All-Star point guard Kemba Walker’s free agency in the summer of 2019 is a time bomb of sorts for the Charlotte Hornets.
The Hornets tabled that issue when Walker was still on the team past the NBA’s Feb. 8 trade deadline. However, there is a big difference between tabling an issue and resolving it.
Walker won’t reach unrestricted free agency until a year from July. But what to do about the Hornets’ best player has to be high on the agenda of whoever replaces Rich Cho as Hornets general manager.
It’s virtually impossible for the Hornets to lock down Walker beyond his current contract until that contract expires. That’s partially a function of how inexpensive Walker’s salary is currently ($12 million this season and the same next season) and partially how much guaranteed money the Hornets already have on the 2018-19 payroll.
An extension, based on Walker’s current salary, couldn’t bring him up to the going rate for a two-time All-Star at his position. For instance, two other Eastern Conference point guards who were in this season’s All-Star Game make far more than Walker: Toronto’s Kyle Lowry makes nearly $29 million this season. Miami’s Goran Dragic (who signed before the new national television contract in the summer of 2016) makes $17 million this season.
Also, the Hornets are already closing in on the projected luxury-tax threshold for next season (about $120 million). It’s probably not practical to pay Walker dramatically more than he makes right now until center Dwight Howard’s $23 million-plus annual salary falls off the Hornets’ cap after next season.
Walker has never reached unrestricted free agency before in his six-plus NBA seasons. He chose security, signing a four-year, $48 million contract in 2014, rather than testing his value on the open market. This time around will be different.
A key number to keep in mind: Under NBA rules, Walker is eligible to sign a maximum value five-year, $188 million contract in the summer of 2019, with a first-season salary of $32.4 million. Teams other than the Hornets (or a team trading for Walker) could offer him a 4-year contract worth a maximum value of $139 million.
The good news: Walker, who is building a home in Charlotte, seems loyal to the Hornets. Hornets management appears to feel the same. As vice chairman Curtis Polk told the Observer Tuesday, “We love Kemba Walker. We would like nothing more than for Kemba to end his career here.”
Except it’s not that simple. Not even close. Examining the Kemba issue:
Old GM, new GM
It’s no secret that Cho, who was fired Tuesday, networked with other NBA teams before the deadline, assessing Walker’s trade value. One of the incentives for doing that was to see if another team might take one of the Hornets’ problematic contracts, in addition to Walker, in trade.
Cho is gone, as the team announced Tuesday that it would not extend his contract, but the Hornets still have payroll problems. Polk said Tuesday one of the first tasks for the new general manager will be figuring out how to lower the payroll, in order to add roster depth in the coming season. That probably means having to move a player with an attractive contract. That could mean someone as minor as reserve center Willy Hernangomez or someone as consequential as even Walker.
The two times in the NBA calendar trades are most frequently made are in late June and early July (the draft/start of free agency) and the February trade deadline. Seemingly, Walker would be more valuable as a trade commodity over the summer than four-plus months into next season. A team acquiring Walker would seemingly want a full season, on his current cheap contract, to appraise his value before addressing re-signing him.
So, what is Walker worth?
Some fans might find it hard to believe that 6-foot-1 Walker is a max-salary player. But if not, he’s certainly close, based on Hornets precedent. If the Hornets signed Nic Batum for $120 million over five seasons, and traded for Howard at approaching $50 million over two seasons, then Walker, a two-time All-Star, is worth twice or three times what he currently makes per season.
Potentially, this could be the miserable part. If it’s virtually inevitable Walker must reach unrestricted free agency before his future in Charlotte is resolved, then that’s a “concern” – Polk’s word. The worst of all alternatives would be Walker signing elsewhere, and the Hornets getting nothing for the best player in franchise history, since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004.
That very well could be job No. 1 for the new GM.