This summer the Hornets made a series of moves to maintain contenders for a mid-tier seed in the Eastern Conference in acquiring Dwight Howard, and one of the steals of draft night in adding dynamic shooter from Kentucky, Malik Monk. In free agency, the front office worked quickly in adding backup point guard Michael Carter Williams by using part of their Mid-Level Exception. In this piece, I assess the team’s future and options the front office has for crafting a roster that can continue to contend for a playoff seed in the east.
The first major move of the Hornets offseason was the acquisition of Dwight Howard. The Hornets sent Miles Plumlee and his $12.5 Million through 2020 and Marco Belinelli and his deal through 2017-18 worth just a hair above $6.6 Million. This move was practically a swapping of bad contracts, Howard’s being one year less than Plumlee’s, and a filler to balance out the salaries of the deal. For the Hornets, it clears up cap space ($12.5 Million) in the 2019 offseason when Kemba Walker becomes an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.
The addition of Michael Carter Williams on a one year deal obviously doesn’t hamper future flexibility. It did eat away at some of the Hornets Mid-Level Exception (MLE) along with the $815,615 rookie minimum given to Dwayne Bacon after a strong summer league performance. Under the CBA, second round picks must be signed using the teams' cap space or an available exception. Teams will often use part of an exception on a three-year deal rather than a two-year minimum due to the fact that the team will have the player's bird rights at the end of the three-year deal. Bacon’s deal is structured as a three-year deal, the second year non-guaranteed, with a team option for the third year. This sets up Bacon to head into restricted free agency in the summer of 2020.
The rest of the 2017 offseason includes decisions by August 1st on whether to guarantee Johnny O’Bryant and Briante Weber’s contracts for the 2017-18. Both contracts are for the minimum and if both are guaranteed will be off the books after the 2017-18 season. If both contracts are picked up the team will remain under the luxury tax, this would also fill the roster to 14 players allowing one more NBA contract and two more Two-Way contract slots available. Treveon Graham also has a guaranteed date during the 2017-18 season on January 10th. The Hornets still have the full Bi-Annual exception worth $3,290,000 to spend the rest of free agency.
The summer of 2018 brings another offseason where the Hornets are over the salary cap. With salaries totaling $116,377,233, if the team option of Frank Kaminsky, $3,627,824, is exercised, and if Bacon’s salary of $1,378,242 is kept on the books. The team will have Graham (if retained) and Weber (if retained) as restricted free agents and Michael Carter-Williams along with O’Bryant (if retained) as unrestricted free agents. There is not a clear route to improving the team through free agency next summer with the limited flexibility the Hornets have.
The offseason of 2019 is when things get very interesting for the Hornets. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has a player option of $13 million along with Marvin Williams and his player option of $15,006,250. The team holds options Malik Monk’s $4,028,400 salary and Bacon’s $1,618,520. The contracts of Kemba Walker and Dwight Howard will both come off the books in 2019. If both Kidd-Gilchrist and Williams both opt-out (which I find unlikely) the Hornets will have only have $45,684,047 in committed salaries for the 2019-20 season. This would give them the flexibility, with $61,415,953 in ideal space (cap holds renounced), to retain Walker while also adding another top tier free agent.
The more probable scenario remains that Kidd-Gilchrist and Williams both opt-in to their contracts and the Hornets have around $33 million in space to resign Walker add another piece to make the roster enticing enough for him to stay.
It is not even worth discussing off-season’s past 2019 because of the radically different direction the Hornets could be heading in following the decision by Walker in free agency.
Obviously in the NBA things can change overnight and teams are very leery of letting stars walk in an unrestricted free agency for nothing. The Hornets will have big decisions on the path to Walker's decision in the summer of 2019.
The roster as constructed for the next two seasons should allow the team to compete for a playoff spot in the weakened eastern conference, but past then it is impossible to project what a Hornets roster could look like.
All Salaries Via BasketballInsiders.com and Spotrac.com
CBA Details Via Lary Coons CBAFAQ.com