span. The Hornets’ chances of making a playoff appearance this season look dicey.
Is major change realistic to expect in the short run? That leads your questions this week:
Q. Can Hornets management blow this core up?
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A. They could, but the key question would be: at what cost? The Hornets will enter the summer with their top player, Kemba Walker, entering unrestricted free agency. One of their better players, Jeremy Lamb, also hits the free-agent market. Meanwhile, three expensive veterans — Bismack Biyombo ($17 million), Marvin Williams ($15 million) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist ($13 million) — all have player options for next season they almost certainly will exercise.
A rebuild to some degree looks inevitable whether or not Walker re-signs here. Obviously, fans would like to accelerate that process and get to the winning. However, that acceleration would likely cost assets, such as draft picks. Doing that could be shortsighted.
Typically, you induce another team to take a problematic contract by packaging that with a draft pick. My leaning, in the absence of specific examples, would be to ride this out another season and let those contracts naturally fall off the payroll rather than give up picks.
I know that’s not what fans want to hear. I relate to the sense of exasperation. However, Mitch Kupchak took on a mess last spring when he became Hornets general manager, and I never thought there were quick solutions. I’m not giving Kuphack a pass; I’m saying it took years to create this problem, so it’ll take a while to fix it, too.
Q. If the Hornets are interested in keeping Lamb, would he be offered a new contract as a long-term sixth man?
A. To me, whether Lamb ends up a starter or a key reserve isn’t central to his long-term value to the Hornets or the NBA at-large. When coach James Borrego moved Lamb to the second unit after All-Star break, Lamb’s actual role didn’t change much; he’s still playing big minutes and still on the court at crunch time.
Lamb has raised his value this season in a way other teams notice. A factor that has to play into the Lamb assessment is Malik Monk not playing. I’m sure Monk will get playing time late this season if the Hornets are out of the playoff race. But how confident will the front office and coaching staff be that Monk is ready if Lamb isn’t back?
Q. How could you see the Hornets using the trade exception?
A. I assume you’re referring to the trade exception of nearly $8 million the Hornets received from dealing Dwight Howard to the Brooklyn Nets. That exception expires in early July. A trade exception allows a team with a payroll above the salary cap to add salary in acquiring a veteran contract off another team.
At the time of the trade, Kupchak called that exception valuable. I would describe it as handy, because I still don’t know whether it will come into play before expiring.
I thought it was unlikely that exception would be used this season, since the Hornets were close to a luxury-tax threshold that owner Michael Jordan doesn’t want to cross in this circumstance. It could be used in the new salary-cap year (after July 1) to add a veteran. Considering they could lose Walker and Lamb (and 36-year-old Tony Parker if he chooses to retire), the ability to trade for a veteran without consideration of cap space is handy.
A caution about trade exceptions: They can’t be combined with other salaries or other trade exceptions to create bigger deals.
Q. Can the Hornets ever win if Jordan doesn’t pay luxury tax?
A. I think this luxury-tax thing is a false narrative in the Hornets’ current situation. The Golden State Warriors pay a huge luxury-tax bill to keep together a championship team. Paying tax to be mediocre isn’t just a waste of money, it’s bad management. For instance, the Washington Wizards bailed out on small forward Otto Porter’s contract at the trade deadline because they were in a trap of expensive-and-bad. Don’t emulate that.
Q. How did Frank Kaminky go from the Hornets thinking about buying him out to him being a dangerous player under the right circumstances?
A. A couple of things come to mind about this: First, buyouts aren’t generally a team-driven thing; a player’s agent approaches the team about the player giving up some guaranteed salary in return for getting his release to sign elsewhere. While the Hornets weren’t playing Kaminsky, don’t equate that to management seeing no value in him being on the roster
Kaminsky has played well, and deserves praise for taking advantage of opportunity. But let’s not make a five-game sample sound transformational. The Hornets are 2-3 in those games.
Q. The Hornets before have fired a coach after one season. Could Borrego have experimented too much and won too little?
A. Two of this franchise’s last six head coaches, Sam Vincent and Mike Dunlap, didn’t get to a second season before being fired. However, in both cases the issue was those coaches’ idiosyncrasies rather than the front office’s impatience.
I don’t pretend to know Kupchak’s or Jordan’s innermost thoughts, but I get no sense they are displeased with Borrego. I did know with both Vincent and Dunlap that they were in trouble well before those firings.