Charlotte Hornets

It’s ‘show me’ time if Charlotte Hornets don’t want to lose Kemba Walker

What Hornets must do to retain Kemba Walker.

Free agent Kemba Walker excepts to Charlotte Hornets to show him how they will win before he commits to re-signing.
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Free agent Kemba Walker excepts to Charlotte Hornets to show him how they will win before he commits to re-signing.

Money alone won’t get it done; the Charlotte Hornets must show Kemba Walker how they’re going to win if they expect him not to depart in free agency.

In July, Walker becomes an unrestricted free agent. That’s the first, and potentially only, time he’ll have such control over his NBA career path. Wherever Walker chooses, his next contract is sure to pay him far in excess of $100 million. He made it clear Thursday that compensation alone won’t drive this process.

“I want to win; I want to win,” Walker said during player interviews after the Hornets season ended Wednesday with a loss to the Orlando Magic. The Hornets missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season.

Walker was asked Thursday about a comment he made during the season about what Hornets management must do to retain him. Walker told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “They know.”

What did he mean, and has the front office responded?

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“I don’t think it’s started yet,” Walker said of the Hornets proving they can surround him with sufficient talent. “I think now the work begins for those guys. They’ll figure it out.”

‘Figure it out’

Hornets management has yet to figure it out in Walker’s eight seasons. They have qualified for the playoffs twice since drafting him 11th overall in 2011. Neither time did they advance beyond the first round. Walker has been an All-Star each of the past three seasons, the most recent time as a starter. He is a candidate this season for the elite All-NBA team.

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In Walker’s three All-Star seasons, the Hornets’ collective record is 111-135, a 45.1 winning percentage. That’s not what Walker signed up for, and no reasonable person would blame Walker for that mediocrity. As coach James Borrego said Thursday, Walker is this franchise’s “heartbeat,” not just for his skill, but for his leadership and character.

That will make him one of the most attractive free agents in the class of 2019. The Dallas Mavericks want him, and I assume so will the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and others with the salary-cap flexibility to make him a maximum offer.

So the fact that the Hornets can outbid other teams under NBA rules won’t by itself be Charlotte’s solution. I asked Walker on Thursday if he anticipates taking meetings with a wide range of teams once his free agency is official on July 1. Walker said he didn’t know, simply because the season just ended and free agency is a first for him.

“I don’t know what to expect,” he said of the months ahead.

But he does expect the Hornets to have a plan of action, and it better not be vague. Job One for general manager Mitch Kupchak, who is scheduled to meet with the media Friday, is giving Walker tangible reasons to stay beyond a big raise over his current $12 million a season.

Do and undo

Kupchak is now nearly a year into his tenure as general manager. He had a good first draft night, finding two keepers in Miles Bridges and Devonte Graham. He signed a veteran/mentor in point guard Tony Parker, who said he is 50-50 to return next season, based on how competitive the Hornets look.

Charlotte Hornets President of Basketball Operations & General Manager Mitch Kupchak talks to the media about the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft during a press conference at Spectrum Center on Tuesday, June 19, 2018. David T. Foster III

Kupchak didn’t make a deal at the trade deadline to augment the talent base. He has yet to find a way to unload one of the four veteran contracts, with salaries of $13 million or more next season, that clog this team’s player payroll.

Those contracts make it difficult to do anything significant in free agency. So short of the Hornets having exceptional lottery luck to jump into the draft’s top-3, it’s going to take a trade or two to show Walker progress.

That’s not unprecedented. In the days leading up to the 2015 draft, then-general manager Rich Cho acquired Nic Batum form Portland and Jeremy Lamb from Oklahoma City. You can question what the Hornets later paid to re-sign Batum, but both those trades fortified this team’s talent.

Kupchak has a tool in that pursuit: a trade exception of about $8 million from the Dwight Howard deal with the Brooklyn Nets. That would allow the Hornets to acquire a veteran contract without needing the cap room to absorb the salary. That exception expires in early July, so there is still time to use it.

That would be a way to show Walker progress. And the key word there is “show” — the time for talk in the absence of action has long passed.

Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker left the court on Wednesday, April 10, 2019 to uncertainty as to what will happen when he becomes a free agent during the off season. Walker scored 43 points for the Hornets in a losing effort against the Magic.

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.