Kemba Walker leaves court to uncertainty
Kemba Walker couldn’t have been more clear in September that his intent was to re-sign with the Charlotte Hornets.
Seven months later, his intent sounded far less resolute regarding his upcoming free agency.
“I’m not sure yet,” Walker said Wednesday night, when I asked if he’s still predisposed to staying with the franchise that drafted him back in 2011. “I don’t know.
“I have a long time to even start thinking about that stuff. Me and my agent will get together. Me and my family, we’ll discuss that stuff when the time is right.”
That’s certainly not a “no,” in regard to remaining a Hornet, but it’s far short of a “definitely.” Compare that to September, the day before training camp, when Walker gave an extended interview where most of the questions were related to his contract expiring after this season.
“I’ve been saying this is the place I want to be. This is the place I love,” Walker said back then. “I’m just really confident I’ll be here. I think they’ll figure it out.”
Walker asked that day in late September that the media not keep hounding him about free agency. We respected that. Then, the season ended, with Wednesday’s 122-114 loss to the Orlando Magic. For the third consecutive season, the Hornets will miss the playoffs. Again sitting out the postseason has to frost Walker, as competitive a guy as this franchise has seen since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004.
Walker isn’t just this team’s three-time All-Star or its all-time scorer; he’s the heartbeat. He’s the reason for fans to keep buying tickets, to keep having hope the Hornets might win a round of the playoffs one of these seasons.
It was obvious Wednesday from his lack of saying the contrary that he is going to listen when other teams make presentations come July. Why wouldn’t he? No matter where he goes, he’s going to be guaranteed way more than $100 million. A team like the Dallas Mavericks or Los Angeles Lakers can offer that compensation, plus the kind of pre-existing talent Walker has never played with as a Hornet.
The $200 million question
The Hornets can offer Walker more than any other team under NBA rules. I feel confident they will have to exceed other teams’ offers, maybe by a lot, to retain him.
The complex question is, should they? You can adore what Walker provides and still have misgivings about whether the Hornets even should tie up so much future capital in Walker’s next five seasons.
Under the rules, the Hornets can offer him about $190 million over the next five seasons. That max number could rise to $221 million if Walker qualifies for a so-called “supermax” contract by making the All-NBA team.
By comparison, the most another suitor could offer Walker is $140 million over four seasons.
I’m sure a long time ago Hornets owner Michael Jordan and general manager Mitch Kupchak started contemplating the implications of all that money for a 6-foot-1 point guard who would be 33 at the end of five more seasons. It’s not just whether Walker is “worth” more than $35 million per season, but whether that would leave anything close to enough in the budget to surround him with talent.
The problem that has plagued the Hornets is ever finding a great complement to Walker’s abilities. They have a lot of good players on a team that went 39-43. They still have no true No. 2 option.
Jeremy Lamb had his best NBA seasons and will make a nice raise in free agency, but he’s not the No. 2 player on a roster good enough to advance to a conference final. Miles Bridges had a solid rookie season, but I don’t see him as a perennial All-Star.
Kupchak tried to find that guy. The Hornets checked with the Washington Wizards in November about trying to pry shooting guard Bradley Beal off a fading team. Didn’t happen. At the trade deadline, Kupchak engaged with the Mavericks about Harrison Barnes (instead traded to the Sacramento Kings) and the Memphis Grizzlies about Marc Gasol (dealt to the Toronto Raptors). The Hornets chose to not make a trade, rather than give up future assets.
The Hornets had chances to trade Walker. The Cleveland Cavaliers were interested around the draft (before LeBron James decided to sign with the Lakers) and the Mavericks asked about him before the February deadline. Ultimately, the Hornets decided playing this to the end — attempting to re-sign him — was worth the gamble of possibly losing him for nothing.
Wednesday, losing Walker for nothing sounded like a real possibility. If that’s how this plays out, the Hornets need to turn it all over to the kids — Bridges, Dwayne Bacon, Devonte Graham and Malik Monk — in a dramatic rebuild.
But if they do re-sign Walker, they better have something else significant in the works to upgrade this roster. Kemba and the kids? It wasn’t enough this season, and that formula gets dramatically more costly real quick.