Scott Fowler

Charlotte Hornets shouldn’t give Kemba Walker a ‘supermax’ contract. Here’s why.

Hornets general manager on Kemba Walker’s free-agency

General manager Mitch Kupchak on Kemba Walker saying the chance to win more will factor heavily in his free agency decision.
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General manager Mitch Kupchak on Kemba Walker saying the chance to win more will factor heavily in his free agency decision.

Like just about everyone who has ever watched him play basketball for any length of time, I absolutely love Kemba Walker. Seeing him perform every night for the Charlotte Hornets has been a dazzling pleasure for the past eight seasons.

But that doesn’t mean the Hornets should give Walker the five-year, $221-million “supermax” contract that he is now eligible for with Charlotte due to making third-team All-NBA. To do so would doom the Hornets to another five years of irrelevance. As Tina Turner once sang, “What’s love got to do with it?”

I hate to say this, but the Hornets simply cannot offer Walker a supermax deal. It would be the wrong move at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.

Charlotte already knows what a team with Walker as its best player looks like – it looks like a team that has never won a single playoff series in Walker’s eight years in the Queen City. They’ve got to try a different approach because no matter how wondrous Walker has been, despite the three NBA All-Star teams he’s made in a row, this just isn’t working.

Kemba Walker_2017 Observer photo
Despite the brilliance of Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker over the past eight seasons, the team has never won a playoff series during his tenure and has missed the postseason entirely six times. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Let’s put it this way. Say you’ve wanted to lose the same 30 pounds for the past eight years. There’s this restaurant you love so much that you went there 80 times a year – the waiters are courteous, the food is good and the desserts can be spectacular.

But you’ve never lost more than 10 pounds, and then you always gained the weight back. And the restaurant – which has long been a real bargain — is about to more than triple its prices.

That restaurant is the International House of Kemba, and you really shouldn’t be eating there anymore. It’s better for you to just cut it out entirely, and it’s probably better for the restaurant, too, which could franchise itself for millions in a place like New York or Dallas.

Hornets could actually get worse

OK, maybe that’s a tortured analogy. Let’s just stick with the facts. Walker is a 29-year-old point guard generously listed at 6-foot-1. There’s a whole lot of miles on that extremely durable body. And while Walker has long been the Hornets’ best player, on a championship-caliber team he would ideally be about the third-best player. I don’t think a supermax contract should really go to anyone but perhaps the five best players in the entire league.

But if the Hornets give Walker that deal and he signs a contract averaging an astounding $44.2 million per year – all of the money guaranteed – you can’t improve the rest of the team, and actually it could get worse (see what happened to the Washington Wizards and John Wall). Jeremy Lamb is an unrestricted free agent, too, and if Walker gets the supermax you can just about guarantee Lamb is going somewhere else.

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.

The Hornets are in a terrible spot here, thanks to a cascading series of lousy draft picks and bad contracts (all of which had nothing to do with Walker). Now, they either must give about 35 percent of their entire salary cap to the best player in franchise history — but one who would be 34 years old when the contract ends — or else wave goodbye to their all-time leading scorer with no compensation, and then field a team that would struggle to win 30 games next season.

Then again, the Hornets haven’t exactly been killing it with Walker. In the past three seasons, with Walker doing exemplary work, the Hornets have won 36, 36 and 39 games and missed the playoffs every season. In Walker’s eight seasons, in fact, Charlotte has only made the playoffs twice and then went out in the first round each time.

Kemba an elite point guard. But...

Again, this is not Walker’s fault. He has maximized his ability and carried the Hornets on his back for most of 616 games in a Charlotte uniform. In the past four seasons, he has played in 98.2 percent of the Hornets’ games. He averaged a career-high 25.6 points per game last season. He has been gracious off the court and extraordinary on it. And he is an elite point guard who can score in bunches – a rare diamond, and one very hard to replace, in the no-handcheck NBA.

CLT_HORNETS_MAGIC_10.JPG
In April, Kemba Walker scored 43 points in what may have been his final game with the Charlotte Hornets. Walker becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1st. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

And yet all that hasn’t been enough. Walker told The Athletic recently while in Tokyo that Charlotte is his “first priority” when he hits free agency July 1. That’s just the sort of thing he’d say – Walker is extremely loyal, and it’s also true the Hornets can conceivably pay him about $81 million more than anyone else. What can he get from any other NBA team? A four-year contract, instead of a five-year one, for a total of $140 million.

Could the Hornets and Walker come to some sort of compromise outside of a supermax deal? That’d be great, and I hope it happens, but I don’t really see it. Walker probably figures that after the eight mostly great years he’s had in Charlotte that, if he stays with the Hornets, he deserves the maximum. If he’s not going to get that, he may as well go somewhere else and try to at least win a playoff series or two.

So will the Hornets offer him $221 million over five years (more than twice as much as Panthers quarterback Cam Newton got paid for his own five-year deal, incidentally) and consign themselves to more of the same?

As much as you and I would both miss Walker, no. They shouldn’t.

Shake the man’s hand. Wish him well. And – if a supermax is the only way Kemba Walker will stay in Charlotte – let him go.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”
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