Why Hornets’ Mitch Kupchak is disappointed by his trade deadline, but expects playoffs

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (left) was one of the Charlotte Hornets’ trade targets, but he instead ended up with the Toronto Raptors.
Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (left) was one of the Charlotte Hornets’ trade targets, but he instead ended up with the Toronto Raptors. AP

Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak walked away from Thursday’s NBA deadline with a sense of disappointment. He says he was close on a couple of deals, but never consummated anything before the 3 p.m. cutoff.

“You always feel after the trade deadline you could have done better or could have done more,” Kupchak said during a conference call with Charlotte media late Thursday afternoon.

The Hornets were in discussions with the Memphis Grizzlies about center Marc Gasol and the Dallas Mavericks about guard-forward Harrison Barnes. Neither of those veterans ended up with the Hornets. Kupchak didn’t address specific deals, but characterized the last couple of days this way:

“I would say we focused on two or three (possible trades) as of late and I thought were making progress. But I don’t know if we ever got close or not,” Kupcahck said, adding that as the deadline looms and teams communicate more, “there’s always the illusion you’re getting closer, but I don’t know if that was the case.”

Gasol ended up going to the Toronto Raptors and Barnes was shipped to the Sacramento Kings.

The Hornets also investigated a new home for little-used big man Frank Kaminsky, but did not find a suitable deal. Kaminsky, fourth on the depth chart at center, cryptically tweeted out “Wow,” but with a long series of o’s for emphasis. He did not further comment, but the mid-afternoon timing seemed noteworthy with the trade deadline passing.

Asked if the Hornets and Kaminsky would discuss a buyout of a portion of his $3.6 million salary this season, Kupchak said he’s sympathetic to Kaminsky’s situation and would work with Kaminsky and his agent if approached about a buyout.

The Hornets spent at least a week looking into acquiring Gasol, a former NBA Defensive Player of the Year and a three-time All-Star. Gasol could have been the second-best player on the Hornets’ roster, behind point guard Kemba Walker, but he has a big salary at about $24 million this season and $25.5 million next season.

The Grizzlies, in rebuilding mode, hoped to get a first-round pick in a package for the 34-year-old Gasol, but instead took the Raptors’ offer of Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles (to roughly match Gasol’s salary) and a future second-round pick.

This was the first Hornets trade deadline under Kupchak, who was hired last spring to replace Rich Cho. Kupchak had about a 20-year tenure running the Los Angeles Lakers’ basketball operation previous to being hired by Hornets owner Michael Jordan.

The Hornets’ situation approaching the trade deadline was complicated: They are one of the few teams with an open roster spot and they have a $7.8 million trade exception from the Dwight Howard deal in July. However, they are roughly $3 million below the NBA’s luxury-tax threshold this season, and Jordan has indicated in the past he would not accept paying the NBA’s luxury-tax penalty for something less than a contending roster.

The luxury tax, which is more punitive under the latest collective bargaining agreement, played a big role in this trade deadline. Kupchak said half the NBA’s trades this week were about either a team looking to reduce or avoid paying tax or looking to create future salary-cap flexibility by moving a veteran contract to another team.

Kupchak emphasized that the Hornets’ top priority this season is making the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. They are currently seventh in the Eastern Conference (eight teams make the playoffs), ahead of the Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons, despite a two-game losing streak.

Three teams contending to be top seed in the East made major moves around the trade deadline. In addition to Gasol to the Raptors, the Milwaukee Bucks acquired jump-shooting forward Nikola Mirotic and the Philadelphia 76ers added forward Tobias Harris from the Los Angeles Clippers.

That open roster spot could be useful if the Hornets explore players who give up salary on their current contracts (called buyouts) to become free agents. That’s a common process following the trade deadline. Players who do buyouts typically migrate toward contenders.

The Hornets have no one clear positional need, but are looking to upgrade their talent. The backdrop of that is knowing there will be urgency in July to re-sign three-time All-Star Walker when he reaches unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. The quality of the Hornets’ roster next summer figures to be one of several factors in Walker’s decision.

Asked specifically how the quality of the Hornets’ roster and their performance this season might impact Walker’s free-agency decision, Kupchak said:

“(A team) getting on a roll and feeling really good about ourselves entering the playoffs: I think that’s all any player really wants,” Kupchak said.

“I think a lot of players feel a loyalty to their teams. If they trust management, then they trust management. The most important thing is that we win, but I think he really enjoys all his teammates and has had his best year maybe ever under our coaching staff.”

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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