Storyline: Kemba Walker Free Agency

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Kupchak reinforced that everything else this off-season is secondary to re-signing Walker, who is eligible for a new contract of up to $221 million over the next five years. “You’re talking about a substantial contract that goes out many years. When that happens, it creates some financial inflexibility that you have to deal with,” Kupchak said. “We have to be mindful of a Kemba contract, should we be lucky enough to re-sign him. There could be limitations (on other roster moves), absolutely.”

Because of salary cap rules, if the trade is consummated in late July, the Lakers would have the space to add another maximum contract. That cap space could be used on players like Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker, all-star point guards who will be free agents. That scenario would require the Lakers to draft the fourth overall pick for the Pelicans, or whatever team has its rights by the time of the draft, then sign that player as quickly as possible. League rules do not allow a signed draft pick to be traded for 30 days, which would make July 20 the earliest date the trade could be consummated.

With free agency less than three weeks away, the situation in Charlotte certainly bears watching. If the Hornets offer Walker a max deal, it seems logical to assume that he stays there. Of course, only Walker — and Walker alone — knows what he wants to do this summer. And he probably won’t have a strong idea about where he wants to sign until he meets with the Hornets or other suitors in a few weeks. But some opposing execs monitoring Charlotte’s free agent situation believe, currently, that if Walker chose to sign somewhere outside of Charlotte, going to New York isn’t a likely outcome for the point guard, per SNY sources.

“I try to keep things pretty light, but in all reality it’s a pretty serious situation for all of us,” Zeller said. “I mean, our careers and a lot of the organization to be honest with you depends on what Kemba decides this summer, whether he stays or goes. I think it really depends on his choice. But our team and our future can go two very different ways depending on what he decides. So I was kind of trying to make light of a serious situation. But I think for Kemba, he’s been great. I’ve been fortunate to play with him for all six years of my career, and a lot of minutes on the court together, and he’s been great.”

The Hornets and Kemba Walker both have each other as top priorities entering July 1, league sources said. Walker confirmed to Jared Weiss of The Athletic that the Hornets remain his “first priority” during his tour of Tokyo as an NBA ambassador there during the NBA Finals. Walker made the All-NBA third team this year after another spectacular season, allowing him to sign a five-year, $221 million super maximum contract. There is doubt around the NBA that the Hornets will reach that high amount, but owner Michael Jordan’s loyalty has always been with Walker.

Charlotte 'first priority' for Kemba Walker

For Walker, the decision is easy. “Oh no question, Charlotte’s definitely my first priority,” he said. “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. When I go on my Instagram, I see, ‘Kemba leave! Kemba get out of Charlotte!’ People don’t understand, when they say you need to go ‘here’ and win, that winning is not guaranteed anywhere.”

He’s heard the reports that teams like New York and Dallas may be lining up to make a max offer, and he’s heard even more speculation that a return to his hometown plays to his heart. But he cherishes how his career and relationship with his new home have flourished. “Charlotte is my home, man,” Walker said. “I’ve been there for eight years and it’s been the most amazing eight years of my life. My family, they love it. The fans love me. The organization has been great and gave me my opportunity.”

Walker is in the middle of his prime now. So is that fifth year vital to him? “I think so,” he said. “I think at my age, whoever is my age in this situation, I think the fifth year is always important to them. So yeah, it’s important for sure. But I don’t know, we gon’ see if we’re gonna work something out and figure it out. Hopefully, things work out, but it’s all about that god knows where I’m gonna go. He’s the only one who knows where I’m going right now, honestly. So I’m just going to let this thing play out.”

By being All-NBA, point guard Walker would become eligible for a “supermax” contract, worth as much as $221 million over the next five years. That would increase the potential advantage the Charlotte Hornets have to re-sign him in July. But it could also raise the cost of retaining him by more than $30 million. The three All-NBA teams include six guards. Five guards appear to be locks to make the cut, in voting by media who regularly cover the NBA: James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving. That last spot probably comes down to a close call between Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson and Walker, who averaged a career-best 25.6 points and was an All-Star for the third consecutive season.

Since Kemba is one of the top free agents on the market and it’s his first time experiencing what it’s like, I don’t think we will get an answer until after free agency opens at 12:01 a.m. ET on July 1. That’s when teams can officially begin negotiating with free agents and come to verbal agreements. Teams can officially sign free agents and complete trades on July 6 once the league’s moratorium period ends. But even when teams can really start throwing money around, I don’t think Kemba’s status is going to come to light until the first couple of dominoes fall (ie: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, etc.). Kemba is in that next tier just below those guys. It’s honestly all up to Kemba and his agent Jeff Schwartz. They will set the timeline. But the longer it drags out, the more concerned Hornets’ fans should be about his chances of returning.

One source close to Harris’ camp explained how Tobias likes his role in Philadelphia, but the idea of returning home is something he will likely consider this summer. Other names have been mentioned, such as Jimmy Butler, who put the Nets atop his list of destinations when demanding a trade out of Minnesota. Similar to Tobias, a source close to Kemba Walker said the star point guard is intrigued by the idea of coming back to play in his home state — including both the Knicks and Nets.

Ask people in the NBA which teams might come after Walker, and the responses are what you’d expect: The Knicks, especially if Irving remains in Boston. The Lakers, who will be desperate to surround LeBron with talent and might be stuck choosing between second-tier stars like Walker, Jimmy Butler and DeMarcus Cousins. There are whispers around the NBA that the Mavericks are intrigued by Walker, but it’s hard to discern where that rumor arose and if it’s anything more than another game of NBA telephone.

Contradictory as it sounds, Walker being named All-NBA could be detrimental to the Hornets. “They’re fucked either way,” is how three (!) different NBA front-office people described the situation. Let Walker go, and, as one scout said, “They’d be like an expansion team.” Ink him to the supermax and Charlotte would be diving into dangerous waters. As great as Walker is, he’s proved that he’s not capable of carrying a team deep into the playoffs on his own. He’ll also turn 29 in May, bringing him right up to the age where players often begin declining. “It’d be like the John Wall deal,” one front-office person said. “They should have traded him last year, when his value was high. They could have just reset.”

The contract would also push the Hornets right up to the tax line, a threshold team owner Michael Jordan has always avoided crossing. In other words, signing Walker would force the Hornets to run the same group back next year. “They’d be saddling themselves up to mediocrity for years,” one of the front-office people said. The only path out of NBA purgatory would be Walker remaining healthy, promising prospect Miles Bridges continuing to develop, and Charlotte finding Walker a worthy No. 2 next summer, when the weighty contracts of Marvin Williams, Bismack Biyombo and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist ($45 million in total cap space) come off the books. “The surrounding pieces aren’t so bad,” another of the front-office people said. “They just need another guy in there so they can all slide down a role.”

The Charlotte Hornets had a chance to swing the table and prove to Kemba Walker they’re capable of acquiring talent by trading for Marc Gasol. Yet when a potential deal slipped from their grip, the Hornets star was deflated to see he would no longer be getting help to chase a spot in the postseason. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski detailed the incident in The Woj Pod: “I got the sense in talking to people, that trade deadline really deflated him,” Wojnarowski said of Walker. “When they were pretty close on a Marc Gasol deal, and it fell apart. It didn’t happen. He goes to Toronto. And he looks around and goes, “Come on, what are we trying to do here?”

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.” … 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.

In the meantime, Charlotte has won three straight – including yesterday’s big victory over the Pistons – to remain in the playoff race. Walker insists he’s focused on finishing this season strong, not setting up his next contract. “There’s no way I could play basketball thinking about those kind of things,” Walker said. “You know what I mean? Yeah, I just can’t. I just can’t go on the court thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get 30 because I need to.’ I just can’t think about those kind of things. I mean, I see it, hear about it. But it’s nothing that comes to my attention too much.”

Walker will hit unrestricted free agency for the first time. “I don’t know how it goes,” he said. “Me and my agent will sit down and get it right.” It appears he has plans to stay. He recently bought land on which to build a home outside of Charlotte. “I feel like it’s a normal life for me,” Walker said. “I’m never overwhelmed here whenever I do want to get out of the house – walk around, walk around the mall, be me. That’s what I love the most.”

Walker prefers it this way. On the court, his game is the embodiment of the New York City product he is, full of pull-ups, hesitations, crossovers and dimes. Off the court, he would rather be as he is now, in a familiar setting and out of the spotlight. “I love it,” he said of Charlotte during a conversation the previous week before repeating himself for emphasis. “I love it. It’s perfect for me. The pace of the city is pretty slow, which I love. It’s not fast-paced like New York. … I’m able to just live pretty much a normal life. I’m able to go out and eat and not really be bothered. Go to the mall and walk around, not really be bothered. That’s what I like, personally. That’s the kind of life I like to live.”

Walker has given every indication he enjoys Charlotte and prefers forming a long-term partnership with the Hornets. He signed his expiring deal in a different NBA economic climate. But the fact that he is the 21st-highest-paid point guard in the league, behind the likes of Brandon Knight, Jeremy Lin and Jordan Clarkson, according to Spotrac, likely isn’t lost on him. “Kemba is a bit of a mellow guy, and I think he likes the laid-back attitude of the city,” said Jeff Schwartz, Walker’s agent. “I think he’s just really comfortable. Think about where Kemba grew up. He grew up in New York, and Charlotte is really different. I think Kemba is completely comfortable in New York, but from a lifestyle and growing up and becoming an adult and having a life outside of the gym, I just think he’s really comfortable. I think it’s symbiotic with the way Charlotte has treated him and the way he reacts to Charlotte.”
6 months ago via ESPN

Hornets star Kemba Walker says he has talked to general manager Mitch Kupchak about what Charlotte has in store for roster upgrades but that he wasn’t getting involved beyond that, signaling he will take a wait-and-see approach to his free agency this summer. “They know. They know what they got to do,” Walker said in an appearance on ESPN’s The Jump that aired Tuesday. “That’s not my job. I’ll leave it up to those guys. “We have Mitch now, who’s a great guy who’s done a great job at building teams over his GM career,” Walker added, referring to the former longtime Lakers executive who joined the Hornets last April. “And I have a lot of trust in him. So, you know, we talk all the time. Who knows?”

What more can he say at this point? What more can he do to back it up? In the past two games Walker has compiled 103 points on 35-of-59 shooting. He is the NBA’s scoring leader at 29.6 points per game. He is playing at a level where hearing an “MVP” chant in the fourth quarter didn’t feel contrived. He knows you love him, Charlotte. And he loves you back. “I think they know,” Walker said of his affection and attachment to his team and his town. “I’ve said it so many times. The way I play each and every night, I leave it all on the court. That’s for this organization and for this city. “So, yeah, that’s how I show it.”

You said when you arrived here that Kemba Walker would be a “focal point” of this team moving forward. Can you definitively say he’s off the trading block now, that he’s not going anywhere? Mitch Kupchak: He’s a free agent this year, so I’m not sure what I’m allowed to say with the league. But our intention is for him to end his career in a Hornet uniform. It sounds like you and he are in agreement, then. He said he doesn’t want to go anywhere and wants to re-sign here. Mitch Kupchak: Yeah, I’ve read the things he said. He’s beloved here. He’s our All-Star. So, why wouldn’t you want to have him end his career here? He’s been here from the beginning. He’s beloved in the community. It sounds like he wants to stay here. There’s nothing that can be done about that now. Next summer, we’ll do what we have to do.

JJ Redick: “This week, you did the NBPA camp, and the New York media asked you about playing at home… I feel like this notion, of playing at home, a lot of guys don’t want to do it. Why do you think that is?” Kemba Walker: “I think it’s just hard coming back home. New York is New York. I’m from here. But you know, I’m just very comfortable in Charlotte. That’s why I gave [the media] those answers. Charlotte was the first team to give me my opportunity out of college, and during the draft, I had no idea where I was going. So I get asked questions about New York all the time, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ I’ve been on one team my whole entire career so far and I’ll be a free agent next season, so, we’ll see.”

JJ Redick: “As you’ve seen this summer, this notion of player loyalty gets thrown out. So in the back of your mind, I understand what you’re saying publicly, but there’s gotta be a part of you that’s basically like, ‘I gotta do what’s best for me.'” Kemba Walker: “I think at some point, it’s gonna come down to that – it’s gonna come down to be making the best decision for me and my family. But at this particular moment, at this time, Charlotte is where I want to be. It’s the team that gave me my first opportunity. I just want to give back to the community, to the organization, just like I’ve done, but I want to continue to do it. I just want to help the organization become successful, and I think I can. You can count on your hand how many times we’ve been to the playoffs – we really haven’t been successful. I want to be one of the guys that helps that organization really become successful, I want to be in the playoffs every single year. And that’s a huge part of why I don’t want to leave.”

Last season, Walker averaged 22.1 points and 5.6 assists and averaged even more trade rumors — a first for him. “Yeah, of course, who wouldn’t it bother?” Walker said of the trade reports. “Who wants to hear their name in trade rumors? At the same time, I’m seven years in. That was my first time ever hearing anything of that nature. I got over it. What can I do? I tried to ignore it, not think about it as much. I’m in Charlotte. I’m excited to be a Hornet as long as possible.

Kemba Walker can’t avoid it. Whenever he sets foot in the five boroughs, the questions come from every direction. “I’ve been hearing it for years,” Walker said Thursday, after working with youngsters at the National Basketball Players Association summer camp. “Every time I come home, ‘When are you going to come home and play for the Knicks?’ I know it’s a special place, I was a Knicks fan growing up, always rooted for the home team. But I just can’t see myself in a Knicks jersey, only because I’ve only been in one jersey.”

The 28-year-old Walker has been the subject of possible NBA trade talks as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract with the Hornets. That speculation has amped up recently because it is a practical impossibility for Charlotte to sign Walker to an extension before he becomes a free agent in July of 2019 since the Hornets are so tight under the salary cap. “I think everybody is aware of the situation, if you follow basketball a little bit, it is unique that he is on an extension that may make it a challenge going forward to figure out before he becomes a free agent,” Kupchak said.
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As a pending free agent himself, however, Green acknowledged that it’s difficult to be definitive about anything else until Leonard decides whether to stay or go. “I don’t know,” Green said, insisting that he has no insider intel on Leonard’s plans even though they played together in San Antonio and became Raptors together when the Spurs dispatched them to Canada via trade on July 18, 2018. “He may not know, but I don’t know, either. I’m probably more confused or more up in the air than he is.”