In his pre-draft presser, Hornets GM Rich Cho said they have explored trading up, trading down, and trading out of the draft. This should sound familiar. He said the same thing last year. And it really means nothing. It’s a way of answering a question without giving an answer. But it’s worth exploring the merits of each of these strategies with respect to the 22nd pick, the team’s needs, and the make-up of this year’s draft.
Trading out of the draft could be used as a way of obtaining a piece more prepared to contribute next season or shedding salary to facilitate keeping as much of last year’s team together. It’s impossible to predict which players might be available and what it would take to get them, but trading for an established player would have to offset the value of a team friendly rookie contract. I would be hesitant to move the pick for anyone on an expiring contract. It would also mean less money available for the current free agents so Cho would have to have a pretty good idea who is going and who is staying.
Trading out for the sake of freeing up some money to re-sign free agents could be valuable in the short term. The most likely candidates for a dump would be Spencer Hawes and his $6 million per year over the next 2 seasons or Jeremy Lamb’s 3 year, $21 million contract. Trading Lamb kills an already thin wing rotation.
The problem with using the pick to create cap space is in the long term. Again, you’re sacrificing a tiny rookie contract that would be more valuable financially in the long run than the short term gains of dumping Hawes. At that point, the team would be locked into the roster for the foreseeable future with limited methods for improvement. A rookie contract and the youth that comes with it would be a valuable way of providing future improvement internally rather than having to constantly make trades and sign free agents.
In the end, dumping the pick would be short-sighted. The Hornets are the type of team that can fill the roster out with ring chasing veterans and buy-out candidates the way Miami or OKC does. By using the new D-League team and draft picks with potential, the Hornets can build a talent pipeline to sustain the organization as players needs to be replaced.
Trading up brings its own risks in the form of sacrificing depth and/or future assets. In order to move up in the draft, Cho would have to package something with the pick. Jeremy Lamb, Frank Kaminsky, and Cody Zeller seem the most likely candidates for such a move. Even if Charlotte retains all of its free agents, the team would still be at a deficit and forced to rely on a rookie to play a prominent role. Depth became a problem in the playoffs us multiple key players suffered injuries. With the free agent situation being what it is, the Hornets are just not equipped to handle sacrificing players.
I’m morally opposed to trading future picks of any kind unless you are a legit title contender. Too many things can happen in the interim, even with protections, to make that kind of gamble. Particularly in a draft as muddled as this one where the difference between the 15th and 40th pick might not be all that big. Cho would have to really love a prospect and have a plan in place to establish depth by other means for this to be an option.
Where the depth of the draft makes trading up a bit pointless (barring a huge jump into the top 8), it lends itself to opportunities to trade back. Cho did this before with the Heat, who coveted Shabazz Napier (that had NOTHING to do with LeBron, right?), while knowing that the guy he wanted, PJ Hairston, would be there 2 picks later. To make the move, Miami included a 2nd round pick.
This is the type of move that would be a golden opportunity to start establishing the talent pipeline previously mentioned. While the Hornets could use some wing depth, there should be plenty available late in the draft. Denzel Valentine, DeAndre Bembry, Malik Beasley, Patrick McCaw, Malcolm Brogdon… All these guys are projected in the back third of the draft and into the 2nd round.
As with all deals, it takes 2 to tango and while the depth of the draft could serve the Hornets well, they’re not the only team in their position. Someone would have to really love a prospect to be willing to help out. But if the deal is there, it would be worth it in the long run.
In the end, the most likely thing is usually the simplest and that is drafting a player with the 22nd pick. It’s what I expect to happen and, while boring, could provide an important bench piece down the line.