Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak offered two absolutes Friday concerning Kemba Walker’s free-agency: that Walker is a “once-in-a-generation kind of player” and that “we’ll do everything we can to bring him back here.”
Praise might be obligatory, but that “everything we can” phrase sets a bar: The Hornets are all-in on a situation that is only partially within their control. Worse yet, there are few ways within the team’s predicament to make the roster more appealing.
Sure, Walker wants to get paid. But lots of other NBA teams can do that, too. He wants proof the Hornets will surround him with enough talent to win sooner than later. That hasn’t happened in Walker’s eight seasons in Charlotte and there are three months left to demonstrate progress.
I asked Kupchak how he felt about Walker saying Thursday that winning will weigh heavily in his free-agency, and that he expects the Hornets are addressing that. Kupchak said he wants all the players — not just Walker — to make winning their imperative.
“Kemba has been here eight years now; he has made the playoffs twice. That is not what he wants to do,” Kupchak replied. “Yeah, there is a sense of urgency. That’s my job.”
This is going to be tough. Kupchak inherited a mess when he became general manager a year ago: a player payroll clogged with veteran contracts and a history of disappointing lottery picks. He didn’t make a deal at the trade deadline to bolster the talent, and the Hornets missed their stated goal of a playoff appearance.
Walker — the franchise’s all-time scoring leader — is an unrestricted free agent for the first time. Walker is too nice to publicly call out his employer, but when he said Thursday, “I think now the work begins for those guys,” you can’t view that as anything less than a challenge to the front office to prove why he should return.
There are three ways to improve an NBA roster: free-agency, the draft and trades. As Kupchak acknowledged, the Hornets’ current contracts preclude a big splash in free-agency. They will have three draft picks — a first-rounder in the top 14, plus two second-rounders — that will add depth. But barring absurd lottery luck, the team’s choices will not land a star. So a trade is almost certainly the route, if there is one.
Teams can start making trades again, now that the regular season is over, but deals of any consequence probably will not materialize before the lead-up to the draft in late June.
Kupchak can try to unload one of his veteran contracts, but that would probably entail giving up an asset, such as a draft pick or a young player. That’s painful to do, and the Hornets chose not to do that at the February trade deadline to help the playoff chase.
More likely, a deal would involve the trade exception of about $8 million the Hornets acquired when they sent Dwight Howard to the Brooklyn Nets. That exception expires in mid-July, so it exists during the draft and the first week of free-agency.
“That is a tool that gives you flexibility,” Kupchak said of the exception, “whether that is a (one-to-one) trade or a multi-team trade.”
Does a veteran making no more than $8 million next season make a difference on the Hornets’ roster? That’s a dicey proposition, but one Kupchak absolutely must explore.
No turning back
When Kupchak said the Hornets would do “everything we can” to re-sign Walker, that was not just a statement of Kemba’s worth, but also that there’s no reverse course.
Fifteen months ago it become public that then-general manager Rich Cho had explored Walker’s trade value. Team owner Michael Jordan walked back that news by telling the Observer he wouldn’t consider trading Walker for anything less than another All-Star.
Other teams went after Walker both last summer and up to the February deadline, but the Hornets resisted a trade.
“Our decision was made not to do anything,” Kupchak said of trading Walker. “We do know what could happen.”
Specifically, they could lose Walker for nothing. They could get to the end game, offer him every dollar allowed under the rules, show him all the trade options to fortify the roster, and ask for a commitment.
Then, it’s all up to Walker and he could say, “Thanks, but I’m moving on.” And that would be one of this franchise’s darkest days.