Allow me to vent about basketball for a bit.
The Charlotte Hornets have lost Kemba Walker to the Boston Celtics, who will give him the maximum 4-year, $140 million contract. He deserves the contract, having made the All-Star team 3 straight years and being named All-NBA third team this year. Giving Walker that much money would have pushed the Hornets over the luxury tax line, incurring stiff penalties that also include less revenue-sharing payouts, limits on salary and trade exemptions, and of course the straight-up fine for exceeding that tax line. One might be willing to do that if signing Walker was the last piece that made you a championship contender. But for the Hornets, it probably only meant winning 42 games next year instead of the 39 they won last year.
Why were they so close to the tax line? Blame the 2016 NBA TV contracts. In 2016, the NBA agreed to new broadcast contracts with ESPN and TNT that drastically increased the league’s revenue. The 2015-16 salary cap of $70 million increased to $94.1 million. The Hornets, having just won 48 games and made the playoffs for only the second time in the 12 years since the NBA returned to Charlotte, were in a jam. Key players Nic Batum, Jeremy Lin, Marvin Williams, and Al Jefferson were unrestricted free agents, and 4th-year pro Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the #2 pick in 2012, was up for a contract extension. It was going to be a feeding frenzy, with just about every free agent in the league seeking the maximum dollar amount allowed under the collective bargaining agreement.
Hornets owner Michael Jordan and general manager Rich Cho were not going to re-sign everyone, even with the extra cap space. They were going to have to choose who to keep and who to let go. Ultimately they re-signed Batum and Williams and gave MKG a contract extension. All were signed to the maximum available. Jefferson signed with Indiana and Lin signed with New Jersey. Lin seemed expendable because he played the same position as emerging star Kemba Walker, and Jefferson was allowed to leave in favor of younger center Cody Zeller.
Then the wheels fell off.
There’s no way to know for sure if it was complacency or coincidence, but since signing those contracts, Batum and MKG have been shells of what they were before they got their big deals. Williams, who had been in the NBA for 11 years at that point, still played well but all that mileage on his body was beginning to break it down. The Hornets won 36, 36 and 39 games the next 3 years. After the second of those years, coach Steve Clifford’s contract was allowed to expire and James Borrego, a top assistant to revered San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, was brought in as the new coach. He at least squeezed 3 more wins out of the squad. The Hornets had also signed highly-accomplished and criminally-quirky center Dwight Howard, who washed out in 1 season in Charlotte. He was traded for Bismack Biyombo, who was drafted by the Hornets in the same draft they got Walker, but had since moved on and also got a massive contract in 2016. He is a great shot-blocker but has almost zero offensive game.
With the massive drop-off in Batum, MKG and Williams, and the severe limitations of Biyombo, the 4 of them are now set to count for well over $90 million in salary. Matching Boston’s offer to Walker would put them very close to that $132 million luxury tax line, and still leaves them without much of anything for Jeremy Lamb, who had finally established himself as a key player in the most recent season.
Mitch Kupchak, former LA Lakers player and GM, had been hired as new GM and he had hired the new coach. He came to the conclusion that the best the Hornets could do for Walker was offer him 5 years and $160 million. That’s the highest they could offer to avoid the luxury tax and still sign Lamb and another player or two that could push them up 4-5 more wins and get to the playoffs. Boston already has a playoff team and adding Walker to replace the moody, it’s-all-about-me Kyrie Irving makes them just a tad less talented and a lot more cohesive and on the same page in the locker room. Most experts say the Celtics are immediately two wins better, and perhaps more if they can sign another free agent to play center. So it was a fairly easy decision for Walker – leave $30 million on the table in exchange for being on a team in contention for a championship immediately. It’s hard to blame him, and I don’t.
In retrospect, the only way the Hornets could have avoided this disaster would have been to trade Walker, either last offseason or at the trade deadline in February. You can’t really blame the bloated contracts – we would have lost all 4 of those key players if we had not signed them to those maximum deals. And who could have predicted the play of Batum and MKG would go so far south so fast? It was just rotten timing. If the big payroll boost had come one year later, we would have signed those guys to smaller contracts and wouldn’t be in this bind. We can fault the team for not trading Walker, especially this past February. Management had to know at that point that it would be very hard to re-sign him with these contract commitments.
But now, we have to move forward. The Hornets are almost certainly going to lose Lamb, who will not get Kemba Walker money but will get a big raise with his excellent season just completed. The Hornets also declined to make an offer to backup center Frank Kaminsky.
With all this in mind, here is what the Hornets roster currently looks like:
Big Contracts / Veterans – These are the long-term players under contract, and when those contracts expire:
Marvin Williams (2020)
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (2020)
Bismack Biyombo (2020)
Nic Batum (2021)
Cody Zeller (2021)
Williams, MKG, and Biyombo combine for $45 million in salary. There is almost no chance any of them will be retained after these contracts run out. Batum makes $27 million each of the next 2 years.
2017-19 draft picks – These players have been drafted by the Hornets in the last 3 years:
Malik Monk (2017)
Dwayne Bacon (2017)
Miles Bridges (2018)
Devonte Graham (2018)
Arnoldas Kulboka (2018)
PJ Washington (2019)
Cody Martin (2019)
Jalen McDaniels (2019)
Bacon, Bridges, and Graham all show good promise, but none is expected to become a superstar. Bridges could make an All-Star team or two. Kulboka played in Europe last year and his potential is unknown, along with the 3 draftees from this year’s draft. After 2 full seasons, no one really knows how good a player Monk will be.
G League players
If you aren’t familiar, the G League is the NBA minor league. It used to be the NBA Development League (NBADL) until Gatorade bought naming rights and changed it to the NBA G League. Most G League players are not much more than bench players that can hold their own while the starters get a breather. I’m partial to Macura because he’s from Xavier, where my sister went to school.
Summer League players – Each team participates in a summer league, where their draftees and some other players can get a taste of pro ball. It is rare for more than 1 player to make the NBA roster.
Isaiah Hicks (North Carolina)
Kennedy Meeks (North Carolina)
Torin Dorn (N.C. State)
Elijah Thomas (Clemson)
Francis Alonso (UNC Greensboro)
Robert Franks (Washington State)
Greg Malinowski (Georgetown)
Josh Perkins (Gonzaga)
Kerwin Roach (Texas)
The reasonable expectation is that 12 of the 13 players under contract or recent draftees will make the team, with possibly Kulboka using up his last year of being stashed in Europe. One or two of the G League and summer league guys might make the team, depending on if the team can sign any outside free agents. The other potential restricted free agent is center Willy Hermangomez, and almost nothing has been reported on what the Hornets plan to do about him. The only true point guard on the team is Graham, with Monk occasionally playing point. Zeller is talented but very fragile; he misses big chunks of games every year with an injury. It would seem that the team would try to sign another point guard and center in free agency, though the salary cap situation means they will probably sign fringe players that make minimum salaries.
Using the assumption that the Hornets will fill their 15 roster spots with just these players, this team probably wins 15-20 games. This is a similar roster to an expansion team – a few high-priced, past-their-prime or injured veterans and a slew of untested young players. Given the limited potential of most of the draftees, we’re probably talking closer to 15 wins than 20. The 2011-12 team, which finished with the worst winning percentage of any team in NBA history, had two losing streaks of at least 20 games. The 2019-20 team will probably duplicate that. The hope is that by being historically bad for a few years, the Hornets will accumulate enough high draft picks to re-stock the team with great, young talent.
But that’s probably not going to happen. In my next post, I’ll explain why.