Mitch Kupchak has stated the Charlotte Hornets won’t go over the luxury tax threshold for Kemba Walker, and that may be enough to push him out the door.
Though the free agency moratorium for the Charlotte Hornets (and the rest of the league) won’t begin until Sunday, June 30 at 6 p.m., negotiations essentially began the day the Los Angeles Lakers agreed to trade for Anthony Davis.
With that move setting the tone for the 2019 NBA offseason, the rumor mill kicked into high gear once again, including the year-long questions regarding Kemba Walker and his future with the Hornets.
The front office had to feel some sense of relief during the NBA Finals when Kemba Walker said he would be wiling to take less than the supermax contract he could get from the team by making the All-NBA Third Team.
However, based on recent reports in the last week or two, it’s looking unlikely that the Hornets and Walker will be reunited for another five years. Add in Mitch Kupchak‘s comments post-NBA Draft and it feels as though another team could swoop in to secure the All-Star point guard’s services.
According to Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer, Kupchak has already set the stage of how much money he’s willing to give to free agents.
"“Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said twice following the draft that the Hornets do not intend to be a taxpayer in the coming year.”"
A few days before the 2019 NBA Draft, Walker made it known that he’s already planning to speak with various teams in addition to what the Hornets have to offer.
Then, as of just a few days ago, the Boston Celtics have appeared to be in the mix even more than the Hornets, Lakers or Dallas Mavericks.
Three days before the start of free agency, the Hornets seemingly dropped to the bottom of the list.
So the big question now is whether the Hornets can compete with the other suitors that are vying for Kemba Walker’s talents. As of now, the Celtics, Mavericks, Lakers and even New York Knicks have been mentioned as possible landing spots for Walker.
The Knicks may be viewing Kemba as a last-minute option if they can’t get Kevin Durant and/or Kyrie Irving. The Lakers could be in the running now too with AD waiving his trade kicker, giving L.A. just enough money to become even more dangerous.
As of right now, it seems as they Celtics and Mavericks are the closest competition for Charlotte to secure Walker.
The Mavs could become instant playoff contenders if they could convince Walker to join the party in Dallas. They can pitch two international, budding young stars in Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic and forward Kristaps Porzingis, who is about to make bank.
While the Mavericks plan to keep Porzingis in the fold with a lot of money, thanks to owning his Bird Rights, they can still offer a max deal of four years and $141 million to Walker. If they are able to sign Walker (or any other free agent) before officially signing Porzingis, Dallas would be able to legally exceed their salary cap with box max deals, as KP is their own free agent.
A backcourt duo of Doncic and Walker would instantly become one of the best in the league based on their performances last season. Doncic won the ROY award thanks to 21.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 rebounds per game; Walker set career highs in points (25.6 per game) and 3-pointers made (3.2 per game).
Walker also proved to play well off the ball as well when Tony Parker was running the floor, so while it may be an odd fit at first, Walker and Doncic should be able to feed off of each other as well.
This may not be the best fit for Walker in terms of winning a championship, as the team only won 33 games last season, but his supporting cast in Charlotte seems to pale in comparison to what he could have in Dallas.
If Walker wanted to stay in the Eastern Conference, Boston makes a lot of sense from both a financial and competitive standpoint. He would be able to join a team that still has a majority of its pieces — minus Al Horford and Kyrie Irving — that was just in the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals.
The Celtics would have to do a lot of maneuvering around with their salary cap and cap holds, but with a few quick moves and the renouncing of all their free agents (most notably Terry Rozier), they could also offer Walker a max contract.
Many believe that the talent difference between Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker is not that big of a difference (and the basic stats agree). The organization seems to really like the leadership qualities of Walker too — something that may have been lacking with Irving. Boston could conceivably compete with Dallas in terms of offering a tantalizing supporting cast.
While not having Rozier would hurt their backcourt depth, Walker would be able to play with two excellent young wing players in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who put up a combined 27.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per game last year.
Plus if you throw in All-Star Gordon Hayward, who would hopefully not be so rusty next year, you have a great nucleus that, despite not really have a big man right now, should still be able to compete for a top-four playoff seed in the East — something Walker has never been able to truly do.
Shifting back to the Hornets, while their draft wasn’t spectacular, they do have one thing that no other team can offer: a five-year contract.
However, if the Hornets want to be able to offer a five-year contract and stay under the luxury tax all at the same time, can that offer truly beat out potential playoff and championship contenders?
As it stands right now, Charlotte’s salary cap sheet has $98 million in guaranteed contracts – with $85 million of that eaten up by Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — a lineup that doesn’t exactly instill fear in other teams around the league.
Kemba is obviously the big fish the Hornets want to keep, but his backcourt running mate the last four years, Jeremy Lamb, is also a free agent this year. If the team wants Walker, it won’t have money for Lamb. Frank Kaminsky had a solid second half of 2018-19, but he’s already been told he’s not a part of the team’s plans for 2019-20.
Kupchak could use the stretch provision for one of his one-year contracts of MKG, Biyombo or Williams. This would allow Charlotte to spread the money of the one-year contract over three years. Depending on who was stretched, this could allow the Horents to save anywhere from $8.7 million to $11.3 million this year.
If we go the low-end, the max room without exceeding the luxury drops from $101 million to $92.3 million. This would give Charlotte nearly $40 million to offer Kemba, which would be very close to the supermax that he is eligible for.
The Hornets aren’t likely to do so, however, and even if they did field a five-year offer in the $200 million range, they’d have limited flexibility to improve the roster. That situation probably wouldn’t be enough to retain Walker, but it’s one Charlotte won’t even approach, per The Charlotte Observer‘s Rick Bonnell:
"“The Charlotte Hornets have offered less than $170 million to re-sign Kemba Walker, meaning that there’s a strong chance the All-NBA point guard agrees to terms with another NBA team when free agency opens Sunday night.“An Observer source confirmed that the Hornets aren’t comfortable paying $170 or more over five years — far less than they’re allowed under NBA rules — over concern they would end up paying the league’s luxury tax.”"
Not paying the luxury tax is very important to Michael Jordan and Mitch Kupchak. It hinders the revenue sharing the Hornets would receive, and while they’d retain a beloved star, the Hornets would just be making their horrible cap situation even worse.
Even $170 million over five years would be almost $2 million less per year than other teams can offer on a four-year deal, so it definitely won’t be enough if Walker wants to create his legacy right now and have a shot at a championship.
If Charlotte decides not to do what it takes to secure Kemba Walker, it will purely be a business move. This team has very little in terms of flexibility to improve the roster, and letting Walker leave — hard as it would be for the fanbase — might be the best move in the long run.