Charlotte Hornets

As Hornets sweat luxury tax, Boston Celtics emerge with an eye on Kemba Walker

With the opening of free agency only days away, Kemba Walker has attracted a new suitor: the Boston Celtics.

Boston has interest in the Hornets’ point guard due to the strong possibility that Kyrie Irving will sign with another team, the New York Times’ Marc Stein says. The Observer talked to two NBA sources Tuesday who confirmed the report.

With free agency beginning Sunday evening, the Hornets face the challenge of managing their payroll in a way that will allow them to make a competitive offer to Walker without surpassing the NBA’s projected luxury-tax threshold.

Irving and Walker, both All-Star starters in February, are considered the top two point guards in this free-agent class. The Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers might also be suitors for Walker, and both could offer attractive rosters prepared to contend.

The Hornets can by far outbid other teams under NBA rules: They can offer Walker as much as $221 million over five years. No other team can offer more than $140 million over four seasons.

However, concern about the league’s luxury tax will be a factor in any offer the Hornets make. Charlotte already has about $98 million in guaranteed salary for next season, including the rookie-scale contract for first-round pick PJ Washington. That does not include another $3 million in non-guaranteed salary for Dwayne Bacon and Willy Hernangomez, players expected to be back in Charlotte.

In addition to Walker, the Hornets have two free agents — Jeremy lamb and Frank Kaminsky — who were in the rotation last season. Paying Walker a maximum-salary contract would put the Hornets in the vicinity of next season’s tax threshold — about $132 million. Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said twice following the draft that the Hornets do not intend to be a taxpayer in the coming year.

With that in mind, Kupchak hinted Thursday night he’s searching for a way to reduce payroll by moving a veteran contract.

“There are ways to increase (distance from the tax line). It is important we address it as soon as possible because everybody needs to get on and plan,” Kupchak said.

Kupchak can either pursue the trade of a veteran or waive one using the NBA’s “stretch provision” to spread the salary-cap hit for that player’s remaining salary over multiple seasons. The Hornets have three veterans entering the last season on their contracts — Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo — who all make $13 million or more next season.

Being charged the luxury tax (which is computed at the end of each season), would cost Hornets owner Michael Jordan millions, both in charges and potentially in lost NBA revenue sharing.

Jordan has said in the past he is against paying the tax on a team that isn’t in immediate contention to advance deep into the playoffs.

NBA suitors

The Mavericks have long been known as a suitor for Walker. They have two young stars in Kristaps Porzingis and Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is known for running an aggressive, player-friendly organization that won a championship with Dirk Nowitzki in 2011.

The Mavericks also have the salary-cap space to offer Walker a four-year, $140 million max contract.

The Celtics’ situation has changed since the end of a disappointing season. Irving is non-committal about returning and has been linked to the Brooklyn Nets. Center Al Horford opted out of his contract for next year. Media reports say talks with the Celtics broke down and Horford is expected to sign elsewhere.

With Irving’s and Horford’s likely departures, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge now has cap space and starting spots to fill. The Celtics aren’t an immediate contender for the Eastern Conference title, as they appeared at the start of last season. But they still have a young star in guard-forward Jayson Tatum, complementary veterans in Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward, and an abundance of draft picks from prior trades.

The Lakers have LeBron James and are adding a second superstar with the expected trade for Anthony Davis from New Orleans. The Lakers don’t have salary-cap room for a maximum-type contract, but that franchise could offer Walker a strong chance to pursue a championship.

Hornets situation

Walker has said the Hornets are his first priority in approaching free-agency, but he also has said he intends to meet with other teams.

The only clear advantage the Hornets have is the ability to pay more. How much more, and how re-signing Walker would limit Kupchak’s ability to otherwise improve the roster, both will factor in Walker’s decision.

Losing Walker would mean the departure of the Hornets’ all-time scorer and most popular player. In all likelihood, the Hornets would get no compensation, since NBA sign-and-trades have become rare. Walker leaving would figure to set off a significant rebuild.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer