When I solicited questions for this week’s Charlotte Hornets mailbag, a lot of you wondered how coach Steve Clifford’s departure might affect roster strategy.
I get that, considering Clifford had a say in every player on the current roster. But the Hornets hiring Mitch Kupchak as general manager is probably much more consequential to how the roster will look than the ensuing firing of Clifford.
I’m not saying the next coach won’t be consulted on roster moves. But an executive of Kupchak’s experience is going to trust his own instincts heavily. He’ll need owner Michael Jordan to sign off on moves, but ultimately everything going forward is on Kupchak’s ledger.
And so, your questions:
Q. With Clifford gone, do you think they will start aggressively shopping Dwight Howard? It’s hard to imagine any other coach could get the same numbers out of him the way Cliff did.
A. Certainly, it’s true that Clifford’s history with Howard in Orlando and Los Angeles was a factor in the Hornets’ comfort level trading for Howard. However, I don’t know that Clifford’s departure makes it any more or less likely Howard is traded.
The issue with Howard is the size of his salary next season, nearly $24 million. It’s unrealistic to think any team would (or could) acquire Howard without sending a lot of unwanted salary for other players to the Hornets. What the Hornets would have to take back would be the overarching factor in how motivated Kupchak is to make a trade.
Q. Any chance “The Process,” (the term the Philadelphia 76ers used for a multiseason tankathon) starts with trading Kemba Walker and the 11th pick to move up in the draft? Or is it more likely the Hornets use the pick to package with a bad contract and trade that away?
A. The NBA is changing the lottery odds next season, looking to further discourage tanking. So modeling the 76ers might not be the cure some think. Kupchak brought up the idea of possibly moving the pick at his introductory press conference, so that’s clearly something he’d consider. But a caution: Is the 11th pick so valuable another team would solve your salary-cap troubles to acquire it? That’s questionable.
Q. Should we trade Kemba and Dwight for a top-5 pick?
A. If a team with a top-5 pick wants Walker and Howard, both of whom are entering the final season on their contracts, then of course Kupchak should listen attentively. But I don’t know why a team with a top-5 pick wants to do that unless the Hornets would have to do some other things you might not want them to do: like take on another long-term contract similar to Nic Batum’s.
Top-5 picks are valuable, not just because you might get a great young player, but because that player has to work on the cheap for several seasons under the rookie pay scale. Teams give up those picks seldom and only for great compensation.
Q. With the Hornets firing their G-League coach, how much change is coming?
A. Plenty, I’d say, although I don’t know that not giving the coach of the Greensboro Swarm a new contract is indicative of anything consequential. It doesn’t surprise me Kupchak wants to hire a bunch of his staff, rather than default to whoever was already in place. But I assume he’ll be open to what has worked. For instance, the players give such high marks to shooting specialist Bruce Kreutzer that I’d be surprised if he wasn’t retained by whoever replaces Clifford.
Q. Should they go after Kawhi Leonard?
A. Of course, they should. And here’s something coincidental, but interesting, regarding that: Clifford mentioned around the time Walker was setting the franchise scoring record that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich admires Walker’s game. Any Hornets offer for Leonard would seemingly have to include Walker, who will be in the Team USA minicamp in Las Vegas, coached by Popovich.
Q. Will Kemba be a member of the Hornets in 2020?
A. I’d place the odds at no better than 30-70 he’s a Hornet by then. His love of Charlotte as an adopted home is real, but he wants the rest of his career to be meaningful, as far as playoff appearances. Whether it’s by the Hornets’ choice or Walker’s, there are a lot of variables between now and then to be considered.
Q. Will Kemba (or any player) get input on the coaching search?
A. It would really surprise me if any player on this roster got a say in who’s coaching them next season. Maybe a LeBron James or Stephen Curry deserves that sort of sway, but I don’t know why Kupchak would do that in this situation.
Q. Will Malik Monk start next season?
A. If the current starting five is all back next season (they’re all under contract), then I’d say probably not. If Walker or Batum is traded, then it’s much more of an open question, particularly if Walker is dealt without the Hornets getting back a veteran point guard. This is a huge summer for Monk, after he missed all last summer with an ankle sprain. He needs to get stronger and process what he learned watching Walker play the point at the NBA level.
Q. At 63, do you get the impression Kupchak is committed to this team for the long haul?
A. I don’t think 63 is old. I strongly doubt after that long a career as both a player and as a front-office executive that Kupchak needs the money. So if he moved across the country to take this job, I’m confident he still loves the competitive juice of being a general manager. Maybe some 40-year-old would have had more to prove, but that doesn’t mean Kupchak is any less motivated to succeed.