If nothing changes for Hornets at trade deadline, they face a tough Monk-Graham choice

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I don’t think either Devonte Graham or Malik Monk will leave the Charlotte Hornets before Thursday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline.

And this will make the offseason rather complicated for general manager Mitch Kupchak.

Graham and Monk will be restricted free agents this summer. They both are big parts of the Hornets’ playoff push, particularly now that rookie LaMelo Ball is likely out the rest of the season.

Wednesday’s 122-97 road blowout of the Houston Rockets illustrates how useful Graham (21 points) and Monk (19) are. Each generates offense for himself and for teammates. They both figure to get heavy minutes the rest of the season with Ball out with a broken wrist.

NBA scouts are watching, and bidders will be there for both when free agency begins.

That’s the reality of improvement, with the Hornets sitting at 22-21 and on course to break a four-season streak without playoffs. Other teams will covet your players, particularly so when the Hornets’ strength is depth.

The Hornets should be $20 million or more under next season’s salary cap, and can exceed the cap to re-sign Graham and Monk. However, this isn’t just about the rules, it’s about weighing priorities.

The Hornets are deeper at guard than other positions and badly need to improve at center. It’s not a given Kupchak would prioritize bringing back both Graham and Monk if other teams bid up the price, which means the better those two play, the harder it’s going to be to retain both.

What Mitch Kupchak’s history tells us to expect from the Hornets at the trade deadline

Graham and Monk flip-flop in value

At the outset of this season, point guard Graham clearly had more value. Ball was still an unproven rookie and Monk was coming off both a drug suspension and a case of COVID-19 that cost him training camp. Shooting guard Monk hardly played at all the first dozen games.

Then, point guard Graham hit a shooting slump and Ball improved so rapidly that it was a foregone conclusion around the All-Star break that Ball was a starter and Graham would go to the second unit.

While Ball’s injury makes Graham a starter again, it’s close whether he or Monk is more valuable to the Hornets’ future.

Coach James Borrego expressed faith in both following the Rockets game.

On Graham: “This is the guy we know, believe in and trust … Tonight, he proved why he is such a big part of this group. His steadiness — even when he is not making shots, he is valuable to us.”

On Monk: “His playmaking, his shotmaking, his poise — I thought he had a fantastic overall game. He was locked in defensively. I’m going to put this in one of the best nights of the year for Malik Monk.”

Borrego would surely like both re-signed. But he won’t have the final say on that. Borrego will have input, but Kupchak’s assessment, with owner Michael Jordan’s approval, will carry the day.

What is the marketplace?

I don’t know with any precision what Graham or Monk might attract in the form of an offer sheet, but the last free-agent period, even with the NBA’s financial losses in the pandemic, offers a clue.

Shooting guard Luke Kennard got $41 million over three years from the Los Angeles Clippers. Point guard Markelle Fultz got $50 million over three years from the Orlando Magic. Monk and Graham are both in the ballpark of Fultz’s and Kennard’s market values.

Here’s where this gets sticky: While Graham and Monk are both valuable, I don’t know that either is a long-term starter in Charlotte.

Shooting guard Terry Rozier is arguably the Hornets’ MVP this season. More importantly, Ball is this team’s future. Any roster decision — particularly in the backcourt — should be viewed as what best complements Ball.

Through that lens, Monk might be a better investment than Graham for this team. Graham projects as Ball’s backup point guard. Monk is both a dynamic, versatile scorer off the ball and insurance against Rozier leaving when his contract expires after next season.

I didn’t see this coming in December, but Monk would get my nod.