Last Monday, The Charlotte Hornets did not pick up the third-year option on P.J. Hairston’s contract despite the fact that it was only worth $1.25 million, making him a free agent at the end of this season. Hairston isn’t lighting up the league but the choice to not pick it up remains a head-scratcher. It is a rare decision typically seen when new management takes over a franchise’s front office duties. That’s not the case in Charlotte where Rich Cho has been the general manager since 2011.
Based on Cho’s recent comments on Hairston’s inefficiency, the move might be an attempt to motivate Hairston, who has struggled with off the court issues and consistency since entering the league. Even when acknowledging that, it is not completely defensible. Admittedly, Hairston is only averaging 5.2 points and 2.7 rebounds for the season, but has started in every game thus far, and performed ably on the defensive end.
Hairston’s frame allows him to defend wings competently and without assistance, which is fortunate since Jeremy Lamb–who just signed an extension with Charlotte–is too slight to guard the bigger wingmen in the league. It also allows Nicolas Batum to focus more on the offensive end. Batum can play with more effort without fear of expending himself defending the best perimeter player on the opposing team. Interestingly enough, the teams’ offense, as well as its defense, improves when Hairston is on the floor. This is based on a small sample size, but the Hornets score 113.1 points and give up 99.9 per 100 possessions when he plays, per NBA.com.
It is a surprise to see P.J. Hairston has such a positive effect on the offense in light of his shooting troubles. Coming out of college, Hairston had a well-earned reputation as a marksman; shooting 35 percent from three-point range. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to replicate similar shooting on the professional level. Last season, he shot 30 percent from three and is currently shooting a horrid 20 percent. Putting aside his play, the decision to let him go after this season provides no substantial financial advantage to the Charlotte Hornets, and may even end up costing them in the long run.
Next season, the salary cap will jump to $89 million. Hairston’s salary for next year would have represented 1.4 percent of Charlotte’s salary. His contract wouldn’t have hindered any potential trade or signing the team would have attempted. If Hairston goes on to have a particularly productive year, the Hornets have jeopardized their chances of resigning him.
By not picking up his option, the Charlotte Hornets will allow him to become an unrestricted free agent, meaning they can’t simply match any contract that he is offered to retain his services. In fact, it seems the Hornets will inevitably lose him.
According to a rule regarding third-year options, the team that holds a player’s rights at the beginning of free agency cannot sign him for more than he would have made if the option had been picked up. Meaning the Charlotte Hornets can only offer him $1.25 million. With the coming surge in the cap, any team that is interested in Hairston will be able to easily outbid Charlotte. Considering his imminent free agency, he probably won’t be used in any future trades either.
Ultimately P.J. Hairston may just be a placeholder until Michael Kidd-Gilchrist comes back next season. Even if that’s the case, he is probably worth the gamble on a low salary in such a financially favorable environment. It is likely that this is Hairston’s last season with the team. Hopefully letting him walk doesn’t become another choice that the Hornets come to regret.