For the Hornets, patience is a virtue, and the team will benefit from Mitch Kupchak electing to display it in advance of the trade deadline.
The Charlotte Hornets’ fanbase, understandably, was a little restless going into Thursday’s trade deadline. The team is going nowhere, just as it had in the previous seasons under Steve Clifford, with a low seed and a first-round playoff exit likely only because the bottom of the East is worse than the previous years. Even worse, the countdown to Kemba Walker’s free agency is ticking and when that clock hits zero, they have to have the money to sign him while also satisfying ownership’s seemingly absolute mandate not to cross into luxury tax territory. And that money is money they don’t currently have should Walker draw the full 30% of the salary cap maximum that he could easily demand. The Hornets needed to find a way to get better, younger, and cheaper all at the same time, and in the NBA, that tends to be impossible.
But that didn’t stop the Hornets from trying. They were heavily rumored to be a Marc Gasol destination, even though the Raptors took the final prize on that one. They were in discussions for Harrison Barnes, even though the Kings absorbed him at very little cost. They looked for a Frank Kaminsky buyer but found no one. They’ve been linked to Marcin Gortat, Andre Drummond, and further back from the deadline, Bradley Beal. And that doesn’t even include the mysterious “small deal” that Rod Boone of The Athletic referenced as the deadline closed in. They talked a lot, and they listened a lot, but ultimately, no deal made sense at the asking price sent to them.
Think, for a second, about what a hypothetical trade with the Grizzlies for Marc Gasol looks like. You have to match salaries, which means finding a total of $19.1 million in salary on the Hornets’ side to produce a legal trade. Except the Hornets don’t have $5 million in space below the luxury tax threshold, they only have $3.4 million, so the actual amount they have to send out is closer to $20.7 million. Looking down the Hornets’ salary options, that either means finding a way to persuade the Grizzlies to take on Nic Batum’s albatross of a contract, or sending Bismack Biyombo. Given that Gasol would make Biyombo the fifth-best center on the Hornets’ roster, Biyombo makes significantly more sense than paying a premium to offload Batum.
But then, you have to match talent. The Hornets should hopefully know that giving up Malik Monk or Miles Bridges is a non-negotiable deal-breaker. Frank Kaminsky can be included but is a buyout candidate with the deadline having lapsed. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was what was reported in some of the iterations of the trade, but dealing the best power forward on your roster, as a team that has no depth at the power forward, is generally inadvisable, to the point that swapping Kidd-Gilchrist for Gasol probably doesn’t even make the Hornets better despite the difference in the two of them as players simply because of how bad it would make the Hornet’s power forward position. Hernangomez works, but receiving three centers in a trade doesn’t really make sense, and trades with Biyombo and Hernangomez at their core need another much larger salary to keep the Hornets under the luxury tax. So you’re left with only guys like Dwayne Bacon or Devonte’ Graham.
And to be fair, if Memphis wanted, they could’ve had an offer of Biyombo, Kaminsky, Bacon, potentially Graham, and a first. Until you actually check the math on it. It does in fact work under the collective bargaining agreement. And technically, it leaves the Hornets outside of luxury tax territory. The only problem is, it also leaves the Hornets with either 11 or 12 guys, and in the process of signing back to 14 players as required by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, they’d cross the luxury tax threshold and violate the mandate given to them by ownership. And then there’s that whole issue of whether Memphis takes that. They should, but there’s no way to know how they value the current talent of Jonas Valanciunas relative to the potential of the Charlotte offer. By the end of it, there’s simply no way to build a trade for both teams that makes sense for Marc Gasol out of the Hornets’ roster.
That’s the peril for a roster as unbalanced as the Hornets. When a roster is extremely thin in an area or overloaded in another, it’s difficult to make trades that work for both sides. It can be a trait, like defense, or shooting, or a position, like forward, or center, or even an age, like how the Hornets have only a few players under the age of 25. Or contracts. Contracts are an obvious huge impediment to trades because the Hornets have only two contracts that cost between $4-12 million this year, and some large and unappealing ones in Biyombo and Batum. That doesn’t just deter the Marc Gasol trade, but everything the Hornets could take part in. They need pieces that fit cleanly into what they need and can’t take pieces that don’t, and not every team that they can trade with can make a trade with only pieces that fit cleanly. When those don’t line up, the result is a trade that favors one team more sharply than the other, and trades like that have not been historically beneficial for the Hornets.
That same disconnect also led to trading a 2016 first-round pick for Marco Belinelli, an overpay for a player coming off the worst year of his career, all because the Hornets needed shooting. That disconnect also led to the Miles Plumlee trade. The Hornets had only a few pieces they could actually move, and needed players with a specific skill set, so they went out and got one at the cost of only a couple of expirings. Those same two players, then, after that disconnect, still left the team without a rim protector, so the Hornets traded them for Dwight Howard. Who created yet another disconnect because his salary was so outrageously large, and was swapped for Bismack Biyombo. All of those trades, where the Hornets simply felt like they had to make a move, simply deepened the situation that the Hornets now find themselves in. They kept shorting themselves over and over just to patch a hole.
Which is why Mitch Kupchak deserves praise for ending that cycle and simply being patient. He didn’t rush out and overpay for players that are on huge deals. He didn’t make a move for the sake of making a move. He didn’t make a move that sacrifices the future in order to win now just because it might change the chances of Kemba Walker re-signing this summer. He scouted the market thoroughly, making calls to anyone and everyone seemingly, and when no good offer came across the table, he sat still. It’s what he was brought in to do, it’s what his apparent plan for this season has always been as the bad contracts the Hornets have appreciate in value back towards zero, and it’s what he went out and did.
That’s not saying his job is done. He still doesn’t have the money to pay Kemba Walker this summer as he likely wants to, and even after he pays Walker the Hornets will likely lose Jeremy Lamb, who has been one of the best players on the roster following a breakout season in 2017-18. He’s likely to have to either find a trade destination at the draft for Bismack Biyombo or waive and stretch him, eating long term salary over a couple of million on Kemba Walker’s deal and hurting the ability to add talent in the future. And at that point, the team still won’t be talented, though it will have added some younger talent through three draft picks this year and potentially bringing over last year’s No. 55 selection Arnoldas Kulboka.
But overall, even if it leaves some decisions for a later date, the Hornets should be happy with the organization showing patience, because it’s the only thing that can get them out of the mess they’re in. It hurts, and the internet isn’t exactly known for its patience, but sitting still was the right decision, and that’s something fans should be confident in for the first time in a long time.