Who the Charlotte Hornets select 12th overall in a shallow NBA draft isn’t a make-or-break proposition.
But with everything else challenging the team — star Kemba Walker’s free-agency, a salary cap with a glut of problematic contracts, and the specter of having to pay the luxury tax — the draft is one of Charlotte’s few avenues to improve.
They don’t have the financial flexibility this summer to do much in free agency. General manager Mitch Kupchak has acknowledged that. Trades will be of limited impact because the Hornets don’t have many expendable parts that other teams would find attractive.
So it’s important they don’t miss with their three draft picks Thursday night, particularly their first-rounder at No. 12. They also hold two second-round picks, Nos. 36 and 52 overall.
Part of the mess they’re in — they haven’t qualified for the playoffs in three seasons — has resulted from shaky drafting. Two former top-11 selections, Frank Kaminsky and Malik Monk, haven’t become starters. In fact, both slipped in and out of the rotation throughout the season.
Last year’s first-rounder, Miles Bridges (No. 12 via the Los Angeles Clippers) started the last 25 games. They need similar impact this time around, whether they keep the pick or use it in a trade.
Here are four draft night paths the Hornets could take:
Kupchak confirmed Friday he has explored what it would take to trade up to a better pick in the first round. It would be very costly; the Hornets would likely have to give up Bridges or a future first-round pick, in addition to No. 12, to significantly improve draft position.
But if Charlotte needs to show Walker a reason to stay beyond money, a rookie of greater impact could make an impression.
Trade for a veteran?
The fastest way to improve the roster around Walker would be to exchange the 12th pick for a veteran contract. But that’s complicated by a payroll already with at least $98 million in guaranteed salaries and the possibility Walker’s new contract would push the Hornets past the $132 million luxury-tax threshold.
Being above the tax line at the end of next season would cost owner Michael Jordan millions and also limit ways the Hornets could maneuver to improve the roster.
The Hornets have a trade exception from dealing Dwight Howard to the Brooklyn Nets last July. That would allow the team to acquire a player making as much as $7.8 million next season without sending out comparable salary. But Kupchak said Friday it’s unlikely they will use that exception if they are in tax territory.
Trade for payroll relief?
If the Hornets are in such a salary-cap mess, might there be a way to package the 12th pick with a bad contract to lower the payroll?
There are plenty of teams with cap space. But this is a very attractive free-agent class, so teams with space would likely want to pursue signings first.
Teams with space that strike out in free agency might later be willing to take on the last season of contracts for Bismack Bismack ($17 million), Marvin Williams ($15 million) or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist ($13 million). But that sort of transaction might not make sense for another team until the end of the summer when the free-agency class is exhausted.
Just pick someone
The most likely scenario is the Hornets keeping the pick and adding a rookie. But even that is complicated by Walker and shooting guard Jeremy Lamb hitting free-agency. As Kupchak acknowledged, it’s hard to pinpoint needs when free-agency follows the draft on the NBA calendar (the opposite of the NFL).
Here’s what we do know: This draft doesn’t have a lot of point guards of first-round quality. It’s deepest at shooting guard and small forward, and it offers a decent class of big men. Kupchak and coach James Borrego have both said interior defense was a weakness last season.
So how about drafting a rim-protecting big man? If the draft breaks perfectly for the Hornets, Texas center Jaxson Hayes would be around at No. 12. If not, how about Gonzaga power forward Brandon Clarke. Those guys’ profiles don’t scream “star,” but after the first three or four picks, that’s what this draft is.