Money or winning?
It might be overly simple to reduce Kemba Walker’s free agent decision to that, but the Charlotte Hornets can offer far more guaranteed money under NBA rules, while other teams offer a brighter short-term prospect for winning.
Saturday, the Los Angeles Lakers agreed to a trade that will pair LeBron James with another perennial All-Star in New Orleans Pelicans’ big man Anthony Davis. That trade, which can’t be consummated until sometime in July, inevitably raises the temperature on Walker’s decision.
The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported Saturday that Walker will be a top target for the Lakers when free agency starts June 30. Walker, an All-NBA point guard, said Thursday that re-signing with the Hornets is his first priority, but that he’s inclined to meet with other teams before making a decision.
Charlotte can pay Walker tens of millions more than the Lakers or any other team. NBA rules are designed to give the Hornets, as the team Walker has played for his prior eight NBA seasons, massive advantages in the bidding.
But the one thing Hornets owner Michael Jordan can’t pitch, which the Lakers now can, is the opportunity for Walker to play with two Hall of Fame-stature players in James and Davis.
There’s a lot to digest:
The Hornets are the only team that can offer Walker a fifth guaranteed year along with larger year-to-year raises. Combined with Walker qualifying for a supermax contract, the Hornets can pay Walker as much as $221 million over the next five years. No other team, regardless of its cap flexibility, can offer Walker more than $140 million over four years.
The Lakers couldn’t currently offer Walker $140 million because the trade for Davis will trim their available cap space. If the trade is made the earliest possible date — July 6 — the Lakers would have $23.7 million available. The Lakers could get $4 million more in cap space if Davis waives a trade bonus in his contract.
For technical reasons, if the Lakers could convince the Pelicans to wait until July 30 to execute the trade, they might get cap space up to around $32 million — in the vicinity of a max-salary slot. But that seems unlikely; it complicates how the Pelicans would use the No. 4 draft pick they are getting for the Lakers, particularly if New Orleans trades it to another team.
Bottom line: By signing with any team other than the Hornets, Walker is probably giving up at least $50 million in guaranteed money, and potentially far more if he were to choose the Lakers.
By normal-people standards, Walker has made a fortune — $48 million over the past four years. However, that was far below his value during that span as a three-time All-Star. This free agency is his best, and probably only, chance to make market value as an elite NBA player.
Walker would be 33 at the end of a four-year contract. To suggest that a 33-year-old, 6-foot-1 NBA player would be in huge demand in the summer of 2023 is a big reach. This is his time to maximize his career earnings.
The counter-argument: This is also his only chance to influence how much he wins the rest of his career. The Hornets have qualified for the playoffs only twice in his eight seasons in Charlotte and have never advanced past the first round. It’s obvious that a future playing with James and Davis (or with Luka Doncic and Kritstaps Porzingis by signing with the Dallas Mavericks) increases his chances of playing for a championships.
Asked in April if the Hornets have done enough with the roster to induce him to stay, Walker said, “I don’t think it’s started yet,” suggesting he expects quick upgrades.
It’s a huge challenge on general manger Mitch Kupchak to simultaneously improve the roster and commit to a supermax or near-supermax contract for Walker because of all the problematic deals already on the payroll. Re-signing Walker will likely push the Hornets above the luxury-tax threshold, which would cost owner Michael Jordan millions and narrow the ways Kupchak can maneuver under NBA rules.
I think Walker wants to stay in Charlotte. I also think he is far from wedded to that. Short of Kupchak pulling off a coup in the next two weeks to improve the roster, the only tangible advantage the Hornets have is money. I believe the Lakers will force the Hornets to spend more of it to keep their star.
The supermax could be over-paying Walker. But it might be necessary to keep him.