NBA Rumor: Kemba Walker Free Agency

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“The Hornets offer, I’m told, wasn’t even really close to the max contract offer of $190M.” NBA Insider @ShamsCharania on Kemba Walker leaving his longtime Charlotte organization for a “fresh start” in Boston.

Kemba Walker is eligible to re-sign with the Hornets on a five-year super-max contract that projects to be worth $221 million. Instead, he sounds increasingly likely to join the Celtics. Stephen A. Smith on ESPNews: “My sources tell me that Kemba Walker has informed the Charlotte Hornets and Michael Jordan he does not want to be there. He was offered a five-year deal. It wasn’t the super-max deal he was qualified for. It was somewhere in the ballpark of 160-plus million.”

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.”
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