When the Charlotte Hornets selected Kemba Walker ninth-overall in the 2011 NBA Draft, it was a sigh of relief for the Connecticut point guard. He had no idea where he was getting drafted. In his mind, going in the late-first round was on the table.
“I had no idea where I was going,” Walker told SB Nation in January. “My agent didn’t even have an idea where I was going at the time. He was showing me rumors. It was crazy. I didn’t know if I was gonna go ninth, if I was gonna go 20th, or late first-round. I just didn’t know.”
That didn’t happen. Instead, Walker went in the top-10 to a Charlotte city and franchise he fell in love.
But after eight years and just three playoff game victories, this is becoming a a love story shaping out to turn ugly. It looks like Walker will be leaving for greener pastures, unless he and the Hornets can bridge the financial gap that exists.
The latest rumors
Walker’s looming free agency came to the forefront of the discussion last summer, after reports leaked that the Hornets listened to trade offers for their All-Star guard. He has maintained that Charlotte is the place he wants to be, but whether or not the Hornets want to keep him has been the question.
The price tag to keep Walker shot up after he made third-team all-NBA in 2018-19, cementing his eligibility for a $221 million supermax contract extension. But it appears there’s a sizable gap between Walker’s number and Charlotte’s, allowing other teams have entered the bidding war for the All-Star’s services. The Celtics seem like the leader in the pack after losing Kyrie Irving.
- June 27: How Boston can create space to sign Walker to the max
- June 27: Celtics emerge as front-runners to sign Walker in free agency
- June 27: Walker and Hornets have “sizable gaps and stalemate” in contract negotiations
- June 20: Mavs have ‘as good a chance as any’ to steal Walker from Hornets
How we got here
Walker, once a raw scorer with superior handles, became an All-Star starter for the first time this season. His averages of 25.6 points and 5.9 assists per game dazzled, giving Charlotte fans a reason to stomach an otherwise indigestible Hornets team.
But the Hornets have been just that: indigestible. They’ve missed the playoffs in six of Walker’s eight seasons in the league, and have failed to put talented player alongside the best talent they’ve had since Chris Paul. Walker took a discount on his rookie scale contract extension in 2015 to give the Hornets a chance to put more talent around him. Here are the contracts they handed out in the ensuing seasons:
- Five years, $120 million to Nicolas Batum
- Four years, $54.5 million to Marvin Williams
- Four years, $52 million to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
- Four years, $56 million to Cody Zeller
The Hornets traded for Miles Plumlee, himself on a four-year, $50 million deal, then moved him on to the Hawks for Dwight Howard, who was about to start the second year of a three-year, $70.5 million deal. Then, they traded Howard to the Nets for Timofey Mozgov, on the third year of a four-year, $64 million deal. Then, they dealt Mozgov to the Magic for Bismack Biyombo, who has one more season worth $17 million on his contract. They have no cap space to get better via free agency, and no contracts any teams want via trade.
Then there's Walker, who has turned himself into an All-Star starter and has been underpaid the entire way. The All-Star designation qualifies him for a designated player’s max extension of a five-year, $221 million supermax deal. He has endured years of organizational ineptitude from a front office that has failed to put winning players around him at every step of his career.
Walker wants to stay and win in Charlotte. He’s as loyal as they come, and this is the franchise that put his mind at ease on that fateful draft night.
“These are the dudes and the organization that believed in me, that gave me the opportunity,” Walker told SB Nation. “And this is where I’ve been for eight years now, so of course I’m gonna love this place, of course I’m gonna be loyal. I’m a loyal guy. For as long as I’m here, I’m gonna give this organization everything I have.”
But he’s also a competitor, and he wants to win. The Hornets haven’t proven they can do so with him.
There’s another side to this coin, though. If the Hornets retain Walker, they’re destined for mediocrity for at least the next two seasons. Charlotte would bring back largely the same team that finished ninth in the Eastern Conference last season. If the Hornets let him walk, the Hornets are headed directly to the loss column, destined for years in a draft lottery that no longer heavily favors the team with the worst record. They’re in NBA purgatory with or without him.
Walker has been a saint every step of the way, a perfect teammate, a leader on the court, an All-Star player and a pillar of the Charlotte community. But he wants to win, and the Hornets do, too. It’s becoming clear they can’t win with one another with things as-is.