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The Hornets cap situation puts the long-term future of Jeremy Lamb in doubt

Lamb has steadily improved in four seasons with the Charlotte Hornets, but as he enters his contract season, the team may have little option but to move or let him walk.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

If you follow Jeremy Lamb on Instagram, it’s clear that he enjoys living in Charlotte. “Sunday Fundays” in Uptown are a regular occurrence, as are trips to local bars to play darts and grilling parties in his backyard. He’s become such a regular around the city that a friend of mine living in Charlotte only realized he’d been frequenting the same bar as Lamb for months after someone pointed it out. As said friend explained to me, Lamb acts so casual that he comes off as any average person in their 20’s does.

Lamb appears to have embraced the Charlotte lifestyle, but unfortunately, sticking around past this season may be out his control.

Much of this offseason has focused on the growth of the Charlotte Hornets’ young players, the internal changes in the coaching and front office staff, and the long-term future of Kemba Walker. And while these, and Walker’s future in particular, are important talking points, they’ve nearly overshadowed Lamb’s long-term future in Charlotte.

Lamb is entering the final year of the three-year, $21 million extension he signed just months after the team acquired him via trade. He has steadily improved each season despite a few ups and downs, and he posted a career best 12.9 points and 4.1 rebounds per game last season, shooting a career best 37 percent from 3.

With the new coaching staff putting a greater emphasis on early offense and ball-movement, there’s a legitimate chance Lamb could start alongside Nicolas Batum when the season begins. At the very least, Lamb will certainly play an important role this season. But assuming Walker re-signs, there is currently no way Lamb returns to the team beyond next season unless the Hornets decide to dip into the luxury tax.

This is the harsh reality of the Hornets cap situation. The priority is re-signing Walker, but he leaves no room to re-sign anyone else. Even if Charlotte let their expiring contracts walk, they are still over the tax as of now. The team will do what it must to get underneath the tax line, but that won’t be easy. Charlotte would certainly want to move one of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, or Batum, but only if they could acquire an expiring contract in return. What other team is realistically taking on any of these contracts with two or more years remaining on them?

That leaves the Hornets expiring deals as the most vulnerable and valuable. As Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer puts it, Lamb could be the one moved, particularly if the team’s performance slips:

If the Hornets are slipping out of contention for a playoff spot by early February, I could see them trading Jeremy Lamb, who becomes a free agent next July, for a future draft pick. That would be similar (but in reverse) to the trade a few years ago when the Hornets acquired Courtney Lee from the Memphis Grizzlies to fill the hole left by Kidd-Gilchrist’s injury.

Moving Lamb’s expiring would represent a new role for the Hornets, who are historically known for buying at the deadline, not selling. But even if the team was performing well, I don’t think it’s out of the question that Lamb is at least shopped. As Bonnell adds from the same article:

The Hornets have a lot of options at the wing positions so it’s not essential they re-sign Lamb. Getting something for him before he’s an unrestricted free agent is an option worth considering.

I guess you could consider this a luxury at this point? But Bonnell is right, Charlotte not only has options at the wing, they have young options. Dwayne Bacon and Miles Bridges both impressed this summer, and Borrego has verbally said Malik Monk will play an important role this season. Even if Lamb continues to play well, there may be little incentive for the team to extend him if they believe one or more of the young wings is capable of playing at or above Lamb’s ability in the next year or two.

But now let’s examine another scenario. Lamb not only starts, but performs above expectations. His scoring average raises up to 15-17 points per game, his 3-point percentage hangs around 38 percent, and he is the team’s second leading scorer. The team is performing above expectations as well, and it’s clear Lamb is a big reason why. Sounds great, but suddenly the front office is put in a complicated situation. Do they attempt to move other contracts in order to extend Lamb to what would figure into a $13-15 million per year contract? Even if they wanted to, would they be able? Contract year Lamb could play himself into a big time pay raise, and Charlotte would be unable to pay it.

There are a lot of scenarios to consider with Lamb, but they all reach the same conclusion — barring a drastic reshuffling of the team’s payroll, Lamb will almost certainly not return after his contract runs out. That may or may not be a big deal depending on how much you value him, but it wouldn’t be easy watching another team reap the prime years of his career after the Hornets developed him for four seasons.