Hornets gutted by free agency

Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb both leave as team loses nearly half of its production

Kemba Walker, left, and Jeremy Lamb, right, both left the Charlotte Hornets in unrestricted free agency. Walker will sign with the Boston Celtics, while Lamb is headed to the Indiana Pacers. (Chuck Burton / AP Photo)

College basketball is practically the state religion in North Carolina, and area fans are used to their favorite team needing to replace most of the previous season’s production.

That experience should help everyone cope with the Charlotte Hornets’ NBA free agency experience this past week.

Heading into the signing period, expectations were low. The team was struggling with salary cap issues that made it next to impossible for Charlotte to retain both Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb, the team’s top two scorers this past year. At best, the Hornets could hope to keep one of them.

Instead, Charlotte missed out on achieving even the lowest of expectations. Within hours of the start of free agency, both Walker and Lamb were gone.

While most contracts and transactions won’t be official until the weekend, multiple sources confirmed that Walker, Charlotte’s career franchise scoring leader, agreed to a four-year maximum contract with Boston. That would be about $141 million over four years. The Hornets could have paid him up to $221 million over five years but reportedly offered more than $50 million less than that, spurring Walker’s decision to move on.

Walker had a breakout year in 2018-19, scoring a career-high 25.6 points per game while averaging 5.9 assists, moving from star to one of the elite players in the league. He started the All-Star Game on his home floor and was named third-team All-NBA.    

“On behalf of the entire Hornets organization, I want to thank Kemba for eight incredible seasons with our franchise,” Hornets chairman Michael Jordan said in a statement. “We are disappointed he is leaving. … Kemba is truly one of the best to ever play for our team.”

On the heels of that move, Lamb struck a deal elsewhere as well. The guard agreed to terms with the Indiana Pacers on a reported three-year, $31.5 million deal.

Lamb has been a Hornet since 2015, improving his scoring each year. This past season, he averaged 15.3 points and 5.5 rebounds, both career highs.

The free agency hits kept coming. Frank Kaminsky, drafted in the first round four years ago, agreed to a two-year, $10 million contract with the Phoenix Suns. In 47 games with the team last season, Kaminsky averaged 8.6 points and 3.5 rebounds, down from 11.1 and 3.6 the year before. He came on strong in the second half of the season, however, earning a spot in the rotation and scoring 12.8 points with 4.8 boards.

Add in the previously announced retirement of point guard Tony Parker, who spent one season in Charlotte and averaging 9.5 points and 3.7 assists, and the Hornets have now seen 46.7 percent of last year’s scoring depart since the end of the season, along with 48.6 percent of the assists and 29 percent of rebounding.

The Hornets hope to replace some of Walker’s production with point guard Terry Rozier, whom they will reportedly acquire from Boston in a sign-and-trade that sends Walker there. He’ll sign a three-year, $58 million deal with the Hornets.

The 2015 first-rounder out of Louisville averaged 9.0 points per game last season, down from 11.3 the year before, along with 2.9 assists. The Hornets clearly hope he’ll find his form of 2017-18, when his role expanded in Boston following Kyrie Irving’s injury. Rozier led the Celtics to within a game of the NBA Finals, averaging 16.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists in the postseason. The Knicks, Suns and Pacers also showed interest in Rozier during his short time on the free agency market.

Still, bringing in Rozier — who had less than half of Walker’s production at 40 percent of the contract — coupled with the loss of Lamb, are sobering developments for the team, which clearly seems to be entering rebuilding mode for next season and possibly beyond. 

The Hornets did hold on to three of their potential free agents, as Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams all exercised player options to stay for one more year.

In his second stint with Charlotte, the 26-year-old Biyombo averaged 4.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in 54 games last year. In his seventh year with the Hornets, Kidd-Gilchrist, 25, averaged career-lows with 6.7 points and 3.8 rebounds. The 32-year-old Williams, a former Tar Heel, averaged 10.1 points in 75 games last season, his fifth with the Hornets. None of the three ranked in the top seven in minutes played or top eight in points scored for the Hornets last season.

The team still has three unrestricted free agents remaining, although none are expected to be a major factor. Guards Joe Chealey, J.P. Macura and Shelvin Mack combined for 17 points and 67 minutes in 7 games last year.