Over the weekend, the Hornets announced that they would like to trade Chris Kaman and his $14 million expiring contract, and as a rebuilding club, New Orleans would like a productive young player and/or draft picks in return. Kaman isn’t a star, but he’s the kind of player fans love to speculate about around the trade deadline — a solid contributor who could (in theory) help a decent team reach the “next level” by working as a serviceable sixth man/backup big. Kaman and Antawn Jamison possess the only big-money expiring contracts that might be realistically movable, though the Hornets could tell you from experience (see the Peja Stojakovic deal last season) that huge expiring deals linked to so-so players rarely bring the sort of return fans dream about.
That will almost certainly be the case with Kaman, a nice jump-shooting big who doesn’t draw many free throws, shoot a high percentage for a center or contribute better-than-average defense, passing and rebounding. Only a team that’s confident it is one player away from joining the undisputed trinity of contenders — the Bulls, Heat and Thunder — has incentive to deal anything of even minor value for a half-season rental. Kaman’s market is thus a useful prism through which to examine the “other” 26 teams in the league, and which of them might fit that description. What follows is a list of potential Kaman destinations, from most to least intriguing. As you go through this, keep in mind two things:
1. Those pesky salary rules. All but two teams listed below are over the cap, meaning they’d have to send out roughly $9.5 million in salary under the league’s newly liberalized matching rules in order to absorb Kaman. The requirement is even stricter — and the outgoing salary thus higher — for teams over the tax line.
2. Teams cannot use the amnesty provision on players they acquire via trade. In other words, the Hornets cannot acquire a team’s albatross and amnesty it away.
(All stats are through Jan. 29.)
Houston has won eight of its last nine to vault into the playoff picture. The emergence of Kyle Lowry as an All-Star candidate and the presence of a real center (Samuel Dalembert) have the Rockets looking as good as any other team in the Western Conference’s jumble from Nos. 2-10. But the numbers show that Houston is almost precisely the same kind of team as the one that missed the playoffs last season — a high-efficiency scoring club that takes care of the ball, wins the three-point battle every night, avoids gambles (and fouls) on defense and has trouble protecting the defensive glass. Dalembert might help the rebounding over the long haul, but he’s not a 36-minute-per-game player. You can bet the Rockets will at least think about how Kaman might look as his backup.
Houston also has a pile of lottery-bust flotsam — Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, Terrence Williams, Jordan Hill (productive now and then) — that can add up, in some combination, to the kind of salary required to fit Kaman. The Rockets also own New York’s 2012 first-round pick, though they may be hesitant to deal that asset, given they owe a lottery-protected pick to the Nets.
The Hornets might cringe at those names, but doing much better with just Kaman will be hard. Things change if the Hornets are willing to sweeten things with the inclusion of a young player, and they change in the opposite way if New Orleans tries to dump an undesirable salary (Trevor Ariza, perhaps) along with Kaman.
Kaman is not a game-changer for Houston, but with plenty of room under the tax line, he might be worth a shot if Houston’s brain trust believes the Thunder — with crunch-time and rebounding issues — are vulnerable.
Wouldn’t this be fun? If Al Horford returns from injury, Atlanta would suddenly be loaded and versatile on the front line, able to go big or small without sacrificing offense (i.e., without playing Jason Collins). The Hawks played Chicago to a competitive six-game series last season. The Bulls are better this season, but a Joe Johnson/Josh Smith/Horford/Kaman/Jeff Teague core could make Miami or Chicago work a bit, providing some entertainment before the inevitable conference finals clash. Toss in an injury, and who knows what might happen?
Alas, there are huge obstacles. The tax-phobic Hawks are right at the threshold now, meaning they’d have to send out just about 100 percent of Kaman’s salary, or more, in order to avoid moving up too far to duck back under via waiving players on non-guaranteed deals. That would mean including Marvin Williams and/or Kirk Hinrich (on an expiring contract) in any Kaman deal, and though Williams is playing better than ever, it’s hard to see how either has much value to the Hornets. A third team might be necessary.
A long-shot dream for fans hoping one Eastern Conference team can push the big two. The Pacers are so far under the cap they could actually absorb Kaman’s contract without sending anything in return, something that will make Indiana a potential player in any big trade — as a direct participant or third-party facilitator. Roy Hibbert and David West are working nicely as a starting front court, but the big men beyond those two have been inconsistent. Jeff Foster’s return will help, but he’s not on Kaman’s level as a scoring threat — and the Pacers could use more scoring punch.
Still, New Orleans would want something in return, and dealing any of Indiana’s cheap, young and valuable parts — George Hill, Paul George, Darren Collison, Tyler Hansbrough — would be a no-go and counter to everything Larry Bird has done to this point.
The Wolves are 9-11, but they have the scoring margin of an 11-9 team, and one of the more interesting things to watch is what might happen if Minnesota — high on Ricky Rubio-fueled ecstasy and without a guaranteed first-round pick — believes in February or March that it could snag the eighth seed. If they get aggressive, the Wolves have exactly the kind of player that might be the Hornets’ ceiling here: a flawed young player on an affordable and/or expiring contract that has been a disappointment so far. New Orleans stole one guy fitting this type — Xavier Henry — in the three-team Marreese Speights deal. The Wolves have Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Nikola Pekovic, Wayne Ellington and Anthony Randolph, and though every one of them has been an important cog for at least a few games this season, none have done enough to project as long-term starters.
The center pairing of Pekovic and Darko Milicic was on a bit of a hot streak before Milicic went out with an illness. And if you think Minnesota is better off with those two — and the occasional stint with Kevin Love at center — there’s no reason to look at Kaman. And of course, New Orleans doing anything to help Minnesota succeed in the short-term would devalue a key asset–Minnesota’s unprotected first-rounder–the Hornets nabbed in the Chris Paul deal.
Lots of unknowns here, including whether Zach Randolph will play again this season. If the internal Z-Bo prognosis is negative, perhaps Memphis kicks the tires on Kaman, even if playing him alongside Marc Gasol in a twin towers lineup might be untenable defensively. Memphis is scrambling with Gasol as its only reliable big; Speights is working hard despite his limitations and Dante Cunningham can hold the fort in small stretches, but neither is a consistently productive two-way player. As a result, Memphis is playing small a ton, with Rudy Gay and Sam Young serving as nominal power forwards. That kind of thing is dicey against strong front-line opposition.
The elephant in the room: The Grizzlies are just over the tax line, and though they could come back down to it by waiving Josh Davis, adding a few million in salary by acquiring Kaman would blow up the tax bill. And finding $14 million to send out isn’t easy, even if you include O.J. Mayo, emerging as a crucial cog on a playoff-level roster.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
The Spurs are asking so much of so many limited players, you almost forget Manu Ginobili is lurking, and that San Antonio won 61 games last season. The emergence of Tiago Splitter lately blurs any theoretical Kaman situation, especially if Gregg Popovich is willing to play Splitter with Duncan — something he has done in small doses over the last two weeks. DeJuan Blair has been more aggressive offensively this season — and more central to what San Antonio does on that end — but he’s undersized and a liability on defense. Matt Bonner is Matt Bonner.
San Antonio could use the extra piece, if only to get through the cramped schedule. But any offer would have to start with Richard Jefferson’s deal going somewhere, and there is not much desire around the league to pay Jefferson $21 million combined over 2012-13 and 2013-14.
It’s nice that the Nuggets have done well playing so much small-ball with Al Harrington at power forward, but they will need the flexibility to go big at some point in the postseason. Do they trust Timofey Mozgov and the recently re-signed Kosta Koufos to provide that flexibility, along with Chris Andersen? Mozgov’s minutes have been up lately, he has looked good offensively in spurts and he has cut his fouls per minute to a sustainable number. Koufos remains a project.
As appealing as adding Kaman might sound, finding the salary would prove impossible, unless Denver is willing to send out a key component (Andre Miller, Arron Afflalo, even Harrington) — something that might require finding a replacement elsewhere.
Orlando has no true backup center, and don’t put it past GM Otis Smith to reach (again) with the team floundering to the point of implosion. Could the Magic convince the Hornets to take J.J. Redick and local guy Glen Davis, fresh off signing a four-year, $26 million deal to become Dwight Howard’s chosen power forward? Seems a bit much, even if the Hornets could use Redick’s skill set and the insurance “Big Baby” would provide should Carl Landry walk after the season. Also, as shaky as Davis has been this season, dealing multiple rotation players for a center who might not be able to play alongside Howard damages Orlando’s depth.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Kaman would be a luxury in case Marcus Camby, rebounding everything in site, wears down in this crazy season, or if the backup duo of Craig Smith/Kurt Thomas falls off for whatever reason. The Blazers could start a semi-interesting package with Raymond Felton (an expiring $7.6 million deal) or Jamal Crawford (with a $5.2 million player option for next season), but they need both, and neither holds much appeal for a rebuilding Hornets team.
The calculus changes a bit if the Blazers are ready to deal Nicolas Batum, but that seems unlikely.
Injuries to Spencer Hawes and Nikola Vucevic forced the Sixers to start (!) Tony Battie at center over the weekend, but any move for Kaman would reek of needless panic — and require some pretty deft cap work. The Sixers have Andres Nocioni’s $6.6 million expiring deal to start with, but they’d need to add a minimum of nearly $3 million to that to make the math work under the league’s new trade rules. Finding a non-essential $3 million in player salary isn’t easy, and adding too much money via a Kaman deal would take Philly very close to the tax line. This team is good enough to wait out the injuries, and adding Kaman doesn’t change its status in the Eastern Conference hierarchy.
There is a hole in the middle with Andrew Bogut injured (again), and though Drew Gooden is on fire lately, asking him to play center all season is too much. But there is very little here for New Orleans, unless they love Tobias Harris enough to swallow Stephen Jackson’s deal. That would be a short-sighted deal for Milwaukee, who shouldn’t trade an intriguing young asset to chase the eighth seed.
Boston could absolutely use big-man depth, but it has few (if any) unneeded high- or mid-priced parts to offer the Hornets. The team acknowledged this over the weekend by leaking the news that they’d chase Kaman if the Hornets buy him out, at which point the Celtics could sign him to the veteran’s minimum salary.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
They could use the depth, though the Hornets would surely demand Josh McRoberts — a playable front-court player — in any deal. And beyond McRoberts, the Lakers have zilch to offer anyone, unless the Hornets think Luke Walton would make a great assistant coach in two years. Kaman’s salary is much too big to fit in the trade exception the Lakers acquired in the Lamar Odom deal.