Charlotte Hornets

Mailbag: How can Charlotte Hornets break out of salary-cap jail?

Charlotte Hornets fans would love a trade that would let this team out of salary-cap jail.

Trades have historically been what the Hornets’ front office does best, but don’t expect a miracle. They already are responsible for $94 million in guaranteed contracts for next season, and that’s before they try to re-sign unrestricted free agents Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb.

That topic — the possibility of a transformational trade — came up multiple times in your Hornets questions this week:

Q. Can you tell me a plausible scenario where the Hornets dump a bad contract, by giving up a first-round pick, to free up salary-cap space and acquire another good player?

A. I would detach from the expectation that signing other teams’ free agents will be a major part of fixing the Hornets’ roster any time soon. You are correct that the Hornets would likely need to attach a first-round pick to a trade to discard a problematic contract, but likely that would be to acquire another veteran, not to get under the 2019-20 salary cap.

It’s not a realistic goal to think the Hornets can get below the projected salary cap of about $109 million for next season unless Walker and Lamb both sign elsewhere, and then you’re in rebuild mode. Signing free agents this coming summer will almost certainly have to come via exceptions while the Hornets are over the cap.

Q. What could the Hornets realistically get in trade for two first-round picks, a bad contract and Malik Monk?

A. The name that always floats around is power forward Kevin Love, but that would entail taking on a monstrous contract from the Cleveland Cavaliers — approximately $120 million over the next four seasons — for a player who has already played 11 NBA seasons. I can’t imagine why the Hornets would acquire Love’s contract unless it guaranteed Walker staying, and even then, it would be a tough call.

The other thing that comes to mind with this question is Monk’s trade value. I don’t know how to gauge with any precision. He is now two years removed from being the 11th overall pick in the 2017 draft. He is still more potential than production. He ended the season on the fringe of the rotation and needs to get stronger and heavier over the summer.

Monk is still a good athlete with scoring skills and playing on an affordable rookie-scale contract. But his value as a commodity right now is limited.

Q. I would imagine all those expiring contracts are packaged (in trade) for a player. But who?

A. The Hornets have three players on sizable salaries entering the last season on their contracts: Bismack Biyombo ($17 million next season), Marvin Williams ($15 million) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist ($13 million). As you implied, a player going into his final season tends to have trade value because it limits the acquiring team’s liability. However, I wouldn’t say it’s likely the Hornets will find a deal that combines two or more of those salaries to balance off a big salary on another team. Possible, but not likely.

Of those three, I’d guess Williams is the most tradeable. Between his defense and his 3-point shooting, he’d be an asset to a contender. Also, he’s said repeatedly he’s not hung up on the idea of whether he starts or plays off the bench at this stage of his career

Q. Why not trade down for extra picks?

A. It’s possible, but I’d warn you that trading one high pick for multiple lower picks is typically more successful in the NFL than the NBA. That’s partially about the difference in the two sports — football with 22 starters, basketball with five. Sure, you need depth in basketball, but quality tends to trump quantity in the NBA draft.

Also, the Hornets’ problem is more a lack of a dynamic complement to Walker than a lack of depth. The second unit played pretty well last season.

Q. If Kemba let the Hornets know before the draft that he has no intention of staying, do they draft the best point guard available or hope to grab a cheap point guard in free-agency?

A. I think it’s highly unlikely Walker would eliminate re-signing with the Hornets from his options before free agency even begins on July 1. The draft is June 20. In all likelihood, general manager Mitch Kupchak will make those draft picks (one in the first round and two in the second round) without knowing Walker’s intentions. It’s possible he won’t have formed intentions by then.

I do think it makes sense to draft a point guard. I thought keeping Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, rather than trading his draft rights to the Los Angeles Clippers, made sense last June. If somehow North Carolina’s Coby White lasts to when the Hornets select, he’d be a good investment.

Q. If Kemba leaves, who do you think will be the starting point guard next season? Devonte Graham or a free agent?

A. I think Graham had a fine rookie season, particularly for a guy drafted in the second round. He needs to be a better shooter, but he’s shown he has the skills and judgment to be an NBA point guard. Whether he ends up a starter or a backup is an open question, but if Walker leaves and the Hornets go into rebuild mode, it only makes sense to invest minutes in Graham’s development, as coach James Borrego already did over last season’s final dozen games.

I would take it for granted that if Walker leaves, it would likely mean Tony Parker isn’t back, either. The Hornets would certainly bring in one or more veteran point guards. But that doesn’t preclude developing Graham.

Q. What do you think Lamb will make in his next contract?

A. I recently asked that question of a front-office executive (not with the Hornets) and an agent. In separate conversations, each one projected Lamb could make $12 million per season or more on the open market.

The past two seasons have been really good for shooting guard Lamb heading into this unrestricted free agency. He’s a proven scorer who has hit big shots to decide games. He’s effective either as a starter or off the bench. You can plug all that into multiple situations and project success.

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