When players coming off rookie deals sign long-term contracts before they hit the free agent market, it’s normally a sign of prudent decision-making by the incumbent front office. Restricted free agency is a tricky game, after all, and budgeting improvement into salary can sometimes save a franchise crucial millions going forward. From the team perspective, there’s just little downside to locking up a youngster before he’s reached his prime – assuming it’s obvious the player in question is worth keeping, of course.
Jeremy Lamb doesn’t quite fit that criteria. The Charlotte Hornets, though, have agreed to terms on a three-year deal with the unproven, inconsistent shooting guard anyway.
Charlotte acquired Lamb from the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer for a second-round pick and the contract of Luke Ridnour. The 23-year-old was selected by the Houston Rockets with the No. 12 pick of the 2012 draft and subsequently dealt to Oklahoma City as a centerpiece of the James Harden trade. He played just 13.5 minutes per game and received multiple DNP-CDs for the Thunder in 2014-15.
Raw talent has never been the problem for Lamb. He’s a gifted shot-maker, boasts enough off-dribble verve to be a workable ancillary playmaker, and has the physical capabilities to get by defensively. But a lack of commitment to scheme on both ends of the floor haunted Lamb during his first three years in the league, which was made all the more problematic by a wildly inconsistent jumper.
Just what role is there on a contender for a wing who’s a defensive minus and can’t be counted on to hit open shots? It’s hard to envision one anywhere, and that place certainly wasn’t Oklahoma City.
Perhaps Charlotte saw enough of Lamb during the offseason to believe he’s made enough strides toward becoming a viable rotation player this season. Steve Clifford is a defensive guru, and the Hornets definitely need any dose of offensive dynamism they can muster on the perimeter. If Lamb has grown into a playable defender at the very least, there’s a place for him on this team – especially considering its newfound love of launching treys with abandon.
But it’s just far too soon to say that will prove the case, and what Clifford and his staff have seen in practice isn’t necessarily indicative of what will take place when the lights shine brightest. Up to this point, Lamb has been nothing more than a tantalizing blend of length and finesse; he’s much closer to the ideal of a good basketball player than actually being one.
Is that enough to justify this deal? In a vacuum, maybe. The booming cap ensures a $7 million salary won’t be prohibitive from a team-building perspective, and a modest gamble on talent is always a low-risk proposition. But context matters, too, and neither Lamb nor Charlotte’s front office deserves the benefit of doubt given their recent histories.
Lamb’s contract could be a steal at this time next year. Even so, that would hardly mean giving it to him now isn’t a vexing move by Michael Jordan’s team.