Kemba Walker is the face of basketball in Charlotte.
The star point guard for the Charlotte Hornets captivates audiences with his ball-handling skills and shot-creating abilities. He is coming off a career best year in 2018-19, in which he averaged 25.6 points-per-game, was named a starter on the NBA All-Star team, and was elected to the All-NBA third team. Walker, who has played for Charlotte for eight seasons since being drafted in 2011 and led them to the playoffs twice, has already cemented himself as one of the greatest players to ever don a Hornets’ jersey. He is also entering the 2019 offseason as an unrestricted free agent, meaning he can go to any NBA team he wants to.
Despite the All-NBA performance of Walker, the Hornets finished the 2018-19 season with a 39-43 record, good for ninth place in the Eastern Conference, one spot away from the playoffs. It was the third season in a row they missed the playoffs. They are trapped in mediocrity and their best player can walk in free agency. Can they keep him? Better yet, should they keep him?
Flashback to 2016. The Hornets posted their best record since re-entering the league in 2004, 48-34, and were narrowly edged by the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in seven games during the first round of the playoffs.
Per the collective bargaining agreement, teams are required to spend at least 90 percent of their salary cap, and within 48 hours of the announcement nearly $2 billion was given out in new contracts across the NBA. The Hornets were no exception. They moved quickly to retain the team that had gotten them into the playoffs and had come a single game away from unseating the defending champions.
Then-General Manager Rich Cho gave out a slew of contract extensions that would prove to be costly. Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller each received massive multi-year deals. Batum’s was particularly expensive, coming in at five years for $120 million. He earned more money in 2019 than Kawhi Leonard, who just led the Toronto Raptors to their first ever championship and picked up Finals MVP along the way.
Jumping back to present day, the Hornets have an estimated luxury cap threshold of $132 million for the 2019-20 season. (The NBA operates under a ‘soft cap,’ or limit of expenses teams can go over. The luxury cap threshold allows teams to exceed the soft cap when special circumstances apply). Of that cap threshold, they must pay guaranteed figures of $25 million to Batum and $14 million to Zeller.
Williams and Kidd-Gilchrist were given $15 million and $13 million player options for 2019, respectively, an optional final year on their contracts they can choose whether or not to take. Both players picked up their options.
The Hornets also have to pay $17 million to Bismack Biyombo, whom they traded for in the 2018 offseason and who picked up his player option for the 2019-20 season. That amounts to $84 million tied down to only five players, nearly 64 percent of their cap space.
Once the smaller contracts of recent draft picks are added in, the team’s current payroll comes out to just under $98 million, plus an additional rookie salary of roughly $2.5 million for P.J. Washington, their 2019 first round draft pick. The Hornets have $101 million of the $132 million luxury cap threshold locked up, which brings us to Kemba Walker.
Because Walker made the All-NBA third team, he became eligible for what is called a “supermax” contract, available only to players who have been on the same team for eight years and made the All-NBA roster. The Hornets can offer him a monstrous five year, $221 million deal. The most any other team in the league could offer him would be four years, $140 million.
There’s only one problem. If the Hornets give Walker the supermax, they would pay him roughly $38 million for the 2019-20 season. The Larry Bird exception allows teams to sign their own free agents even if they would be exceeding the salary cap, so the Hornets would be able to pay Walker a supermax salary. But they would be financially unable to sign anyone else in free agency, likely leaving the team stuck in their current state of mediocrity until their other contracts expire.
Williams, Biyombo and Kidd-Gilchrist become unrestricted free agents after the 2019-20 season. Zeller is guaranteed $15 million in 2020-21 before also becoming an unrestricted free agent. Batum has a $27 million player option for 2020-21 which he will all but certainly pick up. It’s a superstar’s salary and his statline has not matched the money.
Essentially, the Hornets could start to play around next summer but would not really be able to begin enticing free agents until the summer of 2021. They would be offering Walker a supermax with the inability to bring in additional help for the first two years.
Potential workarounds would include attempting to trade one of their large contracts, possibly packaged with Washington or a future first round draft pick in order to persuade another team to take it.
The glimmer of hope lies their young core, consisting of Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges, Devonté Graham and Malik Monk. This group spearheaded a late surge in March and April that almost pushed the team back into the playoff picture, helping them win crucial victories over the Celtics, Spurs, Pistons and Raptors (twice). The Hornets’ pitch to Walker would have to include keeping them intact to help rebuild.
On June 1, Walker informed The Athletic that remaining in Charlotte was his preferred destination, but he would listen to offers from other teams. Hypothetically, he could take less than the supermax, which he mentioned he would not be opposed to doing in an interview on June 13 at local Ardrey Kell High school.
It appears Walker’s heart is in Charlotte, to the point where he is willing to take less to stay. The Hornets may not want to pay him $221 million, but they can still beat out the $140 million maximum any other team can propose. The big question the team has to ask itself, however, is what it would look like if he stays.
Walker is 29 years old. When the 2021 offseason rolls around and the Hornets finally have money to play around with, he will be 31. As players age, concerns can begin to arise about their speed, agility and durability. The best free agents want to go to teams who offer them a chance to compete. Walker will need to continue to play at an All-NBA level and prove age is not starting to catch up with him over the next two seasons in order for the Hornets to convince other players that teaming them with Walker will turn the team into a contender.
Outside of potential free agents, the team still has its young core. If a free agent cannot be lured in, then perhaps head coach James Borrego and the rest of the coaching staff can build up the talents of Bacon, Bridges, Graham and Monk to assemble a homegrown competitor, similar to what the Golden State Warriors accomplished with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson. This process could also begin immediately, as all four players are currently under rookie contracts. Money is not an issue.
All four players will need new contracts in 2020 or 2021, which conveniently aligns with when the Hornets have available cap space again. The team will need to extend offers intelligently to ensure they do not become trapped in the exact same cycle they’re in now: overpaying players who are not worth the money. Failure to do so would compound more bloated contracts with Walker’s supermax and doom the team to non-competition for several years.
Option B would involve the Hornets and Walker parting ways and initiating a hard reset. The idea would be to wait out the contracts they already have on the books, falling to the league cellar for two years and roping in a couple of top draft picks. In a few years, they would have loads of money and some of the best prospects in the NBA to work with. This formula has become popular across several major professional sports leagues over the past decade or so and is a tried-and-true method for rebuild. See: the Philadelphia 76ers, or the MLB’s Houston Astros.
It may come down to what Walker wants personally and professionally and what the Hornets want to do with the team’s future. They can offer him a lot of money, but they cannot propose a concrete plan for improvement just yet. Compare them to a team like the Los Angeles Lakers, who recently traded for Anthony Davis and announced their intention to pursue Walker in free agency, which would team him with the likes of Davis, James
Kemba Walker’s name has been etched into Charlotte’s history, but how much longer he stays remains yet to be seen.
Image by Keith Allison via flickr.com