If you were Charlotte Hornets management, what would you need to justify trading All-Star point guard Kemba Walker?
Just as importantly, what would one of the other 29 NBA teams justify giving up to acquire Walker?
Those assessments are far more complicated than just Walker’s statistics. It’s about fit, age and size. It’s about contracts, salary caps and collective bargaining agreements. It’s about Walker being a year away from free agency. It’s about how much or little new Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak believes this roster must be taken apart to be improved.
I’m asked Kemba Walker trade questions more than about any other Hornets topic. I wanted to write something about what might influence Walker’s potential trade value. So I asked ESPN front office insider Bobby Marks, formerly assistant general manager of the Brooklyn Nets, for insight on what could affect whether the Hornets choose to trade Walker, a two-time All-Star and clearly this team’s greatest asset.
It became public last winter that then-general manager Rich Cho checked around the league about Walker before the trade deadline. The coverage that generated caused Hornets owner Michael Jordan to call the Observer, stating then he wasn’t looking to deal Walker, and wouldn’t consider a move for anything less than another All-Star (mentioning San Antonio Spur Kawhi Leonard as an example).
“We bred him, we chose him, we groomed him to be a good player for us,” Jordan told the Observer. “I’m not looking to trade Kemba, but I would listen to opportunities.”
Walker wasn’t traded and was then selected as an injury replacement for his second consecutive All-Star appearance. But the circumstances that would encourage the Hornets to consider a trade – Walker becoming an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019, and the team’s failure to make the playoffs each of the past two seasons – remain.
Walker considers Charlotte home after seven years here and is building a dream house in the Charlotte area. However, he has also said playoff appearances are his career priority. So how Kupchak views the rebuild process (he has said there is no plan to “blow up” the roster) could factor in Walker’s long-term plans.
Kupchak said in April he isn’t put off by Walker’s position on the rest of his career.
"I think anybody would say that, so I don’t think that is something to over-react to,” Kupchak said. “I like a player who doesn’t want to be somewhere that they are going to lose.”
Walker has one season left, at $12 million, on the four-year, $48 million contract. That salary is far below the market for an All-Star point guard. He'd likely make at least double that as an unrestricted free agent, and would qualify for a maximum salary under the NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement of more than $30 million a season.
Many NBA teams spent so much in the summer of 2016, when the cap rose dramatically because of the new national television money, that just a handful of teams will be significantly under the cap when the new fiscal year begins July 1.
Walker will be just the sixth-highest paid player on the roster, with center Dwight Howard and shooting guard Nic Batum combining to make nearly $48 million next season. The Hornets will start out July 1 near the luxury-tax threshold, limiting Kupchak’s ability to sign free agents or add salary in trades.
Art of a deal
The Hornets have a whole new basketball operation now with Kupchak as general manager and James Borrego replacing Steve Clifford as coach. Marks said it’s key for Kupchak and Borrego to glean from Walker what he wants going forward. If that leads to pursuing a trade, then work collaboratively with Walker and his agent, Jeff Schwartz.
Very few teams would have the cap space to immediately offer Walker a new contract of market value under the rules. Most teams would have to trade for him on faith that Walker would re-sign there next summer.
Marks said if he were overseeing such a process, he might ask Schwartz for a short list of preferred teams, then grant those teams a window of a couple days to interact with Schwartz and Walker to assess fit. If he was overseeing a team on that list, he’d be probing as to Walker’s intentions before agreeing to a trade.
“A general manager is not going to want to hear, ‘I want to leave my options open’ “ regarding free agency in the summer of 2019, Marks said.
Marks told me the combination of this being a weak class of free-agent point guards and few teams having considerable cap space heading into July could work to the Hornets’ advantage if Kupchak looks for a Walker trade.
Marks said if teams aren’t excited about what’s available in free agency in July, then they could instead make over rosters with trades in June. Cho did that in 2015, acquiring Batum and Jeremy Lamb while preparing for the draft.
Marks cautioned that Walker might never be more valuable as a trade commodity than he is this summer. That’s not a reflection on Walker, but rather on teams valuing the season left on his contract.
“It’s hard for a player to get a good comfort level (with a new team) in the last eight weeks of the regular season,” Marks said of February deadline trades.
What’s Walker worth?
If there is a team or teams out there confident enough Walker would re-sign with them, then what is a realistic asking price for the Hornets?
Marks said Jordan’s expectation of an All-Star in return is a high bar to reach. Also, what form a trade might take would be influenced by to what extent Kupchak wants to rebuild.
“The starter has to be a first-round pick in the lottery – now or next year,” Marks projected, saying he’d also expect a young player as part of a package for Walker.
And what about convincing a team to take a bad contract off the Hornets’ payroll?
“The only way that happens,” Marks predicted, “is if the other team gets a commitment long-term” from Walker to re-sign.
In summary, Marks said Walker is appealing as a commodity for many teams: He's proven at 28, but not high-mileage, and he plays a crucial position.
“There aren’t a lot of All-Star point guards out there,” Marks said. “Walker is an asset a lot of teams would see as a way to get better.”