At the stroke of midnight — Eastern Standard Time of course — when the calendar flipped from June and ushered in July, NBA free agency opened like one of the seals in the Book of Revelations.
The reason for all the commotion that this is a free agency period unlike any before it. The new television money is about to destroy all conceptions of what a good contract is. Stephen Curry yearly salary will be dwarfed by teammate Harrison Barnes. Cats and dogs will live together in harmony.
Unfortunately, the influx of money won't make life easy for every team in the league. Even though the salary cap is jumping from $68 million to $94 million this upcoming season, some teams are still going to find themselves without much wiggle room. Despite basically adding a max player slot to every team in the league, there aren't players that we can designate as being worth a max contract available for all teams. Some teams are going to offer colossally bad contracts to players who don't deserve them and other teams are going to sit on their hands and cringe.
So where do the Charlotte Hornets figure into everything? Glad you asked. Despite the $26 million bump in salary cap, the Hornets are in a tight spot. As of July 1, they have just seven players under contract:
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
- Kemba Walker
- Jeremy Lamb
- Spencer Hawes
- Cody Zeller
- Frank Kaminsky
- Aaron Harrison
Harrison has the only non-guaranteed contract in that bunch. The rest are all on the books. Between those contracts, the Hornets have $45,908,700 in guaranteed salary. Harrison's non-guaranteed deal only accounts for an additional $874,636. Seems pretty good, right? There's a slight catch. Cap holds.
Now, I'm not going to even begin to pretend that I fully understand how the salary cap works when it is time to go beyond the simple arithmetic of adding up the total amounts of contracts and then figuring out if that number is less than, equal to, or greater than the salary cap dollar amount. The simplest way to explain a cap hold as I understand it is an allotment of funds that count against a team's room under the salary cap. Those amounts prevent the team with those holds from using the room they would have under the cap that is allotted for those player contracts until those players have signed with their incumbent team, signed with another team, retired, or the team renounces their rights to that player. You can read more about cap holds here.
The Hornets have an absolutely mountain of cap holds at the present time. These are the players that are free agents for whom Charlotte will have a cap hold:
- Al Jefferson
- Nicolas Batum
- Courtney Lee
- Marvin Williams
- Jeremy Lin
- Jorge Gutierrez
- Troy Daniels
- Tyler Hansbrough
While the Hornets did extend a qualifying offer to Daniels, that's a lot of money in cap holds. The exact amount, Daniels included, is $66,998,982. Yes, Charlotte has almost the same amount in cap holds as what the salary cap was in 2015-16. Charlotte should be able to bring back most of these players if they choose to and if those players want to be back, but there will be casualties along the way.
One other thing to keep in mind: The Hornets did agree to trade the rights to the No. 22 pick Malachi Richardson to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Marco Belinelli. However, the deal for Belinelli cannot be completed until today (as of writing this, this hasn't happened yet). The cap hold for Richardson, $1,199,900, will soon come off the books, but the fully guaranteed contract of Belinelli — worth $6,333,333 — will be counted against their room as soon as the trade is completed.
Given how many Hornets may soon be ex-Hornets, lets run through the positions and see what Charlotte can do.
The Hornets are set with Kemba as their point guard, but from there it gets awfully tricky. Charlotte is about to complete a trade for Belinelli, which will make him a presumptive favorite to take starter minutes at shooting guard with Lamb rumored to be available or on the way out. The move for Belinelli seems to indicate that the Hornets have accepted that they will lose Lee in free agency. Lee carries a cap hold north of $10.5 million, but will look to earn considerably more than that on the open market. Jeremy Lin is another player that figures to get a big pay raise on the open market.
Charlotte plans to be very aggressive in free agency, though almost the entirety of that aggression will be aimed at bringing back their own players. It's safe to assume that they will make an effort at retaining Lee and Lin, though they probably don't have the ability to bring back both players. Further, the Hornets are rumored to be interested in Tyler Johnson, a combo guard.
Remember, every team has just been granted an additional $24 million of money to burn on the open market and not a lot of marquee talent to spend it on, particularly at the guard position. The Daniels situation still needs to play out and the Hornets might look to work some magic on the market to move the contracts of Lamb or Hawes to clear some more room, but for now, expect Charlotte to pursue Lin and Lee, relying more on familiarity, team chemistry and locale than on money.
Batum is the Hornets' No. 1 target in free agency. He is their priority bar none. All else happens after they lock up Batum.
The return of Kidd-Gilchrist probably means that the Hornets are intent on bringing Batum back on a near-max offer and combining him with MKG in the starting lineup alongside Kemba. It's a pretty picture for the future of Charlotte, but it all hinges on keeping Batum. According to Marc Spears, Batum is taking meetings with the Mavericks and Hornets, which will be followed by phone-ins with the Knicks, Lakers and Wizards. It seems reasonable that the Wizards and Lakers are long shots, with the Knicks being only slightly more attractive. The fact that the meetings with all three of those teams will take place by phone seems to indicate that those teams aren't serious contenders for Batum. The main threat will be the Mavs, who appear to be out of the Chandler Parsons sweepstakes and will have money to burn. Add their emerging lead for Hassan Whiteside and it could certainly be tempting for Batum. However, free agency is both an art and a business. All bets are that Batum does want to explore his options, but he's probably already pretty certain that he'll re-sign with Charlotte and just wants to ensure a big money, long-term deal offer is forthcoming.
Is Frank Kaminsky ready? The Hornets must be hoping that he will be because they definitely do not have the money to bring back Marvin if they plan to sign Batum and make a run at Lee and Lin. Williams has been rumored to commanding two years at around $18 million per year. Consider that for a moment and then force your mind to understand that Marvin wouldn't even be getting anywhere near max money for that amount, but would be earning significantly more than both Kemba and MKG.
There are other power forward options on the free agent market, but ownership and general manager Rich Cho did buy in on Kaminsky. All signs point to this being Frank's job now if the Hornets come up short in free agency. And that's not particularly unusual; Across the entire league, rookies are probably going to make a lot more rosters, get longer looks and crack more rotations because their contracts are pennies on the dollar with the new salary cap.
It's probably curtains for Big Al and the Hornets. He deserves a royal send off, but a quick one. He carries a brutal cap hold of more than $20 million, too. The sooner that money is off the books, the sooner Charlotte is back under the cap and free to fill out the roster with whatever value contracts and one-year deals they can work out on the market.
The Hornets still have Zeller and, for now, Hawes, but don't expect them to do nothing. While the leading candidates for the services of Dwight Howard are Boston and Atlanta, there are several value players to be had that could fill in at center to spell the reserve minutes behind Zeller who thrived running the pick-and-roll with Kemba last season. Players like Ian Mahinmi or forward Jon Leuer would be reasonable options.
Charlotte isn't going to be quiet in free agency. Most of their activity will be focused on players who were already in Charlotte last season. Batum is likely the biggest name you'll hear associated with the Hornets, and they will look to sign him as quickly as possible. Batum has also made it clear that he would prefer quick negotiations so that he can move on to his international basketball obligations for the summer. Jefferson is likely the odd man out, unless he is willing to come back on a cheap contract. The Hornets are still in the game for Lee and Lin, though they probably can't get both and bring back Batum while retaining enough cap room to meaningfully fill out the rest of the roster.
Hold on to your hats, the money is going to fly hard and fast.