How P.J. Washington’s situation with Charlotte reflects the franchise’s unsettled standing

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It’s always interesting when a signing or two is completed as the entire NBA takes over Las Vegas for Summer League. The basketball feedback loop is present and accounted for, all in real time, and ready to gossip.

Paul Reed’s three-year, $24 million offer sheet from the Utah Jazz, quickly matched by the Philadelphia 76ers, drew rave reviews for general manager Justin Zanik and the Jazz front office. Utah’s efforts proved fruitless, but the nontraditional triggers in Reed’s contract — requiring the second and third seasons of the deal to become fully guaranteed if his team reaches the second round of the playoffs — were wonky details the league’s cap nerds surely enjoyed.

When Isaiah Stewart came to terms on a four-year, $64 million extension with the Detroit Pistons, it wasn’t exactly surprising to league personnel in attendance. Stewart has shown some real promise as a shooter for a true plus-athlete within a tundra of athleticism. The Pistons, league sources told Yahoo Sports, have received more trade inquiries on Stewart than any member of Detroit’s roster outside of Cade Cunningham dating back to the trade deadline. Stewart also marks the latest first-round big man Pistons general manager Troy Weaver awarded with a lucrative contract. Detroit gave Marvin Bagley a three-year, $37.5 million deal last summer, which Bagley would have struggled, by all accounts, to find a similar number elsewhere. Not to mention the Pistons then acquired former No. 2 pick James Wiseman at the trade deadline.

Stewart’s deal also sets another benchmark in the marketplace, like Keldon Johnson’s four-year, up to $80 million figure that came relatively early out of last summer’s rookie-extension gates. Agents of players similar to Stewart’s profile in the league will use his number as a barometer for their own payment above the mid-level exception now that the mere mention of this second apron in the new collective bargaining agreement is purportedly scaring so many teams away from the tax.

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At the moment, the most relevant case in the context of Stewart’s extension appears to be P.J. Washington’s ongoing restricted free agency and continued negotiations with Charlotte.

Charlotte Hornets forward P.J. Washington (25) dunks against the Golden State Warriors during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Scott Kinser)

From a sheer roster management perspective, the Hornets cannot afford to have two valuable rotation players reach the unrestricted market next summer — as Miles Bridges already intends to do after accepting the one-year qualifying offer from Charlotte. These are critical contracts for any franchise, especially a rebuilding unit that has lavished All-Star point guard LaMelo Ball with a five-year, maximum extension that can reach $260 million. Nailing the values of homegrown, first-round contributors can be the difference in a contender’s meaningful depth behind its core centerpieces. Think of Golden State retaining Kevon Looney at a moderate number. Or Boston extending Robert Williams and once upon a time extending Marcus Smart for four years and $50 million.

Of course, who oversees such roster tinkering and development can be as crucial of a factor as any, and the Hornets’ chain of decision-makers currently bills as one of the more intriguing front office structures around the league. It’s no secret Charlotte will transition to new ownership in Gabe Plotkin and Rick Schnall. It would be uncommon, to say the least, for the league’s latest incoming governors to sit by and not play with their $3 billion toy. Just ask Mat Ishbia, who encouraged Phoenix to include Mikal Bridges in the trade deadline deal for Kevin Durant after Suns leadership had so far resisted including the two-way wing. Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez took over in Minnesota, hired Tim Connelly away from the championship contender he’d built in Denver and empowered the front office to deal five first-round picks and then some for Rudy Gobert. Tony Ressler’s Atlanta Hawks spent three first-round picks to acquire Dejounte Murray and then quickly handed the reins to Landry Fields.

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And yet, it was Michael Jordan, league sources told Yahoo Sports, who oversaw the Hornets’ decision with the No. 2 pick in June’s NBA Draft, just a week after agreeing to sell the franchise to Plotkin and Schnall. Mitch Kupchak and Steve Clifford held the large voices any general manager and head coach should have when deciding to select Brandon Miller instead of Scoot Henderson. There remains an idea in league circles, however, that this season could very well be the last for Charlotte’s leading personnel. With ideas come rumored potential candidates. The fact both Kupchak and Clifford only have one guaranteed year left on their respective contracts, according to sources, adds further merit to the belief change is on the horizon under Plotkin’s and Schnall’s vision.

Which brings us back to Washington. The starting point for a new regime, the first offseason for a theoretical next general manager of the Hornets, would be quite challenging with both Bridges and Washington taking qualifying offers. After distant negotiations prior to Summer League, the early word among league personnel suggested Washington and Charlotte were far apart on a four-year deal structure typical for such an extension. Washington has not drawn an offer from the Hornets that reaches Stewart’s salary figure, sources said, of $16 million per season.

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The problem for Washington is there’s no competitor to draw up Charlotte’s price. Any rival team would be limited to the four-year, $50 million ballpark of the mid-level exception. If Washington wants to get starter-level money, his only option is with the Hornets or finding a sign-and-trade scenario. At this juncture, it appears the Hornets would prefer to work on a sign-and-trade rather than Washington accepting the qualifying offer. Grant Williams found himself in a similar, yet quicker situation with Boston, and the Celtics at least recouped two second-round picks for his departure.

Washington’s unresolved contract isn’t the swing factor for a title contender, but it’s a ripple effect for a franchise headed for an inflection point, a seismic shift in management at the ownership level alone. There was some optimism among people familiar with the matter that Charlotte and Washington would come to terms following Summer League. One truth that’s for certain: From how the Chicago Bulls handled Lauri Markkanen’s offseason in 2021, how Boston moved on from Williams, and Washington and Bridges’ situations in Charlotte, restricted free agency has continued to be a bear for the players involved.

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