Charlotte Hornets

Here’s the biggest threat to poach Kemba Walker from the Charlotte Hornets.

Threats to sign Kemba Walker away from the Charlotte Hornets this summer? Place this team at the top of your list:

The Dallas Mavericks.

Two sources with knowledge of the Mavericks’ thinking expect Walker, the Hornets’ three-time All-Star point guard, to be that team’s top target when NBA free-agency begins July 1.

Although the Mavericks are only 27-39 this season — second-worst record in the Western Conference — they will have both the salary-cap flexibility to offer a free agent a maximum contract this summer and an appealing future to pitch with abundant young talent on the roster.

This summer, Walker becomes an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his eight-season NBA career. He has said Charlotte has become home and that he’d like to finish the job of making the Hornets a winning franchise.

However, he has also talked about the importance of making the remainder of his playing career meaningful, as far as regularly making playoff appearances and advancing beyond the first round.

The Hornets have twice qualified for the playoffs in Walker’s time in Charlotte. Neither time did they advance beyond the first round. The Hornets are now chasing the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. At 30-36 entering Monday’s night’s road game against the Houston Rockets, they are contending primarily with the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic for the last of eight playoff spots.

Why could the Mavericks present such a threat? Consider:

Player payroll flexibility: The Mavericks have guaranteed salaries for next season totaling roughly $46 million, which is less than half of the projected per-team salary cap for 2019-20 (about $109 million). So Mark Cuban’s team has more than enough payroll flexibility to offer Walker more than any other team besides the Hornets (approximately $140 million over the next four seasons) and still have room to improve the roster in other ways.

Appealing talent: The Mavericks have the likely NBA Rookie of the Year in small forward-shooting guard Luka Doncic. They also traded for a top big man in currenty injured Kristaps Porzingis. Both of those players are on affordable contracts within the NBA’s rookie-scale system. To acquire Porzingis from the New York Knicks, the Mavericks dealt away a promising point guard in former N.C. State star Dennis Smith Jr. Point guard is arguably the Mavericks’ greatest need. Walker has never had the opportunity to play with NBA talent comparable to Doncic and Porzingis.

Aggressive ownership: Cuban is known for being a dynamic, hands-on owner prepared to pay big to assemble a winning team. The Mavericks won the NBA championship in 2011 with a roster built around future Hall of Fame forward Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki is expected to retire after this season. In the competitive sports market that is Dallas-Fort Worth, Cuban has demonstrated both the means and the willingness to spend to stay relevant.

Teams are barred by NBA tampering rules from discussing players under contract to other teams.

Hornets advantages/issues

There are advantages built into the NBA system that work in favor of the team attempting to retain talent. This summer, the Hornets will have the option to offer Walker more salary, both in year-to-year raises and a fifth guaranteed season, than any other team. The most the Hornets could offer Walker is about $190 million over five seasons; that maximum could rise to $221 million over five seasons if Walker is named to the All-NBA team at the end of this season.

Walker hasn’t spoken at length about free-agency since late September, the day before Hornets training camp began in Chapel Hill. That day, Walker said he intended to re-sign with the Hornets. (Under salary-cap rules, there is no practical way for the Hornets to sign Walker to a new market-value contract until his current contract expires).

“This is where I want to be. I don’t want to be nowhere else. I want to create something special here in Charlotte, something we’ve never had here (in 30 years of NBA history). I want to create some consistency,” Walker saidin what he promised would be his final statement on free-agency during the season.

The Hornets haven’t demonstrated much consistency this season. Their top short-term goal is to reach the playoffs, which is a dicey proposition at this point. They will be limited in pursuit of additional talent this summer by a handful of expensive veteran salaries, including the $25 million-plus guaranteed to Nic Batum and the $17 million for Bismack Biyombo.

Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak, in his first season in this job, has said repeatedly that his and owner Michael Jordan’s intent is for Walker to finish his NBA career as a Hornet.

“I’m optimistic and I’m hopeful, as I always have been, that Kemba started his career in a Hornets uniform and ends it in one,” Kupchak said following the February trade deadline (when the Hornets chose not to make a deal).

However, in that same interview, Kupchak acknowledged, “Really, what (Walker) thinks is much more important than what I think.”

Potentially many suitors

Other teams than the Mavericks would also have salary-cap flexibility and incentive to pursue Walker in July. Among them:

Knicks: Yes, trading for Smith provides them with a young point guard of major potential still on a rookie-scale contract. But Walker is a New York City native with an exceptional history at Madison Square Garden, including the Big East tournament run in 2011 that launched Connecticut to the national championship. Pairing Walker with another free agent-to-be, such as Golden State’s Kevin Durant, would be quite a draw.

Indiana Pacers: Would playing with another All-Star guard, in Victor Oladipo, appeal to Walker? The Pacers have a lot of their own free agents to address, but a Walker-Oladipo pairing would be one of the best backcourts in the Eastern Conference.

Los Angeles Lakers: Signing LeBron James puts the Lakers in win-now mode, which they obviously aren’t doing this season. Lonzo Ball has been good at point guard, but not so good as to preclude this front office from exploring options. The Lakers will have a maximum-contract slot available.

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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