Unlike a lot of teams with their level of payroll, the Charlotte Hornets seem to have been operating under a “no luxury tax, no matter what” policy since Michael Jordan took over as majority owner. This gives new general manager Mitch Kupchak a very tight rope on which to walk; the Hornets already have $119.6 million in salaries for next season and another $3.3 million coming in with the 11th overall pick on June 21. The luxury tax threshold is currently projected at $123 million, which will put them just a hair over $75,000 away from the tax before free agency even opens on July 1. Any signing would cost them at least $832k, which would put them into the tax. It’s possible that Kupchak will have a little bit more of a leash considering his relationship with Jordan, their UNC connection, and the possibility of losing Kemba Walker in 2019 if they don’t appease him, but until there’s evidence to the contrary, assuming the $123 million luxury tax line is essentially a hard cap on the Hornets’ team salary is a fair bet.
Charlotte has two free agents from last year’s team in Michael Carter-Williams and Treveon Graham. Carter-Williams signed a one-year prove-it deal last summer, but the only thing he proved is that he barely belongs in the league and certainly shouldn’t be in an everyday rotation for a team at this point. Career lows across the board for Carter-Williams would seem to guarantee that he won’t be back in Charlotte, though it’s possible they do take him back if the rest of the point guard market passes on their offers.
Graham is a more interesting case because he’s actually a rotation-level player. On the minimum during his two years in Charlotte, he’ll be a restricted free agent (assuming the Hornets tender a qualifying offer of $1.7 million, which should be a no-brainer), giving them the right to match any offer he gets from another team. A very low-usage, high-efficiency offensive player, Graham operates almost entirely out of spot-up situations; almost half of his total possessions used last season were spot-ups, according to Synergy. The majority of those were catch-and-shoot three-pointers, where he excelled to the tune of 1.19 points per possession. Graham’s offensive game is limited due to his ball handling, or lack thereof, so even though he shot north of 41 percent from deep last year, he only took 97 attempts because he can’t shoot on the move and doesn’t bring any other offensive skills to the table, so teams can hug up on him to take him out of plays. Defensively, he’s strong on the perimeter and even played some power forward for the Hornets last season, though that was more in desperation than anything tactical outgoing head coach Steve Clifford was doing. Charlotte was awful with him on the court last season, though perhaps that had more to do with his teammates than anything—he only played about 43 percent of his possessions with Walker and the dropoff from Walker to Carter-Williams is about as wide as the Pacific Ocean.
The Hornets do hold one non-guaranteed contract: point guard Julyan Stone’s $1.7 million is non-guaranteed until August 1, giving them time to assess the market and open up that amount below the tax if necessary. His number might be a perfect fit for Graham, who could get stuck out in the cold in restricted free agency and have to come back either on a multi-year minimum deal or by signing the $1.7 million qualifying offer.
Theoretically, the Hornets would have part of their Mid-Level Exception to add to their team, but given their proximity to the tax and Jordan’s unwillingness to spend over it, it’s exceedingly unlikely that they’ll use it to bring in anybody of value, unless they’re able to get off one of their bigger contracts, whether it’s the multi-year deals of Marvin Williams or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Dwight Howard’s expiring contract. One way or another, Howard probably won’t make it to the end of the year in a Hornets’ uniform; they’ll either trade him on another unsuspecting team that believes they can revive his career or buy him out.
Charlotte has a pair of extension candidates: Frank Kaminsky, who will finish his rookie-scale contract in 2018-19 and thus is up for an extension through October, and Jeremy Lamb, who could sign a veteran extension any time before the end of the 2018-19 league year. Given that both the general manager and coach are brand new to the team and did not draft nor develop Kaminsky, giving him a long-term extension is unlikely at best, unless he were to be willing to take a deal in line with the one he is about to finish. A similar thought could be prescribed to Lamb, who will make $7.5 million in 2018-19 and could be up for an extension for up to four additional years and about an extra $43 million. However, both players would be more valuable with a future commitment from Walker and since that won’t come until next summer, an extension for either guy feels out of reach.
The Hornets’ offseason (and regular season) will be defined by the “will they won’t they” when it comes to trading Walker. On one hand, losing him for nothing in July 2019 is unappealing, but he’s previously expressed loyalty to the city and franchise when his name popped up in trade rumors this past February. There’s a world in which he re-ups with Charlotte even if the team doesn’t even make the playoffs, but there will be many suitors for his services on both the trade market and in free agency.
Because of their financial constraints, the 2018-19 Charlotte Hornets will look awfully similar to the 2017-18 team. Adding another lottery pick to the fray could spice things up, especially if the right player falls out of the top ten, but the majority of the improvement will have to come from within, from guys like Kaminsky and Malik Monk. There simply isn’t a clear way to add to the team without subtracting off the top, which will either take away from the team’s ability to compete or cost them future assets they won’t want to spend unless they know that Walker will be back long-term. As tough as it would be, looking to trade Walker and a bad contract or two and picking up any future picks or young players might be the best path for the Hornets and one that Kupchak may be able to afford, depending on the vision upon which he and Jordan agreed when he signed with the team.
30 Teams in 30 Days takes you through every team’s thinking heading into the offseason, from evaluating their own personnel to dealing with their cap situation. This is the second installment, covering the Charlotte Hornets. You can find Charlotte’s full cap sheet here.