Charlotte Hornets

Exclusive: Hornets talk losing Kemba Walker, why they won’t rebuild with free agents

Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak won’t let “rebuild” slip from his lips.

“Transition” is the word he prefers to describe his team’s life without Kemba Walker.

But rebuild, the Hornets must. And rebuild, they will.

“If there is a master plan, it is to transition from a team built around a superstar to a team built around our young players and a style of play,” Kupchak said Wednesday.

Coach James Borrego is under no special obligation to play the five veterans carried over from last season who combine to make $85 million in 2019-20. He is emphatic that guaranteed salaries aren’t his problem when training camp opens Oct. 1.

“I’m not going to coach a team based on contracts, what you’re making, where you were drafted, if you were drafted,” Borrego said. “To me, that’s not my job. My job is to get the most out of them, whether they were drafted or not drafted.”

In an exclusive interview with the Observer, Kupchak and Borrego discussed a summer of abrupt change that started with the franchise’s all-time scorer, Walker, leaving for the Boston Celtics. That caused Kupchak to pursue Terry Rozier, a signing that required Boston’s assistance via a sign-and-trade.

The pivot is in motion: The Hornets won eight of their last 12 games last season after turning minutes over to young guys Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges and Devonte Graham. Expensive veterans such as Nic Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will get a fair chance to compete, but they’ve already been informed the agenda is youth and development.

“More than ever, these young guys are going to get a crack at minutes,” Borrego said.

“We’re not going to have draft picks on our bench who are just sitting there. If they’re not playing meaningful minutes for us in Charlotte, I promise you they will be playing minutes in Greensboro” with the Hornets’ G-League Swarm.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Kupchak and Borrego revealed new details on Walker’s departure, why Walker wasn’t traded before reaching free agency, the plan for lottery-pick PJ Washington, and an overall strategy that values drafting-and-development over free agency.

Losing Kemba

Despite Kupchak saying in April that the Hornets would do “everything we can” to re-sign Walker, the Hornets’ offer was about $160 million over five years — roughly $60 million less than the most Walker was eligible for once he qualified for a “supermax” contract that only Charlotte could offer.

Kupchak told the Observer the Hornets were somewhat blindsided by Walker making All-NBA, and thus becoming supermax-eligible. He said while Walker didn’t demand the full supermax, the wide gap between what the Hornets could justify paying and Walker’s growing status changed the dynamic.

Offering Walker more would have put the Hornets in danger of paying luxury tax, something owner Michael Jordan would not approve for a team not equipped to advance deep in the playoffs. Despite Walker making three consecutive All-Star appearances, the Hornets made the playoff only twice in his eight seasons, none since 2016.

“We had great years with him, and we didn’t get into the playoffs,” Kupchak said. “What makes us think that next year (would) be different?”

“I’ve got to step back and look at where we’ve been and where we’re going. Chart out a course that gives us the best chance to build something that is sustainable for more than a year or two.”

If all that was the case, then why let this play out to unrestricted free-agency? Kupchak said he believed the chances of re-signing Walker were good at the February trade deadline, and what teams offered to trade for Walker was not head-turning.

“Almost every offer revolved around draft picks. It was always lottery-protected.,” Kupchak said. “When you do something like that, you’re saying you’re going to draft a player in the teens, we don’t know how good he’s going to be, and it’s going to take three or four years (to realize value). We wanted to keep Kemba — under the right conditions.”

That led to Plan B: Offering a three-year, $57 million contract to Rozier, who made just 30 starts in his previous four NBA seasons. That required the Celtics’ assistance in a sign-and-trade, for which Boston will receive a second-round pick from the Hornets.

There was speculation around the NBA the Hornets overpaid for Rozier. What do they like enough to pay him an average of $19 million through 2022?

“He’s going to set the tone for us as a leader, as a point guard, as a competitor every single night,” Borrego said.

“He competes on both sides of the ball. He’s a high-level defender. Offensively, I’ve got to get him more comfortable right now in our system. He’s got a lot to prove — the first time he’s out there as a starting point guard.”

Pivot to youth

Rozier became the Hornets’ only significant veteran acquisition this summer. Kupchak allowed a trade exception from the Dwight Howard deal to expire in early July and didn’t use the full mid-level exception (worth about $9.2 million) to sign a free agent.

“We didn’t even contemplate using it,” Kupchak told the Observer. “There is nobody we could have signed with that mid-level who would have changed the course of this organization.”

Get used to that, Kupchak said. Even with the Hornets’ payroll obligations plummeting after next season, he doesn’t see free-agency as this franchise’s solution.

“Free-agent signings, for us, are not something we need to concentrate on going forward. We’re not going to get the ‘Big Fish.’ ” Kupchak said. “We have to create a culture where those kinds of players would want to come here. And, quite frankly, we’re not there yet.

“For us to hoard cap room (for that purpose) is not in the best interest of the organization.”

Kupchak said the plan is more to re-sign young prospects — Bacon, for instance — and use cap room to facilitate trades. All of that revolves around the young guys — notably Washington, Bacon, Bridges, Graham, Malik Monk and Willy Hernangomez — progressing with an investment of playing time.

Washington, the 12th overall pick in June, is an interesting example. His natural NBA position is power forward, where Borrego plans to play Bridges and also where veteran Marvin Williams plays. But one way or another, Borrego is determined to get Washington, a 6-foot-7 forward out of Kentucky, time.

“We need PJ to play some valuable, heavy minutes this season. That could be in Charlotte, that could be in Greensboro,” Borrego said. “PJ will dictate that (with his performance) in how we start the season. He could spend a number of games early in Greensboro, or be with the Hornets the entire season.”

Bacon and Graham benefited greatly last season from time with the Swarm, returning from Greensboro as rotation players late in the season. Kupchak and Borrego are committed to using the Swarm that much more this season.

“There is a connotation that you’re being ‘sent down’ to the G-League. You’re not being sent down, you’re being transitioned to a place where you can play,” Kupchak described.

“Young players want to play, and in the beginning of last season, (Bacon and Graham) didn’t play for us. To their credit, they realized they were getting out of shape and they wanted to play. Not every player is like that.”

The end game?

When Kupchak replaced Rich Cho 17 months ago, he told Jordan this roster could make the playoffs in the East. It missed that goal last season by one win. Now a year away from cap relief, Kupchak and Borrego set about a rebuild, even if that’s not in the GM’s vocabulary.

“By and large, we’re talking about building something through the draft and savvy trades. Hopefully make good decisions and not get in a spot where we’re capped-out or have no youth and too many players who might be good enough to get you into the playoffs, but not advance,” Kupchak said.

“I can’t say, ‘We’re going to be in the playoffs next year or the year after.’ I don’t know ... I do know what’s under our control. And that’s our focus going forward.”