Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak inherited a mess of a salary cap when he was hired in April: There were too many aging veterans with lucrative, multiseason guarantees, and the team’s one All-Star, Kemba Walker, a year from free agency.
Kupchak created some short-term flexibility under the NBA’s luxury-tax threshold when he traded center Dwight Howard to the Brooklyn Nets. But the salary obligation Kupchak took back – Timofey Mozgov, who became a similarly expensive Bismack Biyombo – added $17 million to the 2019-20 payroll.
How long before the Hornets have a chance to create some sizable payroll flexibility? That was one of our readers’ questions for this mailbag column:
Q. How many more years are the Hornets in salary-cap hell?
A. Cap hell next season and cap purgatory the following season. They will be close enough to the luxury-tax threshold after the Tony Parker signing that doing more with the roster will be challenging, though certainly not impossible, and still avoid the tax.
In the summer of 2019, anything the Hornets do is contingent on whether they re-sign Kemba Walker and how much that would cost. For now, at least, the summer of 2020 could be when they’d have some significant payroll flexibility.
Q. Where do Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Frank Kaminsky fit in with this team and the style of play coach James Borrego plans to utilize?
A. You identify the two players in last season’s rotation most in jeopardy of smaller roles next season. That’s primarily because neither one is a so-called “two-way player”: Kidd-Gilchrist is a strong defender who isn’t a 3-point threat, and Kaminsky has offensive skills for a 7-footer but isn’t a strong defender.
That Borrego wants to play more up-tempo might help Kidd-Gilchrist score a little more. This is a big season for power forward-center Kaminsky before reaching restricted free agency.
Q. Is it fair to say this Hornets bench is more talented, but less experienced, than the last one, even with the addition of Parker?
A. Probably so, if Malik Monk, Willy Hernangomez and Dwayne Bacon demonstrate they are ready to play significantly more than last season. My guess is Parker will be important organizationally both when he’s playing and when he’s not, as far as relaying what Borrego wants to emphasize.
Q. Is Cody Zeller’s health paramount for a good season?
A. The word “paramount” might be too strong, but it’s certainly true that Zeller is more important next season and only played 33 games last season, primarily due to knee surgery after he tore a meniscus.
I think Zeller’s the favorite to start at center, but I also think Hernangomez is improving and that Biyombo, while overpaid, can be useful. As Kupchak has said, it could be a situation where the minutes at center fluctuate game to game based on matchups.
Q. Do you think the current roster is the roster for the majority of next season (barring injuries)?
A. Kupchak would be comfortable bringing this group to training camp without further revision, but that’s not the same as saying this is the roster the majority of next season. They made two deals during summer league, which demonstrates that regardless of the regime change, trading is in the Hornets’ DNA.
Q. Which second-year player do you see having more of an impact next season: Monk or Bacon?
A. Monk. From what I hear, one of the key questions Kupchak asked coaching candidates was how to get more return from Monk, chosen 11thoverall a year ago. That’s not to say they aren’t vested in Bacon’s development, but the situations aren’t parallel.
Q. Who have you enjoyed watching at summer league?
I’m always reluctant to draw conclusions from summer play, but he’s looked in charge and made few mistakes, which are key traits for a point guard. Considering how little the Hornets have produced from the draft’s second round in recent years, he’s cause for optimism so long as fans don’t expect immediate impact.
Q. How do you think the current front office/coach view Nic Batum?
A. I think that situation defines the difference between a coach’s job (get the most out of the roster as is) and the general manager’s job (manage the talent, the payroll and future planning). In other words, I think Borrego is focused on getting more from Batum next season and everyone is hopeful. But that wouldn’t keep Kupchak from listening to trade offers.