Wob: The Charlotte Hornets’ Impossible Kemba Walker Decision — To Trade or Not to Trade?
- Kemba Walker spent his weekend dropping 60 points -- and the Charlotte Hornets still found a way to lose to the Philadelphia 76ers.
- Should the team blow the whole thing up and trade its franchise cornerstone?
There’s a scene from the third Matrix movie where Neo is stuck in a subway station unless a very specific train comes to save him.
The train’s operation is overseen by an individual named Merovingian, who controls all information transmitted between the source and the matrix. You can either cut a deal with him to use his gateway … or he sends this guy and this is how you end up:
This is the perfect parallel for the situation currently unfolding in Charlotte with the Hornets franchise and their star, Kemba Walker.
On Saturday night: Kemba erupted, posting his best performance as a professional basketball player:
… in a devastating last-second loss to the far-more-talented Philadelphia 76ers.
The game was a culmination of Kemba’s struggle in Charlotte, the team’s FIFTH loss this season by three points or fewer.
Night after night, for what feels like the past five years, Hornets fans endure the purgatory of NBA mediocrity and a roster surrounding Walker that might as well be a bunch of Stanleys from “The Office.”
Every year, the Hornets hang around in the standings just long enough to get the fanbase excited about the potential of making the playoffs, only to fall apart at the end and/or get demolished in the first round — leading to nothing more than a bottom-of-the-lottery draft pick.
This team has become the basketball equivalent of when you send a late night “hey” text, see the three grey dots appear, and nothing ever gets sent back.
The hope and waiting is torturous. Part of you wants to feel bad for the Hornets and their loyal contingent — that is, until you realize all of their wounds are self-inflicted.
Take a look at the Hornets’ salary situation and try not to laugh out loud, I dare you:
The best part about this is all of the bold/underlined numbers, which represents player options each individual is surely going to exercise the second they’re able.
Can you imagine Nicolas Batum’s reaction at age 31 when the front office calls and asks if he’s going to pick up his $27.1 million for the 2020-21 season?
Translation: This is going to be the team the Hornets have for the foreseeable future, as almost every contract shown above is completely untradable until it reaches its expiring season.
This is truly Michael Jordan’s Sistine Chapel. For all of his brilliance on the court, the NBA legend has proven to be the contrary as an executive when handling player transactions.
Before MJ even bought the team, Hornets fans had experienced the face-palm drafting of Raymond Felton, Sean May, Brendan Wright, Adam Morrison, DJ Augustin and Gerald Henderson with top 13 picks — only to be followed up by: trading Tobias Harris’ rights, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, acquiring Noah Vonleh from Detroit at No. 9, Frank Kaminsky, and Malik Monk once MJ took over.
I am exhausted from just typing that let alone having to watch them play. Every team has “woulda shoulda coulda” bad drafts, but Jordan’s failure as a talent evaluator pales in comparison to the salary cap mess he’s got the Hornets in now.
The one draft pick not mentioned in this scathing report card: Kemba Walker, who has become the heart and soul of the Hornets in every facet of the word.
He has proclaimed his loyalty to the organization publicly:
“I’m a Hornet, and I’m planning on being a Hornet for a long time, so, yeah, I’m not sure about (New York).”
“I just want to do something special in Charlotte … I’ve been there eight years now, and we haven’t really been consistent as far as winning. I just want to try to establish that culture at some point. That’s what I want to do, I just want to make it a winning organization.”
Walker has backed up these declarations up by having undoubtedly the best season of his career — posting his highest scoring average (29.4 points per game), shooting percentage (45.8%), player efficiency rating (25.6, currently 11th in the NBA), and box score +/- (+5.7).
That last statistic is absurd, considering the Hornets’ record is currently 7-8.
Now, in years past, you could most certainly make the case that Kemba has a little too much Carmelo Anthony in him — a dynamic, volume, grown-man bucket-getter who isn’t always the most efficient.
But this season in particular, Kemba has shed any sort of doubt about his ability to make the team better while getting his — as the 2017-2018 Hornets currently hold a +5.1 net rating with Kemba on-the-floor, and are only +1.5 when he’s off.
Despite Walker’s brilliance, a dark cloud hovers above his every move — free agency in July.
It shouldn’t be a dark cloud, because this dude is about to get paid barring any career-altering injury or scandal. However, the Hornets have backed themselves into a salary cap liability corner that they won’t be able to get out of until 2021.
Here are three options of what the franchise can do with Kemba Walker…
Offer him a max contract the first moment possible
This is the overwhelming favorite of what’s going to happen. The Hornets own Kemba’s Bird Rights, which will permit the franchise to offer an amount of money that exceeds the salary cap up to 35%, depending on the mathematical situation at the time.
They may also offer an extra year at this increased rate, which Kemba’s other suitors (Knicks, Nets, Clippers, Lakers) can’t.
From Kemba’s side, saying no to this seems impossible as he has yet to cash in “big” compared to his superstar colleagues — only signing for $12 million per year (four-year deal for $48 million) after his rookie contract expired in 2015.
To give you some perspective on how much a discount this is, Ian Mahinmi currently makes $16 million from the Washington Wizards.
Kemba Walker is 0.75 Ian Mahinmis. KEMBA WALKER IS 0.75 IAN MAHINMIS.
The two sides coming to terms makes all the sense in the world — until everyone realizes the Hornets will be trapped as the 15th best team in the league for an amount of time as far as the eye can see.
Trade Kemba before the February deadline
This is the white flag, and the one opportunity for the Hornets to shed a couple of the detrimental long-term deals before it’s too late. Kemba is the only asset on the roster for whom championship teams will jeopardize their future to obtain.
So, if you’re Charlotte: You hold a king’s ransom over the league’s head.
You want this walking bucket? You want our fearless leader who fights wars on the court, can single handedly win you playoff games, and rallies his teammates to take bullets in the trench for him? To contract his service and receive the opportunity to use the bird rights advantage, it’s going to cost you a first-round draft pick, a big expiring contract, an exciting player still on his rookie contract, and — oh by the way — you’re going to have to take either Batum or Biyombo, as well.
Hornets fans: I know the very thought of trading Kemba is already brewing thoughts of pitch forks and torches in your minds, but if there has ever been an opportunity to cleanse yourself of the salary cap sins Michael Jordan has bestowed upon you — an opportunity to escape an eternity as the 9-seed in the East — this is it.
Sign-and-trade Walker this summer
This is the least likely of the options to occur, but only because Kemba has publicly stated his desire to stay in Charlotte and yearning to receive a super-max contract (from the Hornets only) should he be selected to an All-NBA team at the conclusion of the 2018-19 campaign.
However, we know Kemba has ties to New York, he was born and raised in the Bronx, played for Rice High School in Harlem, achieved heroic status inside Madison Square Garden during his tenure with the UConn Huskies, and has spoken on his return in the past:
“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.”
But the tides turn quicker in the NBA than any other league. If the Blake Griffin, DeMar DeRozan, or Isaiah Thomas jaw-dropping transactions taught us anything, it’s that “loyalty” is nothing more than a word in the dictionary.
In the event Kemba tells the Hornets: “I’m leaving” in July, the Hornets can still take back 25 cents on the dollar for him and negotiate a sign-and-trade with whichever team he ultimately chooses.
This deal would be unequivocally lopsided in the other franchise’s favor, but they’d at least get a couple bread crumbs back to help them begin their rebuild.
Ultimately, all roads for Charlotte lead back to the matrix subway, where time somehow stands still yet always keeps ticking away.
Purgatory can be forever, that is until the Holy Trinity comes to save you.
If the Hornets decline their February lifeline and decide to stay in the station — they better pray that Kemba is able to fix this franchise, because it sure as hell can’t fix itself.