In the past three seasons, Kemba Walker has established himself as one of the game’s elite lead guards. In that time period, Walker has made three All-Star teams and became the all-time leading scorer in Charlotte basketball history. However, also during this three-year run of greatness for Walker, the Hornets have failed to make the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, finishing 36-46, 36-46 and 39-43, respectively.
Now, Walker is set to venture out into unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career and can sign with any team of his choosing. In light of the Hornets’ recent struggles as a franchise, Walker will very clearly have to be sold on GM Mitch Kupchack’s vision for the future of the team. Here is how that future may look.
The primary advantage that the Hornets have compared to any other team in negotiations with Walker is money. There is a strong chance that Walker will make the All-NBA Third Team this season; if he does, then the Hornets can offer Kemba a five-year, $220 million contract that would dwarf all others. This is known in league circles as the “super-max” extension that rewards star players financially for spending the majority of their careers with one team.
At just an average of $12 million per year, Walker has long been one of the criminally underpaid players in the league. Players such as Timofey Mozgov, Bismack Biyombo and Chandler Parsons all make significantly more. Even if Walker fails to make an All-NBA team, the five-year $160 million extension he could sign with Charlotte would be worth more than the four-year $120 million deal he would sign elsewhere. In order to keep Walker, team owner Michael Jordan is going to have to open up his checkbook. Kemba is the first franchise player that Charlotte has ever had (although the team foolishly pays Nic Batum as if he is one), and Walker will be compensated accordingly.
The next big factor in Kemba’s decision is simply going to be his love for Charlotte. If Walker truly desired to just not be a Hornet, he would not still be on the team and likely would have been moved at the trade deadline in one of the past two years. When asked about potentially moving to a big market in a 2018 interview, Walker said, “These guys believed in me.” He continued by saying, “I couldn’t care less about big markets. That’s not who I am. I want to make this place big. I want to be in the playoffs every year. I want to make Charlotte pop.”
It is easy to see why Walker feels this way as his $12 million contract was once looked at as an overpay. No matter what the Hornets do this offseason, it is simply unrealistic for the team to be the best basketball situation for Walker. The team will have to rely heavily on his legacy and love for the community in their pitch to him.
With that being said, the Hornets still must present a plan of improvement moving forward with Walker as the face of the franchise. If Walker re-signs, the Hornets will still have very limited flexibility this offseason due to some bad contracts. Barring an unexpectedly high impact from their late lottery pick or a significant improvement from one of our young players, the Hornets will likely be a similar team this upcoming season.
However, the Hornets will begin to actually have cap space in the summer of 2020 as the team will have around $50 million in cap space to work with. Nic Batum will be in the final year of his contract, making his $27 million cap hit possible to be moved in a trade. $50 million is an ample amount of cap space to either add two All-Star caliber players or to at least add one and fill out a very solid roster.
To this point in the process, GM Mitch Kupchack has stated that the team will do everything it can to keep Walker and Walker maintains that remaining a Hornet is his number one priority. Things can change very quickly in free agency, so Charlotte must be aggressive in its pursuit of Walker. Ownership and the front office believe that Walker is synonymous to Charlotte just like Steph Curry is to the Warriors, and it’s time for their actions to reflect that.