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How Kemba Walker Could Shake Up NBA Free Agency

Would the Cavs trade for the All-Star point guard to try to make one more run with LeBron? It’s a rumored deal that just might work.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Don’t sleep on Koby Altman. Maybe. While most teams around the NBA can look at the offseason with the singular focus of improving their roster, Cleveland’s general manager is tasked with doing that for essentially two different basketball squads: one with LeBron James, and one without him. If the worst-case scenario comes to pass and LeBron leaves, the Cavs already know their (very likely) fate: a couple of 30-win seasons spent with Tristan Thompson’s rim-finishing, J.R. Smith’s time management, Jordan Clarkson’s shooting, and fans’ prayer circles for Collin Sexton to be NBA-ready. (That’s assuming the front office trades Kevin Love for assets; if not, make that 35 wins.)

James’s deadline to opt in or out of the last year of his contract is Friday, which means he’ll essentially have to inform the Cavs of his plans by then. Note that if he opts in, he won’t necessarily stay—he could be setting himself up for an opt-in-and-trade, which is exactly how Chris Paul maneuvered his way to the Rockets last season. But until then, Altman can plan with a glass-half-full attitude. One rumor involves a trade for Kemba Walker, who Charlotte is reportedly open to dealing. From The Ringer’s very own Bill Simmons on the latest episode of his podcast:

“I heard one of the reasons Cleveland took Sexton was cause they knew Charlotte liked him. And if LeBron does decide to stay, they know they have the Sexton and Clarkson for Kemba trade sitting there.”

Hornets owner Michael Jordan has said before that he wouldn’t trade Kemba for “anything but an All-Star.” Clarkson has never sniffed an All-Star Game, and Sexton is a rookie. (Though, apparently, one Charlotte likes—a positive for Cleveland, which seemed like it would’ve had a better chance at making the same trade prior to the draft.) NBA rules prohibit teams from trading a rookie for 30 days after he signs, which is presumably long after LeBron will have made his decision. But that hasn’t stopped the Cavs from dealing a rookie to appease LeBron before:

And LeBron might be more willing to hang around than we think. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said last week that he doesn’t think LeBron believes the Cavs are as far away from a championship as perhaps the rest of the people who watched the Finals do. “I think he believes if they had one more good player, things would have been a lot different this year,” Windhorst said. “Maybe getting Kemba Walker could be that player.”

Besides LeBron’s decision in free agency, there are a few other catches to the trade. The Hornets are in a fight-or-flight situation with Kemba’s contract, and might be better off acting now. The 28-year-old franchise centerpiece will be a free agent next summer unless Charlotte signs him to an extension. But thanks to a couple of contracts that haven’t aged well, the Hornets aren’t really in a position to even extend much of an offer; the team is already flirting with the 2018-19 luxury-tax threshold, even with Kemba owed only $12 million this season. The front office has little choice but to wait for him to become a free agent next summer. At that point, it’s up to Kemba, who can sign for five years with the Hornets, or four elsewhere. If he chooses the latter, Mitch Kupchak gets nothing for him in return.

Bargaining a trade with the Cavs isn’t an easy solution, either. A straight-up swap of Clarkson and Sexton for Walker wouldn’t necessarily be an easy sell for either team. Especially Charlotte, which is looking to shed salary and would assuredly prefer to package the three final seasons of Nic Batum’s five-year, $120 million contract with any deal in which they shipped off the franchise’s best player since they became the Hornets again. For Cleveland, it means giving up a top-10 pick for a chance to make a run with LeBron and Kemba—but both could hit free agency and walk in 2019.

Still, what’s the alternative for the Cavs? Their luck with the ping-pong balls won’t last forever. Altman’s decision-making is dependent on LBJ’s decision-making. Already seemingly in the works, this could be the next Kevin Love trade.