Charlotte Hornets

What scares you more: Capped-out Hornets or Kemba-less Hornets? About to find out

Hornets general manager on Kemba Walker’s free-agency

General manager Mitch Kupchak on Kemba Walker saying the chance to win more will factor heavily in his free agency decision.
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General manager Mitch Kupchak on Kemba Walker saying the chance to win more will factor heavily in his free agency decision.

Michael Jordan better start selling more sneakers. This Kemba Walker business is about to get expensive and risky.

Here’s what Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said about Kemba Walker right after the season: “We’ll do everything that we can to bring him back here.”

Thursday the bar was raised when Walker was named All-NBA. That makes the Hornets’ three-time All-Star “supermax”-eligible, so the Hornets can pay him as much as $221 million over the next five seasons.

Walker becomes an unrestricted free agent in July, the first time he’s had complete control of his career in eight NBA seasons. He’s been playing on a four-year, $48 million contract that has been an absurd bargain. It’s hard to find much else on the Hornets payroll that you’d describe as a bargain. That makes this a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t crossroads.

Any team want Nic Batum’s contract? How about Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s? Or Bismack Biyombo’s? The Hornets salary cap is clogged with problematic deals for players who might not start next season. They are already at $98 million in guarantees, and that’s before they address the free agencies of Walker and Jeremy Lamb. Walker is obviously the best player on the Hornets’ roster. You could easily argue Lamb had this team’s second-best season.

The Hornets haven’t reached the playoffs in three seasons. Walker is sick of losing. Even assuming the Hornets offer him every cent they are allowed to under the rules, he still might bolt for a team more ready to compete.

What a dilemma.

Say goodbye?

I’m reluctant to presume Twitter is an accurate reflection of public opinion. But I must say I’m surprised how many Hornets fans have told me via social media they’d be fine with the Hornets passing on paying Walker the supermax. Even if that means losing him for no compensation.

The Hornets explored Walker’s trade value in the winter of 2018. Jordan told me at the time he’d consider trading Walker only if he got an All-Star in return..

The Hornets stuck this out, despite trade offers around the draft a year ago (including the Cleveland Cavaliers) and the February trade deadline (including the Dallas Mavericks). This is now a true end game: The Hornets either re-sign Walker or lose him for nothing. Fans ask me about a sign-and-trade, but for technical reasons, that’s unlikely and wouldn’t be particularly lucrative for the team.

They’re in this for keeps, and the gamble is large:

If the Hornets re-sign Walker, they will be flirting with the luxury tax, expected to kick in at about $132 million in player payroll next season. That isn’t just taking millions out of Jordan’s pocket, it reduces Kupchak’s options to build around Walker. It changes the cap exceptions available to sign free agents and complicates trades.

They risk paying an average of $44 million a year to a 29-year-old point guard who, while durable so far, is small at 6-foot-1. There is a strong possibility of Walker becoming a depreciating asset over the next five seasons. Washington Wizards guard John Wall, already signed to a supermax, could miss all of next season with an injured Achilles tendon.

Or they don’t re-sign him, and are starless going forward. Walker might not be the best player on a title contender, but he’s one of the 20 best players in this league, and really the only homegrown asset for a franchise that has drafted poorly.

If he leaves, get ready for a team that will be lucky to win 30 games. He is the Hornets’ all-time scorer for a reason, by far the player opposing teams have to worry about most.

Money enough?

The difference between what the Hornets can offer Walker and what other teams can is wide: $221 million over five years for the Hornets, compared to $140 million over four years for any other team.

Guaranteeing him $81 million more than any other team makes it sound like a no-brainer that Walker stays in Charlotte. But given the way Walker is wired, I don’t believe it’s that simple. The losing is brutal on him. The prospect of him just banking checks the next five years without accomplishing much tangible in the playoffs would eat at him.

Kupchak said he’s comfortable with that being Walker’s agenda. I asked Kupchak last month if he considers finding Walker help urgent.

“Kemba has been here eight years now; he has made the playoffs twice. That is not what he wants to do,” Kupchak replied. “Yeah, there is urgency. That’s my job.”

This is about to get tense. And fascinating. And cost a lot either in salary or star power.