Kemba Walker on NBA free agency
The Charlotte Hornets’ roster is in a dangerous place: expensive, aging, at risk of losing the franchise’s best player and on a three-year absence from the playoffs.
Also, there is little flexibility within the NBA’s salary-cap rules to fix this over the summer.
“Financially, we are not as flexible as I would like to be,” general manager Mitch Kupchak said last week, adding, “It looks like it is going to be challenging.”
Oh yeah. Combined salaries for the eight Hornets under guaranteed contract for next season reach about $94 million. The five most-expensive salaries add up to nearly $85 million. Those salaries do not include three-time All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, who is an unrestricted free agent in July. Shooting guard Jeremy Lamb, arguably the Hornets’ second-most effective player last season, is also an unrestricted free agent.
That’s quite a challenge, considering Kupchak must urgently demonstrate to Walker that the Hornets can win sooner than later, with stakes they could lose him this summer for no compensation.
How does this roster size up, whether or not Walker and/or Lamb is back? A player-by-player breakdown:
Remaining contract terms: $1.6 million (non-guaranteed) for 2019-20.
Key stat from last season: After playing in one Hornets game between Feb. 1 and March 6, Bacon started the last 12 games of the season. In those 12 games, he averaged 12.6 points, 47 percent shooting from the field and 43 percent from 3-point range.
Analysis: Former Hornets coach Steve Clifford said last season, when Bacon was a second-round rookie, that Bacon had starter potential. The end of this season validates that opinion. His size (6-foot-7, 221 pounds) and strength set him up to be the Hornets’ top mid-size defender eventually. The time Bacon spent with the G-League’s Greensboro Swarm was valuable in turning a mid-range jump shooter into more of a 3-point threat.
Chance he’s a Hornet next season: 90 percent. The only way he’s not is if Kupchak needs to throw him into a package for a trade that would entice Walker to re-sign.
Remaining contract terms: $25.5 million for 2019-20 and $27.1 million for 2020-21, both seasons guaranteed (Batum could opt out of 2020-21, which is highly unlikely).
Key stat from last season: Batum scored a total of 10 points over his last six game appearances. He shot 4-of-14 in that span.
Analysis: Batum didn’t play at all, by choice of coach James Borrego, in three of the Hornets’ last eight games. That seemed to be about more than Borrego playing the young guys. The guarantee on Batum’s contract won’t just disappear. Short of a trade, it’s on Borrego to figure how best to use his most expensive player. Whether or not that is as a starter, Batum’s strength is his utility; he can play shooting guard, small forward or power forward. Expect him to play all three if he’s here next season.
Chance he’s a Hornet next season: 70 percent. They’d probably have to give up something valuable, such as a first-round pick, to get another team to absorb that large a contract for a player not having major impact.
Remaining contract terms: $17 million for 2019-20.
Key stat from last season: Biyombo averaged 2.5 blocks per 100 possessions last season, which matches his low for eight NBA seasons, and way off his high of 4.2.
Analysis: Borrego and Kupchak identified rim protection as a serious weakness. There is no area where Biyombo’s impact should be more apparent. He averaged 0.76 blocks last season, third on the team behind Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams. Limited as Biyombo is offensively, he has to have a major impact as a post defender to play.
Chance he’s a Hornet next season: 60 percent. Important context: Biyombo’s salary is the after-effect of the Hornets getting Dwight Howard out of the locker room last summer. Since this is the last season on Biyombo’s contract, that could make him tradeable, but only if the Hornets are willing to take back a comparably large contract. The Hornets could also use the stretch provision under NBA rules, which would allow them to waive Biyombo and distribute the cap implications of his salary over multiple seasons.
Remaining contract terms: $3.7 million for next season, plus team options of $3.9 million and $5.4 million the following two seasons under the rookie scale.
Key stat from last season: Bridges’ uptick the last four weeks of the season was notable: four of his six total games of 16 or more points, both games of 10 or more rebounds, and his only three games of five or more assists.
Analysis: The Hornets asked a lot of Bridges as a rookie, using him at both forward positions. Initially, he struggled within complex NBA defenses. As he caught up in knowledge and recognition, it freed him to more express his athleticism.
Chance he’s a Hornet next season: 95 percent. It would take something tremendous — something you couldn’t pass up with or without Walker — to trade away Bridges’ development and rookie-scale affordability.
Remaining contract terms: $1.4 million next season and $1.6 million for 2020-21 (second season unguaranteed).
Key stat from last season: Graham finished the season with a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, which tied for fifth in the NBA with the Indiana Pacers’ Cory Joseph.
Analysis: Graham played in the Hornets’ last 13 games, averaging more than 18 minutes in that span. Borrego used him instead of Tony Parker, both backing up Walker and playing with Walker. He needs to be a better shooter (30 percent from the field, 18 percent from 3-point range in those 13 games), but he’s a keeper at the NBA’s most important position.
Chance he’s a Hornet next season: 95 percent. It would take another team demanding Graham in a trade package for him not to be back in Charlotte.
Remaining contract terms: $1.7 million (unguaranteed)
Key stat from last season: Hernangomez did not play, by coach’s decision, in 23 games.
Analysis: Hernangomez got the first chance to be the starting center in January when Cody Zeller broke his hand. He lasted one game in that role before Borrego switched to Biyombo. Hernangomez has attributes, particularly a knack for scoring in the post and rebounding in traffic. However, his defense is unreliable, and that is particularly problematic at center. He’s valuable depth, but will he be more?
Chance he’s a Hornet next season: 70 percent. His size and unguaranteed salary this season make him an attractive throw-in in a trade package.
Remaining contract terms: He is a free agent. The Hornets can restrict that free agency by making a qualifying offer of about $5 million for the 2019-20 season.
Key stat from last season: In the 27 games when Kaminsky played 15 or more minutes, he averaged 12.6 points.
Analysis: The question is no longer whether Kaminsky can help; he demonstrated the last five weeks of the season that he’s valuable as an off-the-bench scorer. The question is more the cost-effective ratio on a team loaded with expensive contracts.
Chance he’s a Hornet next season: 50 percent. The cost of bringing back Walker, if he chooses to re-sign, will have tumble-down effect. Not re-signing Kaminsky could be one of those effects.
Remaining contract terms: $13 million for next season (player option).
Key stat from last season: Three starts and four “Did not play, coach’s decisions.” That is radically different from the previous six NBA seasons for the a former No. 2 overall pick.
Analysis: Kidd-Gilchrist handled it with grace when Borrego changed his role from starter to reserve and his primary position from small forward to power forward. Kidd-Gilchrist said after the season his top priority now is happiness, above money. It probably doesn’t make sense for him to opt out of next season, but would a buyout offer by the Hornets make sense?
Chance he’s a Hornet next season: 50 percent. It won’t surprise me if he enters training camp on Charlotte’s roster, then is elsewhere before the deadline to be playoff-eligible.
Remaining contract terms: None; he’s an unrestricted free agent.
Key stat from last season: Three game-winning shots, including the wild half-court heave in Toronto to beat the Raptors at the buzzer.
Analysis: Lamb is a weapon against switching defenses, which is important the way the NBA has evolved tactically. He’s effective both as a starter and reserve and he had six games of 10 or more rebounds.
Chance he’s a Hornet next season: 30 percent. Re-signing both Walker and Lamb would push the Hornets into luxury-tax territory without doing anything new to improve the roster. But there is no great fit to replace what Lamb does, at least until Malik Monk shows a lot more consistency.
Remaining contract terms: None. Unrestricted free agent.
Key stat from last season: A total of 43 minutes over four games played after the Hornets claimed him off waivers, shortly after the trade deadline.
Analysis: The Hornets used their open roster spot on insurance at point guard against Parker’s health and Graham’s youth. Seven-season veteran Mack hardly ever played, which was disappointing for him, but not harmful to the Hornets.
Chance he’s a Hornet next season: Five percent. No more likely than if he hadn’t played in Charlotte this season.
Remaining contract terms: $4 million next season and a $5.3 million team option for 2020-21.
Key stat from last season: Eight “Did not play, coach’s decisions” and no starts are not what you expect for the second season of a lottery pick’s career.
Analysis: The more time passes since Monk was drafted 11th overall in 2017, the less that high pick grants special status. Kupchak said Monk might be this team’s best athlete. However, he is still small for an NBA shooting guard at 6-3, and needs to get a lot stronger (his primary goal for this summer). The Hornets drafted him at 19, which obligates a level of patience. But he’s not much different from when he left Kentucky.
Chance he’s a Hornet next season: 60 percent. The Hornets need a trade that would provide Walker a reason to stay. Monk is a logical piece to throw into such a trade. However, if Lamb leaves, they need affordable young depth at shooting guard, which is Monk right now.
Remaining contact terms: $5.2 million for 2019-20 (unguaranteed).
Key stat last season: 18 minutes per game (compared to a team goal of 15) and five games of 20 or more points.
Analysis: Both on the court and off it, Parker was so valuable: The Hornets’ backup point guard situation was a wreck the prior two seasons, and Parker immediately brought consistency to that role. He embraced mentoring Graham and Monk and he held teammates accountable. At a $5 million salary, it would be hard to find a more cost-effective free agent than Parker was.
Chance he’s a Hornet next season: 10 percent. With retirement an option at 36, Parker says he’d be back with the Hornets next season only if they field a team competing for the playoffs. If the Hornets don’t re-sign Walker, they should give Parker his release to pursue whatever other options are out there.
Remaining contract terms: None. Unrestricted free agent.
Key stat last season: Third in the NBA in total points scored at 2,102 (behind James Harden and Paul George). That speaks to both his productivity (career-high 25.2 points per game) and durability (played all 82 games).
Analysis: If Walker chooses to sign elsewhere, the only reaction from the fan base should be “Thank you for your service.” The guy has been not only a great player, but a great teammate and a great representative of Charlotte.
Chance he’s a Hornet next season: 30 percent. That could change dramatically if Kupchak can pull off a big trade, but he has three months to make the franchise-shifting deal that didn’t happen in Walker’s first eight seasons.
Remaining contract terms: $15 million for 2019-20.
Key stat last season: His 3-point percentage slipped from a career-best 41.3 percent two seasons ago to 36.6 percent for 2018-19. His career-high 382 3-point attempts were 59 percent of his total shots from the field.
Analysis: Williams had to tell the coaches his injured right foot was so debilitating he was hurting the Hornets by continuing to play. Williams played in 75 of a possible 82 games, but he’s 14 seasons and 29,000 minutes into an NBA career.
Chance he’s a Hornet next season: 75 percent. He want to stay in Charlotte. However, he’d have some trade value still because this is the last season on his contract, and his 3-point shooting and defensive versatility are still there.
Remaining contract terms: $14.5 million next season, $15.4 million for 2020-21.
Key stat last season: Zeller played 49 games, primarily due to a broken hand in January and left knee soreness starting in mid-March. This was the third consecutive season he didn’t reach 50 games.
Analysis: Borrego said in September that one of the most important agenda items in his first season as coach would be Zeller’s health. You can’t avoid a fractured hand, and the doctor who operated on Zeller’s left knee two seasons ago anticipated ongoing soreness. But it feels inevitable the way Zeller plays that he’ll get dinged every season.
Chance he’s a Hornet next season: 75 percent. Of the five Hornets currently making the big guaranteed money, Zeller is the one who fits as well in a rebuild as an effort to win now.