The Kemba Walker Conundrum: Where Are The Likely Landing Spots?

Josh Parcell
June 26, 2019 - 10:35 am

How do you prepare to say goodbye to a hero?

It’s far from a certainty, but in less than a week’s time, the Charlotte Hornets - and their fan base - have to be prepared to do just that. Kemba Walker’s free agency has loomed over this franchise like the Duke Energy building over uptown Charlotte for essentially two years, and their day of reckoning is finally upon us.

So how did we get here?

Nearly 18 months ago, owner Michael Jordan admitted publicly that the Hornets were open to trade offers for Walker, who was in the third year of perhaps the biggest bargain of a contract in the entire NBA - four years, $48 millon. That’s chump change for a guard who was weeks away from his second straight All-Star game and was merely weeks away from passing Dell Curry as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

Yet somehow, through a series of ill-timed or ill-conceived signings, draft picks and trades, the Hornets had become noticeably worse since their playoff appearance in 2016.

That was their chance to hit the reset button. With 1.5 years left on his contract and seemingly no reasonable path towards contention in Charlotte, the Hornets could have cashed in on their most valuable asset and begun building towards the future. Swallowing a pill that painful is hardly commonplace in the NBA, but it isn’t unprecedented either.

Just ask Golden State, who in 2012 dealt Monta Ellis to Milwaukee despite Ellis’ devout following among the Warrior faithful. Ellis was a career 20 points per game scorer in Golden State, but the front office decided it was time to build around a younger, unproven core in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Could anyone have predicted the pair becoming possibly the greatest backcourt in the history of the NBA? Of course not, but it didn’t change the fact that the Warriors made an unpopular move and a calculated risk when it realized a path to championship contention was impossible around Ellis.

The Warriors are the most extreme example, but not the only one either.

Indiana’s love affair with Paul George ran its course in 2017. They sent him off to Oklahoma City for Victor Oldaipo and Domantas Sabonis. People roasted the Pacers’ return in that deal at the time, only for it to help lead to back-to-back 48-win seasons, more than the Pacers won in any of George’s last three seasons with the club.

The Clippers enjoyed one of the most exciting trios we’ve seen in decades from 2010 to 2017 with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. They came close a couple of times to a championship, but eventually, the experiment ran its course and the team started shipping them out one-by-one. Thanks to that foresight, it’s only two years since the core split up and the team is already loaded with one, possibly two max salary slots this summer to spend on some of the best free agents available - including the reigning Finals MVP.

The Hornets chose a different path. They opted to stick it out with Kemba. It was a move that divided the fan base. Many fans saw Kemba as an untouchable commodity. He is the best player in franchise history, after all. Some fans saw the Kemba conundrum for what it was - a painful exercise in mediocrity.

In an alternate universe, Nic Batum doesn’t fall off a cliff after landing a $25 million/year payday in 2017. In an alternate universe, Malik Monk lives up to his billing as a dynamic scoring combo-guard out of Kentucky in the 2017 draft. Or even better - in an alternate universe, Steve Clifford gets his way and drafts Donovan Mitchell over Monk with the 11th pick.

Those missteps are a sunk cost. The Hornets made the conscious risk to play it out with Kemba through two separate trade deadlines, which brings us to today. In less than a week’s time, Kemba will have to make the most important decision of his career.

As it stands today, there are five potential suitors for Kemba, three of them with a seemingly strong shot to land him. In order of likelihood, here are Walker’s options.

1. Charlotte Hornets

Why it will happen: Money and time. The Hornets can offer all the way up to $221 million over five seasons. That’s $81 million more and one more year than anyone else, and if it weren’t for that trump card I’m not sure this is even a conversation today. Kemba has said repeatedly over the past year how appreciative he is of the Hornets for giving him a chance and helping groom him into a star point guard. It’s not that I believe he’s being disingenuous when he repeats that mantra, but there is a bit of a feeling he’s trying a little too hard not to upset anyone by stirring the pot.

He told Jared Weiss of The Athletic last month that Charlotte is his “first priority” in free agency, then a few weeks later told reporters at a  local basketball camp that he’s open to taking less than the full max salary to stay here. That’s far from a binding contract but Kemba has gone out of his way to publicly put the ball in the Hornets’ court to make a deal happen. 

Why it won’t happen: Charlotte is the absolute worst basketball fit for Walker by miles. The other contenders for Walker are all basically a point guard away from having an upper-echelon team in their respective conferences. The Hornets have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons and are facing a step back in 2019-20 even if Walker decides to re-sign. Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer reported Tuesday that the team will unequivocally not dip into the luxury tax during free agency, which not only limits what they will offer Walker but essentially takes them out of the running for any other notable free agent - including Jeremy Lamb, the second scoring option on last year’s team.

If Kemba Walker wants to play meaningful basketball in the spring, he’ll walk away from Charlotte.

2. Boston Celtics

Why it will happen: In the span of 14 days, the Celtics’ entire outlook has been spinning like a blender. Kyrie Irving, who seemingly had one foot out the door for months, now reportedly has his bags already packed for Brooklyn, or New York, or maybe even LA. That wasn’t the big surprise. The surprise was Al Horford opting out of the final year of his contract and not re-negotiating a longer-term deal with the team. Horford’s been a good soldier and a valuable leader in Boston, not to mention one of the most skilled bigs in the NBA despite being 33 years old. Suddenly, the Celtics have $25.8 million in cap room available, which can jump to $34 million if they renounce the rights to Terry Rozier.

Twelve months ago, you could make a case that just about any franchise in the league would switch places with Boston and their combination of all-star talent, promising young prospects and a treasure trove of future draft capital. Suddenly the Celtics are in a state of dystopia. Who better to save the day than Kemba Walker?

Kemba is 95 percent the player Kyrie Irving is and zero percent the headache. Walker fits the Brad Stevens mold of a high-usage point guard who can score off the dribble, attack the rim, and make defenses pay in pick-and-rolls, just like Irving did and Isaiah Thomas before him. It’s impossible to know if Irving’s general disinterest in being a leader was the driving force behind Boston’s disappointing season in 2019, but it’s not exactly verbal gymnastics to say Irving was patient zero for the Celtics’ unforeseen implosion. 

Walker would immediately resurrect that. He’s perhaps the most consummate professional in the league, respected by his peers inside and outside his own locker room, and would be a textbook role model for young players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. You’d be replacing most (if not all) of the on-court production from Irving, and the off-court leadership of Horford. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that Kemba remains a legend in New England for his 2011 national title run with UConn. New York might be home for Kemba, but simply a return to the northeast might put Kemba at ease with a Charlotte departure.

There is no question Boston makes the most sense for Kemba Walker if he were to leave the Hornets.

Why it won’t happen: It essentially boils down to the money Charlotte has to offer. There really isn’t a very compelling reason beyond that for Kemba to turn the Celtics down. They offer a championship pedigree, a proven and respected head coach, and one of the savviest GMs in the league. I’m not sure this would be a real downside, but perhaps the added pressure of succeeding Kyrie Irving, and playing for a city that has championship expectations each and every year might be too drastic of a departure from the relatively modest lifestyle he lives in Charlotte. There’s no escaping the expectations, and the inevitable criticism that comes from playing in Boston like there is in Charlotte. Is Kemba okay signing up for that?

3. Dallas Mavericks

Why it will happen: The Mavs have maybe the perfect teammate to pair with Walker in Luka Doncic. Kemba is an above-average spot-up shooter who would benefit from playing alongside someone with Doncic’s playmaking ability - something he’s never truly enjoyed in Charlotte. Doncic’s size would allow the two to play together, with Doncic able to defend the wing even if he’s the primary ball-handler at times on offense. I’m not sold it’s the absolute best fit for Kemba, but it’s almost definitely the most intriguing one. Combine that with Kristaps Porzingis and the Mavericks would have one of the best trios in the NBA. 

Why it won’t happen: The Doncic-Walker pairing would likely take some time to gel, and it might not even yield a playoff berth in the clogged-up Western Conference next season. Porzingis has major red-flags from a medical standpoint, not to mention a pending NYPD investigation into an alleged rape case that could complicate his immediate future in the league. There’s a lot to like about what Dallas has to offer, but with Boston squarely in the mix at this point, it seems like they can offer just about everything the Mavericks can without any of the potential risks.

4. Los Angeles Clippers

Why it will happen: Kawhi Leonard is far-and-away the Clippers’ primary target when free agency begins. While the rumors swirl around Leonard’s future, it would be a massive shock if he ends up anywhere other than the Clippers on a long-term deal, or the Raptors on a shorter-term contract. If Leonard does, in fact, hop coasts to join Doc Rivers’ club in LA, the Clippers would then need to find a trade partner for Danilo Gallinari and they would have enough space to sign another free agent to a max salary. Between their own future draft picks and the rights to Miami’s pick in 2021, I don’t think Jerry West would have a hard time finding a suitor for a Gallinari trade. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if they already had a couple trade partners lined up just in case the time comes for them to need one.

With Leonard on board, the Clippers would still have young pieces like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac in the fold. Putting a proven scorer at point guard would instantly vault the Clippers into contention for an NBA title over the next few seasons. The 2020 championship might be just out of reach, but having Leonard and Walker together could also allow the Clippers to turn a few of their young players/picks into a third veteran.

Why it won’t happen: Los Angeles doesn’t seem like it appeals to Kemba, and for what it’s worth, California’s state income tax would also widen the gap between Charlotte’s financial offering and the Clippers’ even further. Teaming up with Leonard would be awfully enticing, and I would feel terrified knowing Jerry West is in the room trying to pry away my star player. Having said that, it feels like there are a few too many hurdles for the Clippers to make it happen. I wouldn’t rule it out altogether, but they feel like a distant fourth in this race right now.

5. Los Angeles Lakers

Why it will happen: Because LeBron and Anthony Davis is the best 1-2 punch in the NBA, and Walker would instantly become the engine that makes that pairing thrive. As I mentioned when talking about Dallas, Walker can play off the ball just fine, allowing LeBron to continue to do his thing as the best offensive creator in the league since Magic Johnson, but Walker can also serve as the facilitator for James and Davis. Furthermore, Walker would feel right at home as a high-volume scorer when James and Davis are off the floor. If the Lakers were somehow able to make the money work, Kemba would further cement them as favorites to win the title in 2020. That’s a pretty compelling sales pitch.

Why it won’t happen: Thanks to the stunning oversight of Rob Pelinka in the trade for Davis, the Lakers are likely going to fall well short of the $35+ million needed to offer Walker the full max. They are set to have somewhere between $23 and $29 million in cap space, which even on the high end doesn’t seem like enough to compete with Charlotte in a bidding war. Kemba would have to be desperate for a championship to want to jump ship for this. Plus, at what point has Walker ever indicated he would enjoy the theatrics that come along with playing a role in the circus that is a LeBron James-led Lakers’ team? The third star has always struggled to find his footing on James’ teams. Even if the Lakers somehow come up with the money for Kemba, it would be a massive departure from everything we know about Walker for him to hop aboard that roller coaster.

**

If I had to make a call right now on where Kemba Walker plays basketball next season, I would bet on Charlotte. Kemba has made too much of his loyalty to the city and the organization, not to mention the bizarre public admission that he would take a discount to stick around, for him to walk away now. The Celtics’ sudden emergence makes this much more complicated, however. If nothing else, it could drive up the price Charlotte has to pay to keep him in a Hornets’ uniform.

As for what I would do? If I’m Mitch Kupchak, my offer to Kemba is very simple. I’ll pay you $165 million over the next five years, with the fifth year as a player option. That offsets the $140 you’ll make anywhere else over the next four years, and will almost certainly exceed the money you would make as a 33-year-old unrestricted free agent in 2023. There’s virtually no way Kemba’s going to command $25 million annually at that age. By offering the fifth year as a player option, it gives Kemba the power to test the market after four years anyway if he feels like he can lock down a few more years and/or more money at that time.

That $165 million number might seem like a lowball offer when the highest the Hornets can go is $221 million, but that’s the fairest deal for both sides. Even at $33 million annually for Kemba, the team would still have to waive and stretch Bismack Biyombo’s contract to get under the luxury tax for 2019. Outside of making a trade to offload a contract such as Marvin Williams or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, there’s very little wiggle room the Hornets would have above that $165 million price tag anyway. If Kemba decides he’d rather take a little less money, uproot his life and play for Boston, Dallas or even LA, the Hornets would have to be prepared to live with that choice.

The Hornets hung onto Kemba Walker at their own peril. If they lose him for nothing in a week’s time, they’ll only have themselves to blame.

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