Charlotte Hornets

Kemba Walker calls returning to Hornets his ‘first priority’ in Japan interview

Kemba Walker on NBA free agency

Kemba Walker will factor the Charlotte Hornets’ ability to win sooner than later in his free agent decision. It sounded April 12th like he anticipates being in the loop about possible roster upgrades.
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Kemba Walker will factor the Charlotte Hornets’ ability to win sooner than later in his free agent decision. It sounded April 12th like he anticipates being in the loop about possible roster upgrades.

In his first public comments since becoming eligible for the NBA’s “supermax” contract, All-Star point guard Kemba Walker said his “first priority” is to re-sign with the Charlotte Hornets.

During a promotional appearance in Japan, Walker told The Athletic’s Jared Weiss, “Oh, no question, Charlotte’s definitely my first priority” when he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1.

“That’s where I’ve been for eight years and that’s all I know. Not many people get a chance to play for one NBA team throughout their career.”

That reflects what Walker said just before training camp in September. However, when asked by the Observer, following the conclusion of a 39-43 season, whether he was still predisposed to re-sign with the Hornets, Walker said in April he didn’t know.

Since then, Walker was named third-team All-NBA. That qualifies him for a supermax contract, worth as much as $221 million over the next five years, but only if he re-signs with the Hornets. Walker being supermax-eligible widens the gap between what the Hornets and any of the other 29 NBA teams can offer him. The most he could get elsewhere: $140 million over four years.

However, the ability to pay Walker about $80 million more than any other team also increases the potential risk for the Hornets.

Walker, who turned 29 last month, is the Hornets’ all-time leading scorer and has been named an All-Star each of the past three seasons. Last season, he averaged a career-best 25.6 points. Walker’s last contract was a huge bargain for the Hornets, paying him $12 million a year.

This figures to be Walker’s last really big-money NBA contract. Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said in April (before Walker became supermax-eligible) that the Hornets intend to do whatever they can to re-sign Walker.

However, Kupchak also acknowledged that this is as much Walker’s decision whether to stay as it is the Hornets’ to pay him commensurate with his status. The Hornets have been to the playoffs only twice since drafting Walker 9th overall in 2011.

Walker has said repeatedly that gauging the ability to win will factor in his free-agent decision. Kupchak said in April he feels a sense of urgency to improve the roster with Walker’s decision months away. The Hornets have a difficult salary-cap situation, with about $98 million already committed to veterans and the first-round pick, No. 12 overall.

In his interview in Japan, Walker seemed to temper the perception he would have to sign elsewhere to feel good about his chance of winning the rest of his career.

“When I go on my Instagram, I see (fans write), ‘Kemba leave! Kemba get out of Charlotte!’” Walker told The Athletic. “People don’t understand, when they say you need to go ‘here’ and win, that winning is not guaranteed anywhere.”

The challenge is that signing Walker to by far the largest guaranteed contract in Charlotte sports history could run at cross purposes with improving the roster around him. The Hornets have another significant unrestricted free agent in shooting guard Jeremy Lamb, who figures to get a large raise over the $7 million he made last season.

Re-signing Walker could push the Hornets into the luxury tax, a penalty paid to the league by high-spending teams. Being a tax team wouldn’t just cost owner Michael Jordan additional millions, it would also limit the team’s ability to sign free agents and make trades.

While Walker’s upcoming free agency will be expensive and complex, it’s obvious how beloved he is among teammates. Center Cody Zeller posted a humorous tweet Saturday, setting up a lemonade stand to help pay what will be massive salaries if Walker returns.

As Zeller said, standing behind a “Keep Kemba in Charlotte” stand:

“Only one month until free agency starts in the NBA! Fundraising has already begun, though!”