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Kupchak's challenge: Building Hornets with or without Kemba
Salary cap limits acquisition options
 
Published Saturday, April 13, 2019 5:23 pm
by Ashley Mahoney | The Charlotte Post

FILE PHOTO | TROY HULL
Regardless of where free agent Kemba Walker does in the offseason, the Charlotte Hornets need to assemble enough talent to make the NBA playoffs next season.

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Replicating the quality of last year’s NBA draft would put the Charlotte Hornets on a transformative path.

First-round selection Miles Bridges and second-rounder Devonte Graham played crucial roles in Charlotte’s 39-43 season, in which the Hornets remained in the playoff hunt until the regular season finale. However, Charlotte’s key concern rests on retaining All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, the franchise’s leading scorer, whom general manager Mitch Kupchak referred to as a ‘once in a generation kind of player.’

“There has not been a player with this franchise like Kemba Walker,” Kupchak said.

Yet Walker enters free agency for the first time in his career on July 1, and he made it clear winning will influence his decision. His eight years with the Hornets included two trips to the playoffs.

“I want to win,” Walker said Thursday at a season-ending press conference. “That is something that I’m going to have to really sit down and think about with my family, with my agent, the people closest with me in my life that will help me make that decision.”

Keeping Walker in Charlotte requires placing necessary assets around him. Kupchak noted three ways to accomplish that: free agency, the draft, or through a trade. However, Charlotte’s money has been tied up in Nic Batum’s five-year, $120 million contract since 2016—the richest contract in Charlotte professional sports history. However, Walker is at the end of his four-year $48 million deal. Most top-level free agents like Walker are seeking maximum contracts, making that route a moot point for Charlotte. A draft pick would require a young player to produce an immediate impact.

“I don’t anticipate that we will be a huge player in the free agent market,” Kupchak said. “…There are free agents that are available this summer that are basically max free agents and I don’t anticipate us being in the market for any players like that. “Maybe if we get lucky in the draft, but a lot of times that is a young player. I think our best way to accomplish what you are suggesting will be through a trade. I can’t tell you that is going to happen and certainly if I can figure out a way to get a significant player via a trade, why wouldn’t that be great to put him next to Kemba?

“I thought Jeremy [Lamb] made great strides this season. He could be a significant player going forward…. Talent wins games in this league. Over 82 games, talent is going to win out. The more talent we can put on the court, the better the talent next to Kemba, that will be a goal, absolutely.”

If Bridges and Graham are the barometer for June 20 draft, Kupchak’s bar is high. Neither rookie had an immediate impact on the first half of the season, but both proved important in the final month. Bridges started his first NBA game on Feb. 22 and became a permanent fixture over the final 25 games. He averaged 7.5 points per game over 80 appearances, with career-highs of 20 points, 12 boards and five assists.

“The four games to end the season, I saw a different player,” Kupchak said. “I saw a guy who was locked in defensively, that didn’t tire, that ran the floor, that rebounded and brought the ball up the court, shot the ball with confidence. I thought that I was looking at a different player from three weeks ago and certainly from a month or two ago. It’s a great way to end the season. But I told him yesterday, it depends on what you do the next five months. I’m not going to say that you’re a starter in this league for ten years, you’ve got to work.”

Graham, by comparison spent significant time in the G-League with the Greensboro Swarm. Between Walker, Tony Parker and Malik Monk, Graham’s presence would not be called upon until the latter portion of the season when Parker took a backseat. The rookie finished with an average of 4.9 points per game, with three starts in 46 games. He scored a career-high 13 points, nine assists and six boards.

Kupchak discussed with Graham where he fits in the league as a player with four years of college experience versus someone like Bridges who came in with two. Where he fits going forward may depend on where Walker suits up in October.

“I asked him that question, ‘what do you think you can end up being in this league?’” Kupchak said. “It could end up ranging from a bench player, to a backup player to a starter. A lot of it depends on who’s in front of you, right? If you have Kemba, he’s not going to be a starter; he’ll be a backup. If he’s on another team and there’s not a player like Kemba in front of him, then he might be a starter. I think the key for him was the player development angle. Getting to go, as a rookie, because we did have Kemba, Jeremy, Tony and starting the season Malik Monk was ahead of him, so going to the G-League was key for him, for his conditioning, for his confidence. He’s older than most rookies. He turns 24 soon, so he’s mature beyond his years. Most other rookies drafted in the top 40 are 19 or 20 years old, so it’s rare that you get someone as mature as he is.”

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