The worst-case scenario for the Charlotte Hornets would be losing Kemba Walker for no compensation next summer. That potentially makes the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets major threats.
Based on current projections, the Knicks and Nets would both have tens of millions in salary-cap room next summer to make maximum-salary type offers to Walker, a New York native. Walker, who makes $12 million next season, will become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his seven-season NBA career.
Walker was named an All-Star each of the past two seasons. He has called Charlotte home in recent years, but the draw of New York would be strong when he plots out the remainder of his career. Many of Walker’s greatest career moments have been at the Knicks’ arena, Madison Square Garden, particularly leading Connecticut’s run to the Big East title in 2011. That launched the Huskies toward the national championship that season.
While New York is traditionally a mecca of sorts for basketball, the city has not produced much NBA talent in recent years; Walker is arguably the most accomplished New York native currently playing in the league.
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The Knicks drafted a point guard, Frank Ntilikina, in the first round in 2017, but Ntilikina might be better suited playing off the ball. The Knicks are looking to build around star big man Kristaps Porzingis.
The Nets are currently in the process of trading a point guard, former Hornet Jeremy Lin, to the Atlanta Hawks. The Nets traded for guard D’Angelo Russell, from the Los Angeles Lakers, last summer. Russell can play either guard spot. The Hornets trading Dwight Howard for then Nets-center Timofey Mozgov took Mozgov’s $16.7 million salary off Brooklyn’s payroll for the 2019-20 season.
If the Hornets retain Walker through next season, they can offer him more money over more seasons than any other team under NBA rules. However, signing Walker to a maximum or near-maximum salary could push the Hornets above the luxury-tax threshold, where the franchise has never previously gone.
Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak has called Walker the franchise’s “focal point” for both him and ownership. However, Kupchak has also acknowledged how tricky it is that the Hornets don’t have the player-payroll flexibility to lock up Walker before he becomes a free agent next summer.
“He is on a (contract) going forward that may make it a challenge to figure out” the best course, Kupchak said the day after the draft last month.
Kupchak’s predecessor, Rich Cho, explored trade possibilities for Walker last winter. At the time, Hornets owner Michael Jordan told the Observer he would only consider trading Walker if the Hornets got another All-Star quality player in return.