Outside of the eight remaining teams in the exciting 2019 NBA Playoffs, the offseason is here for most NBA franchises. One team that has been on the outside looking in since the start of the postseason, the Charlotte Hornets, came close to their first playoff since 2016, but fell just shy finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference. The offseason for Charlotte is set to be an immediately influential one, with their franchise star, Kemba Walker, facing unrestricted free agency.
The 2019 free agent class boasts no shortage of talent, with many of the league’s elite players eligible to be on the move. The second round of the playoffs alone have featured over seven players who will be seeking a big, if not max, contract this summer. This helps paint the picture of just how impactful the coming offseason could be.
Caught up in the chaos that will assuredly ensue come July is Kemba Walker.
Since being drafted ninth overall in 2011, Walker has spent his full eight-season NBA career with the Charlotte Hornets. Through those eight seasons, Kemba has grown into a three-time All-Star and one of the best players in the history of his franchise. Including categories like career points, 3-pointers, and minutes played, Kemba Walker holds multiple franchise records for the Hornets.
On the surface, it seems like re-signing with Charlotte should be a no brainer for Kemba. They can offer him the most money, he is the face of the team, Michael Jordan is your boss, and you have a chance to go down as the best player to ever play for your franchise. If you’re the Hornets, holding onto Walker with dear life seems a little obvious, too. People love to watch him play, he is the only All-Star the team has had since 2010, and top free agents aren’t rushing to set up a meeting with your team.
Despite many boxes being checked by Kemba staying put in Charlotte, one of the few that isn’t may be the most influential factor: winning.
For Walker, the main reason to leave would be to win elsewhere, as the outlook for the Hornets to turn it around isn’t great presently and only gets worse with a big cap hit coming from the contract Walker would expect. The 29-year-old point guard will have plenty of suitors lined up to sway him away from the only team he has ever known. Many of them have a legitimate case of being able to provide him with a better shot at competing with top teams in the league than his current team has.
The Dallas Mavericks have been tied to potential interest in Kemba Walker and could seek to win him over this offseason. After trading for Kristaps Porzingis earlier in the year, two thirds of a potential big three are in place already. The Mavericks would able to pair Kemba with talented players right away and still have some room to grow. He would still be able to shine, too, as his specialty of scoring would be welcomed with open arms by the Mavs.
Kemba could even find himself partnering up with another superstar to bolster his shot at aiming for a title while still in the prime of his career. The Los Angeles Lakers could be an ideal landing spot for Walker if they strike out on other top free agent targets. Even teams like the New York Knicks or Los Angeles Clippers, who can sign two max contracts this summer, offer an attractive situation if they are able to couple him with another star caliber player. Now choosing one of these teams would likely mean that he wouldn’t be the first option for his team but would allow Kemba the best opportunity to chase on-court success, and hopefully a ring.
What may end up with some serious potential to sway Walker is the breakdown of what money awaits him. If Kemba is able to make an All-NBA team for this season- which would be tough, but not impossible- then Charlotte has a big advantage in terms of what they can offer. A supermax eligible Kemba Walker could receive up to a 5 year, $221 million contract offer from the Hornets, while all other teams could only offer 4 years, $140 million. If he doesn’t gain eligibility for a supermax deal, Charlotte can still offer a fifth year, but not substantially more money.
Money, however, is also at the root of why the Charlotte Hornets are so gridlocked.
For the 2019-20 season, the Hornets owe just over $71.5 million dollars to just four players: Nicolas Batum, Cody Zeller, Marvin Williams, and Bismack Biyombo. While one, or maybe even two, of these contracts could be traded, there’s no realistic way for Charlotte to fully fix their salary cap troubles overnight.
The Hornets could look to re-sign Kemba and add on upwards of $30 million to their suffocating cap situation. If this was their move, though, their roster would be essentially locked into place for the next season. Even though 2020 would bring some sunshine in the form of the contracts of Williams and Biyombo expiring, Batum still has a $27 million player option. The 2021 offseason would likely be their best shot at adding talent around Walker, who would then be 31 and probably heading towards, or already amidst, the decline of his impact to a team.
Kemba Walker leaving with nothing to show for it would be a tough look for the Hornets, but it may be their best shot at righting the ship. The claim that small markets can’t survive a rebuild does hold some truth to it. If they were to have traded Walker, they would have been slammed and ridiculed by their fan base. With Kemba walking, leaving Charlotte the victim who did everything they could to keep him, would allow them to retain the sympathy of the fans while still initiating a much needed rebuild.
For Kemba, a parting of ways from his current team is his best shot at success in the NBA. However, after four years of being one of the most underpaid players in the league, the money could be a big priority for him, and nobody could blame him for that. Having only played in the playoffs twice in his career, it appears that leaving Charlotte to sign elsewhere may be Kemba’s best chance at finding success in his NBA career. Similarly, it could be best outcome for the franchise. When push comes to shove and its time to sacrifice a supermax contract, or let your only All-Star player walk, tough decisions are tough for a reason.