The Charlotte Hornets are stuck between two diverging paths, neither of which lead to short-term contention and only one of which leads to any semblance of long-term success. There are a multitude of bad contracts on their books – every single active contract for more than $10 million a year is for a player who hasn’t and likely won’t provide enough value to outweigh the cost – which will make it difficult for them to contend in the immediate future. They have a number of young players on the roster, but none that look to be stars around which they can build. Their best player is about to hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career and has earned the right to more than $221 million over the next five years, should the Hornets and Kemba Walker come to an agreement on a Designated Veteran Player Contract for the full max, beginning at a maximum of 35 percent of the 2019-20 salary cap.
All indications are that Walker and the Hornets are mutually interested in bringing him back and making him a lifelong face of the franchise. It’s not something that is often discussed in a culture where RINGZZZ dominates so much of the coverage surrounding the league, but there’s real value for the Hornets, their fans, and Walker himself in Walker being the face of the franchise and playing out his entire career in Charlotte. It’s also not a foregone conclusion that Walker will seek the full $221 million he can get from the Hornets; he may be willing to give the team a break out of loyalty and the understanding that 1. the amount of money he will make is life- and generation-changing no matter what; and 2. it’s still going to be more than other teams can give him, with the eight percent raises, the fifth year, and the face that Charlotte can offer more than 30 percent of the cap, while any other team is maxed out at a four-year offer at 30 percent of the cap with 5 percent raises.
For a team that has historically been allergic to the luxury tax, a new supermax contract for Walker would put the Hornets in some difficulty financially. As things stand, they would push into the tax by $8.4 million with Walker at the full $38.15 million for next season, and that only includes them having 13 players under contract. Add in a couple of veteran’s minimums and they’re up to $11.65 million over the tax. Paying the tax for a contender is one thing, though it’s not even clear that owner Michael Jordan would be willing to do that, but shelling out that sort of money for essentially the same team as last year, a team that couldn’t even make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference and is nowhere near contention for the second round, seems like a particularly poor idea.
Paying the tax would be a short-term concern for the Hornets, as Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are all on expiring contracts and Nicolas Batum and Cody Zeller will be free agents in 2021. With Walker in the fold, they’d be cash-strapped for a year or two, but then they’d get back a lot of flexibility next summer and the summer after to add to their team. Is that short-term financial pain worth the long-term flexibility and the ability to retain Walker’s services? The issue with that is that Walker will be 31 by that time and the history of smaller point guards doesn’t exactly bode well for the upcoming aging process for him. He’s an all-world pull-up shooter, but as it becomes more difficult to create space for that shot against younger defenders, his on-court value may plummet, putting another onerous contract on Charlotte’s books.
Getting out of the tax this year would require the Hornets to move one of those larger contracts. In terms of on-court impact, moving on from Biyombo’s $17 million is the easy choice, as replacing him with a minimum backup center might even be an upgrade on the floor. Trading Biyombo is going to be very difficult and would likely require a first-round pick, given the relative value of a first-rounder these days. Biyombo’s entire salary should be treated as dead money to any receiving team, so they’d need to be strongly compensated for using $17 million of their space on him. They have all of their own firsts, starting with No. 12 this season, but have no other firsts to attach to a Biyombo trade. Stretching that $17 million over three seasons is another option and would get them within range of ducking the tax, depending on how they choose to handle those last two roster spots.
Trading one of Batum, Williams, Zeller, and Kidd-Gilchrist could work as well, but all of those players are rotation guys at a minimum, meaning that moving their contracts would make the team materially worse. If they’re bringing back Walker and trying to capitalize on his best years, that doesn’t seem to make a ton of sense. Perhaps they could move one of their expiring contracts for a player who has a longer contract but a lower annual value, which would keep the team as competitive as possible while shedding some salary.
Cutting ties with Kidd-Gilchrist makes the most sense of that group, as he’s shown very little to indicate that he’s going to be a positive offensive player at any point in his career. His offensive weaknesses limit him to a bench role, but there may be another team out there willing to take on his salary, using the logic that they think they can fix his jumper or they just want a defender at the Forward position off the bench. They don’t necessarily have another player on the roster to replace him directly, but they can use one of a few other players to fill out the rotation, including whomever they draft at No. 12 this year.
They have other holes on the roster, though their tax situation may preclude them from filling those. Backup point guard is going to be an issue, as it’s hard to imagine that they’ll pick up Tony Parker’s $5.25 million guarantee for next season. That would push them even deeper into the tax and they may be able to get a minimum backup point guard to split minutes with Devonte’ Graham. Starting positions will have to be filled at the 2 and the 5, as Malik Monk hasn’t shown enough from an efficiency perspective to step into the starting lineup full-time and Cody Zeller is nearly guaranteed to miss 30 games a season. They can fill in Zeller’s minutes with a combination of Biyombo and Willy Hernangomez, but that hurts their competitiveness considerably.
Without another team significantly overvaluing one or more of their bad contracts, there’s just no path to Charlotte retaining Walker, making the necessary upgrades to the roster to really compete in the first round of the playoffs, and not blow through a ton of Michael Jordan’s cash.
The other side of this coin is to let Walker leave, rip that band-aid off, and dive headfirst into a multi-year rebuild. That path has been rejected time and time again by Jordan and it’s hard to imagine that newly-hired President of Basketball Operations Mitch Kupchak is interested in that sort of rebuild process. It may be what’s best for the franchise over the long haul, but that doesn’t mean that the ownership group and front office have the stomach for what would be a very ugly few years in Charlotte. Bottoming out has also been made more difficult with the new lottery reform, opening up the possibility that the team could keep Walker, miss the playoffs again next year, and have a better chance of jumping up and grabbing a true difference maker. While that’s a long shot, it would allow the Hornets to have their cake and eat it too, and is more likely than it would have been under the previous lottery system.
There are very few positives to take away from Charlotte’s current situation. They’re going to bring back mostly the same team, just a lot more expensive, if Walker decides to sign the supermax, and they still won’t be anywhere near competing for the second round of the playoffs. Using the supermax to retain Walker will see that contract become a massive liability by the time they have the financial flexibility to really build around him in free agency and having him on the team for the next two years just lowers their chances of hitting on a star in the draft. They have a number of young players who are interesting to varying degrees – Miles Bridges had a strong rookie season and I liked what I saw from Dwayne Bacon in his short stretches – but nobody on a rookie or minimum contract is set up to be the next face of the franchise, whether Walker is around or not. Throw in ownership’s unwillingness to pay the tax and desire to be as competitive as possible and the Hornets are in perhaps the worst situation in the league.