Even as the Hornets have moved closer to being officially eliminated from the playoffs, this week has been an important one in Kemba Walker’s career. Walker became the franchise’s all-time scoring leader on Wednesday, and he couldn’t hold back tears when talking about the accomplishment after the game. But two days before he entered the franchise’s history books, Walker made comments to The Charlotte Observer that suggest his time in Charlotte is running out. “I’m tired of not being in the playoffs. ... I hate watching them on TV,” he said. “Whenever we get a new GM, we’ll see what direction he wants to go, and I’ll make the best decision for me.”
That’s a tonal change from January, when Walker said he would be devastated if he were dealt at the trade deadline. The Hornets have virtually no chance of making the playoffs, but the story could have a league-wide impact. Walker, a two-time All-Star, is set to be an unrestricted free agent in 2019. And the Hornets, as currently constructed, will be hard-pressed to build the winning team that Kemba is looking for.
Things won’t get much easier if the plan is to keep Walker, either. Whoever is hired to replace GM Rich Cho, who was fired in February, will have to work around the $117.9 million in guaranteed salaries already on the books for next season. In other words, there will be no cap flexibility this offseason unless the Hornets are willing to go into the luxury tax (unlikely), or they manage to dump a salary (good luck). Rookie Malik Monk (who has struggled) or their first-round pick (currently no. 11 in the pre-lottery order) has value, but there realistically isn’t a player they could get that’d drastically move the needle.
“I’m not looking to trade Kemba, but I would listen to opportunities,” Hornets owner Michael Jordan said in January. But Charlotte gauged interest on deals that involved dumping a huge, long-term contract (i.e., Nicolas Batum, who has three years and $76.7 million remaining on his deal). And more changes could come this summer, to both the coaching staff and the roster.
NBA executives expect Kemba’s name to be floating around the rumor mill again this summer. There aren’t many teams that need a playmaker, but now is the time to strike for the ones that do. Walker, who turns 28 in May, will make only $12 million in 2018-19, a manageable contract to trade for. And with point guard a loaded position around the league and the flattening cap expected to limit the number of teams will have ample space, Walker might not be in for the huge payday some might expect. The team that has him under contract entering the 2019 offseason will also have his Bird rights, and thus an advantage when it comes time to re-sign him.
With that in mind, here are four teams that I think should consider pursuing Walker based on their situation and available assets.
In the same game that Walker broke Charlotte’s career scoring record, his team also got blown out, 118-105, by the Cavaliers, and Walker personally fell to 0-26 in his career against LeBron James. That says it all. Walker likes Charlotte, but he wants to win, and one place he could do that is Cleveland. There aren’t many realistic deals for stars that make sense for the Cavs to include the 2018 first-round pick from the Nets (currently tied for the seventh-best lottery odds), but dealing for Walker is one that fits the bill.
The Cavs pursued Walker prior to the deadline and could always do it again this offseason. It all depends on where the Nets pick lands. If it ends up in the top three, I think it’s too valuable to deal for Walker because of the wealth of elite prospects in this year’s draft. But if it stays in the mid-lotto range, the Cavs may want to consider using it in a deal for Walker and his moderate contract (only $12 million next season) even if the Hornets insist on adding another salary. The Cavs’ payroll has pricey salary fillers (George Hill and Tristan Thompson), midrange deals (J.R. Smith and Jordan Clarkson), and sweeteners (Clarkson, Rodney Hood, and Cedi Osman). They’re armed to build any type of deal.
If I were the Hornets general manager, I’d insist on Batum being included, but I would be willing to compromise by sending out Marvin Williams (two years, $29 million), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (two years, $26 million), or Cody Zeller (three years, $43.4 million). But the Cavs have arguably the best asset that any realistic trade partner for Walker can dangle, so they could have the leverage. If I were on the Cavaliers’ side, I’d pursue a package deal for both Walker and Zeller, using the Nets pick, Clarkson, and Smith.
LeBron’s future is in flux, so pursuing a deal wouldn’t be wise unless he commits to re-signing. But pairing him with a versatile scoring guard like Walker could certainly entice him to do so. Walker’s game is similar to Kyrie Irving’s, and the floor could open for him in ways he’s never experienced before by playing alongside the King. Walker has gotten better each season, and there’s nothing stopping him from continuing his ascent.
The Suns haven’t made the playoffs since the 2009-10 season and have only once had a record over .500 this decade, so they’re not exactly the winning organization that Walker desires. But they could be soon. Devin Booker would be the most talented NBA teammate that Walker ever had, and vice versa. Phoenix has only $70.7 million in guaranteed salaries entering this offseason, so it could theoretically acquire Walker and still retain the cap space necessary to make impact signings the next two summers.
With four top-35 picks plus Miami’s 2021 first, all of their own picks, and movable short-term salaries (Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley), the Suns could build a wide range of deals if they’re ready to strike. One that makes some sense on paper could be the 2018 firsts from Milwaukee and Miami (currently no. 15 and no. 16) plus the future Heat pick and a young player (Marquese Chriss or Dragan Bender) for Walker. That may not be enough for the Hornets, but there’s a lot of talent to be mined in the mid-first round, and it wouldn’t be hard to add a longer-term salary (Zeller, Kidd-Gilchrist, or Williams) for Dudley or Chandler, both of whom expire in 2019.
However, I question the upside of a Walker-Booker backcourt. Would it be better than Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum? Perhaps. The Blazers don’t have a young player with the potential of Josh Jackson, and the Suns can avoid the contract blunders that Portland made. Walker and Booker would make up a high-powered backcourt, and free-agent centers like DeAndre Jordan or Clint Capela, or a forward like Aaron Gordon, could bolster the defense while offering another offensive presence. There’s also the ultimate gamble of pursuing unrestricted free agent DeMarcus Cousins; multiple league sources said the Suns pursued Cousins prior to the 2017 deadline. Nonetheless, the Suns are positioned to swing for the fences, and the time to do so could be coming soon.
This week, the good people at Bucks Reddit unearthed a YouTube video from February in which Giannis Antetokounmpo was speaking Greek to Eurohoops TV. What he said was as candid as it gets. “Nobody won a championship by himself. You have to get the right players. The front office and the general manager have to do their work, too. Everyone has to work. Everyone has to work on his part in order to win a championship,” Giannis said, according to a translation. “If I do my part and some others don’t, then a change would have to happen. If this change does not happen, then, the Bucks can move forward without me, or I can move on without the Bucks.”
Gulp. Giannis will be an unrestricted free agent in 2021, and the clock is ticking. Milwaukee doesn’t have its 2018 first (it gave it up in the Eric Bledsoe trade) or picks from any other teams. The Bucks only have most of their own picks and limited player assets, and they lack cap flexibility. So the Bucks aren’t really compatible with the Hornets. But here’s one that comes to mind: a sign-and-trade involving Jabari Parker, two future firsts, and Matthew Dellavedova for Walker and one of Charlotte’s long-term salaries.
I think the Hornets can do better, but it’s worth trying for the Bucks as a means of shaking up the roster. Milwaukee has a lot more work to do to fix its problems, but adding Walker would be a good start.
New York Knicks
The Knicks aren’t a winning team, but New York is home for Walker, who grew up in the Bronx, graduated from Rice High School in Harlem, and went to college about three hours away at UConn. The most memorable moment of his career to date came at Madison Square Garden. Helping put the Knicks back on the winning track could be something of a full-circle moment for Walker. Meanwhile, Kristaps Porzingis and Walker would be a formidable duo that could appeal to free agents when the Knicks can create cap space in 2019.
New York’s 2018 first currently has the ninth-best odds in the draft lottery, which is good enough to function as the centerpiece of a deal. The Knicks also have two contracts expiring in 2020 (Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee) that could be used as a salary filler in a deal that allows the Hornets to unload a massive salary. I reported after the deadline that the Knicks and Hornets had conversations involving Lee for Malik Monk and a salary dump. It’s unclear who else was discussed, but considering each team’s respective needs, expanding the deal to involve Walker is doable.
Monk, 20, has struggled as a rookie. He’s a gunner who hasn’t developed playmaking instincts. If there’s a time to deal Monk, it’s now. If I were the Hornets, I’d insist on attaching Batum to a deal involving Monk and Walker. A package of Noah, Lee, and the Knicks’ 2018 first plus one protected future first is perfectly acceptable, but maybe they can be squeezed for a few other future assets.
“I’m not supposed to be here. A lot of people from where I’m from don’t make it,” Walker said in his emotional postgame interview on Wednesday. Maybe Walker’s path is meant to take him back home to New York.