Cody Zeller

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Charlotte GM Mitch Kupchak: Hornets won’t build through free agency

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mitch Kupchak doesn’t see the Charlotte Hornets being major players in free agency as they attempt to build a winning franchise in the post-Kemba Walker era – at least not right away.

Instead, the second-year general manager said Monday he anticipates the Hornets will construct the roster through draft picks and “savvy trades” during the season, while compiling as many assets as possible.

“We will not be an active player” in free agency, Kupchak said. “I think we can build a culture here and get enough assets and have a promising enough future and really attract the kind of free agent you want to spend that kind of money on – but I don’t think you can do it right now.”

So in the meantime, the Hornets will give young players like Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, Devonte Graham and even rookie PJ Washington extensive playing time this season as part of their No. 1 overall goal of player development after going 39-43 last season and losing Walker, a three-time All-Star, to the Boston Celtics.

Kupchak said that will take patience, but he and owner Michael Jordan and coach James Borrego are on the same page.

Kupchak said he won’t measure this season’s success in terms of wins and losses, but rather on how the team’s younger players continue to progress.

“Win or lose, I want our players to play with energy and our coaches to coach with energy,” Kupchak said. “As the season goes on I want to see improvement. That’s how I’m looking at the season.”

Kupchak said that concept may not be easy for Borrego.

“I am hoping he is better than he was last season,” Kupchak said with a grin. “At the beginning of the season last year he took each loss really, really hard. Hopefully this year he will be able to handle the losses a little bit better.”

Borrego has yet to name a starting lineup for Wednesday night’s home opener against the Chicago Bulls. Point guard Terry Rozier and center Cody Zeller are locks to start, but the combination of the other three remains a mystery.

That lineup could include Washington, who has impressed Kupchak with his 3-point shooting in the preseason since being selected No. 12 overall earlier this year.

Originally, the Hornets planned for the former Kentucky forward to split time between Charlotte’s G League team and the NBA to gain maximum playing experience. But Kupchak said Washington has been the team’s most impressive young player during the preseason and will likely remain in Charlotte, provided he’s seeing 15-plus minutes per game.

“He does have to play, and, based on his production of late, he will play,” Kupchak said. “… He has worked on his game and has turned himself into not only a big man that can be productive down in the paint, but in our game today he can also make 3s.”

Win or lose, Kupchak expects the Hornets to use a “fast-paced style of play.”

 

Report: Hornets still view super-max-eligible Kemba Walker as top priority

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Now that he’s eligible for a super-max contract that projects to be worth about $221 million over five years, Kemba Walker called re-signing with the Hornets his priority.

The big question: Does Charlotte want him back at a huge price?

Apparently so.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The Hornets and Kemba Walker both have each other as top priorities entering July 1, league sources said.

It increasingly sounds as if Walker staying in Charlotte is a done deal. And it might be. But because he can’t sign until July, there’s still time for complications.

Even on a designated-veteran-player contract, Walker is not locked into precise terms. The deal must be five years. It must have a starting salary between 30% and 35% of the 2019-20 salary cap. But his salary can annually increase or decease up to 8% of his initial salary. The contract needn’t be fully guaranteed.

So, there’s room for negotiation. If one side pushes too hard, the other could always look around. Walker can find better teams. Charlotte can find better values.

But as Walker and the Hornets head toward a long-term contract, attention should turn toward how Charlotte will trim salary. Unless Hornets owner Michael Jordan is suddenly willing to pay the luxury tax, expect Charlotte to trade Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and/or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and/or stretch Bismack Biyombo.

Report: Hornets’ Bismack Biyombo opting in for $17 million

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A few players already made easy calls to opt in.

Bismack Biyombo might had the most obvious choice yet.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kemba Walker and the Hornets have big decisions to make about each other – especially if Walker makes an All-NBA team and qualifies for a super-max contract. Charlotte has called re-signing the star guard a top priority, but it won’t be easy. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent and courted by better teams. The Hornets are capped out and would have a tough time upgrading the roster around Walker.

If Walker re-signs, especially for the super-max, Charlotte could stretch Biyombo to get breathing room under the luxury tax. That would mean incurring a $5,666,667 cap hit each of the next three seasons.

But that’d make it even harder to escape this mess down the road.

And Hornets could also use Biyombo at center now. Cody Zeller can’t stay healthy. Frank Kaminsky and Willy Hernangomez are defensive liabilities, and Kaminsky is a free agent himself. Biyombo’s defense adds value at a position Charlotte needs depth.

However, replacement level at center is very high (part of the reason Biyombo is so overpaid relative to his production). The Hornets could sign another effective backup center far cheaper.

At least whatever the Hornets decide, Biyombo will get this money.

After All-Star glamour, Kemba Walker returning to mundane reality of carrying Hornets

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CHARLOTTE – Kemba Walker just started a basketball game alongside Stephen Curry, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. The NBA’s biggest stars came to his city. World-class entertainers performed throughout the weekend.

“It was amazing, man,” Walker said. “It was amazing.”

Walker will start his next game on the same court, but it’ll be alongside Jeremy Lamb, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller. Walker’s 27-30 Hornets will face the Wizards in a battle for a low playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. Most celebrities will have long cleared out.

Except Walker.

Walker remains as the face of the Hornets, a role he has embraced despite the franchise’s mediocrity. When his name emerged in trade talks last year, he said he’d be “devastated” to get dealt. He has made Charlotte his home and was so delighted to play host for yesterday’s All-Star game and all the accompanying festivities.

His reality here otherwise has been markedly different. In his eight seasons with the Hornets, he has never had an All-Star teammate. Not a single one.

Here’s every player in NBA history who played his first eight seasons without an All-Star teammate (seasons, including partial, with each team in parentheses):

Player Teams
Kemba Walker (2012-2019) CHA (8)
JaVale McGee (2009-2016) WAS (4), DEN (4), PHI (1), DAL (1)
David Lee (2006-2013) NYK (5), GSW (3)
Monta Ellis (2006-2013) GSW (7), MIL (2)
Ben Gordon (2005-2012) CHI (5), DET (3)
Andris Biedrins (2005-2012) GSW (8)
Zach Randolph (2002-2009) POR (6), NYK (2), LAC (1)
Eddy Curry (2002-2009) CHI (4), NYK (4)
Jamal Crawford (2001-2008) CHI (4), NYK (4)
Elton Brand (2000-2007) CHI (2), LAC (6)
Adonal Foyle (1998-2005) GSW (8)
Shareef Abdur-Rahim (1997-2004) VAN (5), ATL (3), POR (1)
Erick Dampier (1997-2004) IND (1), GSW (7)
Lamond Murray (1995-2002) LAC (5), CLE (3)
Glen Rice (1990-1997) MIA (6), CHA (2)
Grant Long (1989-1996) MIA (7), ATL (2)
Herb Williams (1982-1989) IND (8), DAL (1)
Larry Drew (1981-1988) DET (1), KCK/SAC (5), LAC (2)

Of that list, just Walker, David Lee, Elton Brand, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Glen Rice became All-Stars in their first eight seasons. Walker’s three All-Star appearances lead the group.

Just three of those players – Walker, Andris Biedrins (Warriors) and Adonal Foyle (Warriors) – spent that entire time with only one team.

So, obviously Walker is the only player in NBA history with a first eight seasons like this – All-Star himself, one team, no All-Star teammates.

I asked Walker whether he felt playing with another star was a missing piece of his career.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Walker said, pausing as if he were truly contemplating then shaking his head and shrugging. “I don’t know.”

If Walker wants to play with other stars, he’ll have an opportunity this summer as an unrestricted free agent. Some teams pursuing Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson will strike out. There will be opportunities for Walker to land with better teams. The Bronx native has poohpoohed the Knicks, but there are many other possible destinations.

There’s something to be said about staying in Charlotte, too. Walker is probably already the greatest player in Hornets history, and another contract with them could cinch it. For a player who’s relatively underpaid, a five-year max-contract projected to be worth $190 million could be quite appealing. Walker could continue to stand alone in a league where stars frequently switch teams and join forces. That probably won’t lead to championships, but that isn’t the only way to define success.

“He’s made this franchise relevant,” LeBron James said.

Still, that has translated to only two playoff appearances for Walker, both first-round losses. Charlotte landed in the lottery the last two years and has a 55% chance to return there this season, according to 538. The Hornets are capped out with unappealing contracts, so significant progress soon seems unlikely.

But with All-Star Weekend behind him, the last All-Star left in Charlotte is focused on a stretch run with the Hornets.

“That’s what we do,” Walker said. “We play basketball. And for us, if we really want to make a push, we’ve just got to be locked in. So, I’ll try to my best to get some rest, recover a little bit from this weekend and keep it going.”

Kemba Walker feels love from Charlotte fans, returns it All-Star Weekend

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Stephen Curry was only a few podiums away. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid were elsewhere on the court and could be seen in flashes on the big screen above. Some of the biggest stars in the basketball universe were floating around. Then the chant broke out from the stands.

KEM-BA WALK-ER. KEM-BA WALK-ER

In Charlotte, Kemba Walker is as beloved as any of them. Maybe more.

Walker raised his arm and acknowledged the chanting fans with a smile. The love is mutual.

While All-Star weekend in Charlotte has been a triumphant homecoming for Stephen Curry and a celebration of the Curry family — who Commissioner Adam Silver called the “first family of Charlotte” — there also is love for the slightly undersized point guard who was drafted by Charlotte, adopted the town, and has become its biggest NBA star and ambassador.

“The fan support has been A1, which is how it is each and every day for me,” Walker said. “For the fans, I’m happy they have this opportunity, I’m happy we got this event here. I think we deserved it.”

Walker, a three-time All-Star, said he and the city have been taking in everything around All-Star weekend — the concerts, parties, pop-up stores and more — and savoring it. Walker competed in Saturday night’s Three-Point Contest (although it was not his best outing). He admitted to being tired because of the fast pace of everything in a city that usually moves a little bit slower, but that and a little more traffic were his only complaints. And minor ones at that.

“I’m just happy to be home, honestly,” Walker said. “Excited to welcome people into the city — I’ve been getting a lot of good feedback about the city. Like today, a lot of guys have been telling me it’s their first time in Charlotte, they didn’t know how cool it was, so I was really excited to hear that.”

Walker grew up in a very different world, the Bronx in New York. However, his story of not having a lot of money — spending his days after school at the Boys and Girls Club — and having to work hard has resonated with the city and its residents.

So has his loyalty. Walker has not tried to push his way out the door despite the franchise not putting players around him who can win consistently. (Walker is a free agent this summer and will have options, although the Hornets want to re-sign him and will break the bank to do so, and Walker has professed his love for the city and sounded like a guy who wants to re-sign.)

This season’s Charlotte team is a good example of what Walker faces. It feels like Walker against the world — the team is 6.2 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits, mostly because the offense falls apart. The team’s second best player is Jeremy Lamb. Or maybe Cody Zeller. Walker has pushed Charlotte to a 27-30 record this season, good enough for seventh in the East at the All-Star break, but just half a game ahead on nine-seed Miami and one up on surging Orlando. Charlotte also has the toughest remaining schedule in the East over its final 25 games, and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 45 percent chance to make the playoffs.

“Hopefully my teammates are getting some rest now, because when this weekend is over we need to make a strong, strong push,” Walker said of the team’s playoff drive. “We have a pretty tough schedule.”

But that’s for next week.

For the remainder of this weekend, Walker — and his mother — are around and just trying to soak it all in. He admitted it’s been surreal to be named an All-Star starter the season the game is in Charlotte, and he wants to make sure those fans who love him and chant his name get a show.

“I’m going to enjoy it, but I’m definitely going to go out there and compete and try to get a win,” Walker said. “Put on a show for the fans.”