What Hornets must do to retain Kemba Walker.
Kemba Walker has been named to the All-NBA team, and his reward could be much more than a trophy.
By being All-NBA, point guard Walker becomes eligible for a “supermax” contract, worth as much as $221 million over the next five years. That would increase the potential advantage the Charlotte Hornets have to re-sign him in July. But it could also raise the cost of retaining him by more than $30 million.
The three All-NBA teams include six guards. Walker was named third-team. He is just the second Hornet to be named All-NBA since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004, joining center Al Jefferson in 2014. The other guards to make it: Former Davidson star Stephen Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook.
The All-NBA team took on greater consequence when it became a qualifying factor for what the NBA called the Designated Veteran Player Exception — nicknamed “supermax” — in the collective bargaining agreement. Only the Hornets could offer Walker this contract, which is intended to help teams retain elite free agents.
Under NBA rules, the Hornets already had the option to guarantee Walker more money than any other team. If Walker hadn’t been supermax-eligible, the Hornets could have offered Walker as much as $190 million over five years. The most any of the other 29 teams can offer Walker is $140 million over four years; one less year and smaller year-to-year raises.
The Hornets aren’t required to make Walker a supermax offer. However, he is expected to be a coveted unrestricted free agent in July. Among the teams that have the cap space to pursue him: the Dallas Mavericks, the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks. (Walker grew up in New York).
Walker is completing a four-year, $48 million contract that has been one of the biggest bargains in the NBA. So it seems unlikely he would agree to play at any significant discount to remain with the Hornets.
Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said at the season’s conclusion the team “will do everything that we can” to re-sign Walker.
“There has not been a player with this franchise like Kemba Walker,” Kupchak said in his end-of-season media availability. “He is a once-in-a-generation kind of player.”
Following the season, Walker said money won’t be his only consideration in where he signs; he wants to feel confident he’ll have a chance to win in the postseason. In Walker’s eight seasons in Charlotte, the Hornets made two playoff appearances and haven’t advanced to the second round.
“I think now the work begins for those guys,” Walker said of the front office improving the Hornets’ talent. “They’ll figure it out.”
Upgrading the Hornets’ talent base won’t be easy; the team’s salary cap is clogged with expensive contracts even before Kupchak addresses unrestricted free agents Walker and Jeremy Lamb. The Hornets have about $98 million in contract obligations, including what they will pay the 12th pick under the rookie scale.
Re-signing Walker and doing much else to the roster could cross next season’s luxury-tax threshold, expected to be around $132 million. The Hornets have never before paid the NBA’s luxury tax, which would add millions to their player costs without assuring the Hornets would break a three-season absence from the playoffs.
Qualifying for the supermax also would raise the stakes on how long Walker will continue playing at an elite level. The Hornets’ all-time scorer (12,009 points), Walker turned 29 on May 8. He would be 34 at the end of a five-year contract. He’s been durable (missing just five games over the past four seasons), but at 6-foot-1 and 184 pounds he’s a relatively small player who takes a beating constantly driving to the rim.
Curry was the first player to sign a supermax in 2017. Harden and Westbrook have since done the same.
However, the results have been mixed as far as teams using that tool to retain superstars: Kawhi Leonard sought a trade out of San Antonio, rather than sign a supermax with the Spurs, and Anthony Davis has asked for a trade out of New Orleans under similar circumstance.
So the supermax has raised expectations for stars’ compensation without necessarily stabilizing rosters.