The Charlotte Hornets’ greatest need isn’t a particular position. It’s a player, regardless of spot, who is better than anyone on this roster not named Kemba Walker.
Is Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol that guy 10 1/2 seasons into his NBA career?
The Hornets and Grizzlies have had talks that could lead to the Hornets acquiring Gasol, a three-time former All-Star. Those talks, first reported by The Athletic’s Shams Charania, were confirmed by the Observer Tuesday evening.
I asked an NBA talent evaluator - someone who works for neither of these teams - how Gasol would fit with the Hornets. His simple answer was Gasol would instantly be the second-best player on Charlotte’s roster.
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In more detail, Gasol is better scoring center than Cody Zeller, who is back from a month off with a fractured right hand. He would be a great pick-and-roll combination with point guard Walker. He’d also be a strong rebounder and would help the Hornets’ ball movement with his passing and decision making.
My reservation is how Gasol would fit defensively. In an NBA era when teams - the Hornets among them - seem willing to compromise some size for defensive quickness, is Gasol at 34 still a good fit? What I heard in reply to that question is, yes, Gasol lacks ideal lateral quickness, but he is savvy and efficient enough that he wouldn’t be a major liability on defense.
Acquiring Gasol is a classic question of “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” as far as inheriting the Grizzlies’ contractual obligation. Gasol makes slightly more than $24.1 million this season. He has a player option for next season, which he would almost certainly exercise, that would pay him $25.6 million in 2019-20.
I don’t know what the Hornets are offering, but the aggregate salaries leaving Charlotte for Memphis would have to approximate the aggregate added to Charlotte’s salary cap because the Hornets are well over the cap and about $3 million below the luxury-tax threshold.
All that would complicate a deal that would also have to satisfy the Grizzlies’ intention to rebuild. Memphis’ wish list would logically be draft picks, young players controlled by rookie-scale contracts and short-term contracts to facilitate salary-cap flexibility. The Grizzlies are well on their way to missing the playoffs; moving on from veterans Gasol and point guard Mike Conley is a logical step toward starting over.
Young Hornets Miles Bridges and Malik Monk fit in that rookie-scale category. Players with expiring contracts would be Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky. The Hornets have plenty of first- and second-round picks over the next several years they could use as currency.
Hard to say what the Grizzlies would accept to match salaries. For instance, would they take back about $52 million remaining on Nic Batum’s contract? More likely, they’d accept one additional season for Bismack Biyombo at $17 million or Marvin Williams at $15 million.
Gasol averages 15.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists this season. The Grizzlies had a strong start, but have slipped to 14th in the Western Conference standings at 21-33.
Gasol would immediately be surrounded by familiar faces at Spectrum Center. Mitch Kupchak, in his first season as Hornets general manager, actually drafted Gasol in 2007 when Kupchak was running the Los Angeles Lakers’ basketball operation. Kupchak selected him in the second round (48th overall) when Gasol was playing professionally in Spain.
Gasol became part of the package Kupchak later dealt to Memphis for Gasol’s older brother, Pau.
Pau Gasol now plays for the San Antonio Spurs, which leads to additional connections: Hornets backup point guard Tony Parker spent his previous 17 NBA seasons as a Spur and first-season Hornets coach James Borrego spent much of the past decade as a Spurs assistant. Borrego was a contender for the Grizzlies’ head-coaching job in 2016.
And there’s a close Spanish connection to the Hornets, as well: Reserve center Willy Hernangomez grew up essentially modeling himself after the Gasol brothers growing up in Spain.
Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell