Kemba Walker on NBA free agency
If you’re exasperated with the Charlotte Hornets — I hear that emotion constantly from fans of late — Saturday night’s interview with general manager Mitch Kupchak won’t soothe you.
Among his comments:
▪ That he’s not yet prepared to say the team has launched a rebuild.
▪ That the Hornets did get a return on losing Kemba Walker, through the Boston Celtics helping to sign Terry Rozier.
▪ That the Hornets didn’t veer from Kupchak’s statement in April that the franchise would do “everything we can” to re-sign Walker.
Remember, Kupchak had a week to prepare for these questions after All-NBA point guard Walker chose to leave for the Celtics and the Hornets responded by pursuing Rozier, the Celtics’ backup point guard. The Hornets will pay Rozier $58 million over the next three years, hoping a guy with 30 career starts can replace this franchise’s greatest player.
Because the Hornets’ player payroll is so bloated, they needed the Celtics’ aid in signing Rozier. So the Hornets will send a 2020 second-round pick to the Celtics as compensation for facilitating a mutual sign-and-trade that swapped Walker for Rozier. The Hornets may or may not get a second-round pick from the Celtics; that pick is protected to an extent the Hornets might never receive it.
Bottom line, the Hornets lost their all-time scorer and three-time All-Star, who Kupchak described in April as a “once-in-a-generation kind of player.” Despite that praise, the Hornets offered Walker about $50 million less than the $221 million “supermax” contract for which Walker became eligible by being named All-NBA last season.
It’s reasonable the Hornets didn’t offer $221 million. But they offered far less — short of $170 million over five years. Yes, that’s a fortune, but not enough to sway Walker from taking the four-year, $141 million the Celtics were allowed to offer.
The first question Kupchak got in a 30-minute conference call with Charlotte media was how he squared what he said in April with how much the Hornets offered Walker.
“We offered Kemba more money and more years than anybody else could,” Kupchak replied.
Technically, that’s true. But offering Walker somewhere between $20 million and $30 million more over five years than other teams could offer him over four doesn’t jibe with the urgency Kupchak expressed right after the season.
It almost feels like the Hornets were relieved they don’t have to bet on Walker’s longevity as an elite player going forward.
I asked Kupchak if he regrets not having traded Walker over the past year. Kupchak said in April the team was “unwavering” in its resolve to try to re-sign Walker, rather than bail out of the player’s pending free-agency via a trade.
“My answer to that is we got Terry Rozier in return for (Walker) today,” Kupchak said.
Again, that’s technically true. But place that assessment in context: Walker was signing with the Celtics whether this sign-and-trade happened or not. The Hornets needed the Celtics to help them acquire Rozier because they lacked cap space to pay his $19 million salary next season.
So suggesting the Hornets extracted value from Walker’s departure sounded more like a dodge than an explanation.
The NBA is in Las Vegas this week for summer league; the casinos on the Vegas Strip give the Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers the worst odds — at 1000 to 1 — of winning next season’s championship. Walker’s departure was viewed as such a blow to Charlotte that those odds were 200-to-1 previous to word he was leaving.
This sure looks like the time to embrace a rebuild, particularly with how much coach James Borrego turned to young players, such as Miles Bridges, Dwayne Bacon and Devonte Graham, late last season.
Yet, Kupchak wouldn’t commit to that as the team’s plan.
“I think it’s a little early to say ‘rebuild.’” he said. “We’re still in a period where you can make trades and acquire free agents. Perhaps that’s a better question at the end of the summer.”
Kupchak noted the Hornets have salary-cap exceptions — one for $9.2 million, the other for $7.8 million — to add players. However, he cautioned that the team still must avoid the $132 million luxury-tax threshold.
Avoiding the tax was a major factor in losing Walker.
The luxury-tax issue begs a question I posed to Kupchak: Is team owner Michael Jordan, with an estimated net worth of $1.9 billion, rich enough to compete for NBA championships?
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Kupchak said, noting the Hornets’ payroll last season was in the top third of the 30 teams. “I’m a little bit surprised it even comes up.”
Some context: That high payroll last season more reflected previous mistakes in player evaluation than spending power. When Kupchak replaced Rich Cho as general manager in the spring of 2018, the roster was full of expensive veterans mostly on the backside of their careers.
Kupchak had no success this spring trading away bad contracts. He also didn’t acquire help at the February trade deadline or after the season that could have encouraged Walker to re-sign.
The GM was emphatic Saturday that Jordan will spend to build a winner. Resources have been squandered and now the best reason to watch this team — Walker — has left for the Celtics. Kupchak hasn’t made the situation worse, but other than improving the Hornets’ sorry drafting history, he hasn’t made it better.
Hornets fans need a reason to keep faith. That made Saturday night a fail.