Kemba Walker is no longer the most interesting free agent that nobody’s talking about. The 29-year-old point guard became a trending topic on Tuesday, when Marc Stein of The New York Times reported that the Boston Celtics had become a “stealth suitor” for his services in unrestricted free agency. The chatter only grew louder on Thursday morning, when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Celtics had “emerged as the front-runners” to sign the three-time All-Star away from the Charlotte Hornets. That would be a hell of a bounceback for a Celtics team still reeling from the expected departures of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford.
Reasonable people can disagree over whether a four-year maximum-salaried contract for Walker represents the optimal use of Boston’s unexpected salary cap space (which would be created by bidding farewell to Irving, Horford, and restricted free-agent guard Terry Rozier, and trading away center Aron Baynes and a 2019 first-round pick and the guaranteed salary that comes with it for future considerations on draft night). But it would ensure that the Celtics enter next season with an elite offensive weapon at the point as they try to remain in contention in a crowded Eastern Conference. (And if this point guard has a more positive overall effect on team chemistry, well, so much the better.) Nothing’s done until the ink on the contract is dry—multiple reports have suggested the Dallas Mavericks are also interested in wooing Walker, and other teams could come calling too—but Woj reports that Kemba is growing “increasingly likely to accept” Boston’s offer.
It’s wild how quickly Danny Ainge and Co. are pivoting after the declared exits of Kyrie and Horford, but what’s even more remarkable about the Kemba-to-Boston reports is that the Celtics will evidently be getting him for the same deal that Irving can earn in Brooklyn (or, y’know, wherever he ends up): a four-year, $140.6 million max, starting at $32.7 million next season. That’s not the top dollar that Walker can earn. Far from it, in fact.
Walker’s selection to the All-NBA third team back in May made him eligible for a designated veteran player extension, colloquially referred to as “the supermax.” Under the rules of the 2017 collective bargaining agreement, the Hornets could offer their linchpin point guard a new deal worth up to $221.3 million over the next five seasons. As it turns out, though, they’re not going to. Woj reports that Hornets “owner Michael Jordan [is] no longer determined to extend far enough financially to re-sign his franchise player,” despite Walker’s public statements that he’d be willing to take less than the full supermax to stay in Charlotte, the city he’s called home since entering the NBA in 2011.
Maybe that’s the smart play. As my colleague John Gonzalez noted in his free-agency primer, paying through the nose to retain Walker wouldn’t guarantee Charlotte a successful future. The Hornets have finished above .500 just twice in Walker’s career, and in both of those seasons, they were drummed out of the opening round of the playoffs. Even with Walker developing into an All-NBA force on a steal of a deal—a four-year, $48 million extension of his rookie contract signed before the start of the 2014-15 season—Charlotte could never slip the surly bonds of scuffling for the eighth seed and jump up toward legitimate contention. What reason would he, or anyone else, have to believe that the Hornets’ fortunes will suddenly get significantly brighter with him making well north of $30 million a season?
Letting Walker go, then, likely represents the smart play at this stage. The words “at this stage” matter, though. It was predictable that a Hornets roster all but devoid of difference-making talent around Walker would struggle to compete. It was predictable that Walker would be up for an astronomical raise whenever he hit the market. You could see the worst-case scenario looming; this is why reports began to circulate as early as January 2018 that Charlotte would consider moving Walker if it meant shedding millstone deals and/or reloading the roster. This, as we’ve seen time and again in recent years, is how it typically goes, because you can’t lose a star for nothing.
Just go back through the past five years of All-NBA teams and tick off the names of the players who’ve made moves. The Pacers traded Paul George the summer before he could hit the open market and got back Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. The Spurs turned Kawhi Leonard into DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected first-round draft pick rather than lose him for nothing. The Bulls and Timberwolves traded Jimmy Butler before he could hit the market, and both recouped assets.
Chris Paul wanted to go to the Rockets the year before he could hit free agency; the Clippers worked it out and got a smorgasbord of players and picks for their veteran point guard. Anthony Davis wanted to go to the Lakers before he could he could hit free agency; David Griffin went to Costco and filled every nook and cranny in the Pelicans’ pantry. Blake Griffin didn’t want to go anywhere, but L.A. saw the opportunity to avoid getting locked into an underwhelming team—the higher-class version of the same dead-end stasis Charlotte currently faces—and flipped him to Detroit to clear cap space and load up on assets.
The Celtics dealt Isaiah Thomas rather than having to decide whether or not to max him out, netting Irving in return—who, by the same token, the Cavs moved when he wanted out to ensure that they got something in exchange for their All-NBA point guard. That didn’t work out quite the way Boston had hoped, and Cleveland might not necessarily be crowing about an aggregate return of Collin Sexton, Ante Zizic, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson, and a couple of future second-round picks. But it’s better than coming away with nothing. (Even the Thunder wound up with Steven Adams when they chose to trade James Harden to Houston rather than pay the full freight on his rookie extension.)
But instead of making that kind of move, dealing Walker to set up the franchise for the future, Jordan held fast. He replaced Rich Cho with Mitch Kupchak and Steve Clifford with James Borrego, and otherwise stayed the course, keeping Walker in uniform until the bitter end. Now that worst-case scenario appears to be mere days away from becoming reality, with one of the best players in franchise history reportedly about to leave town.
Making matters worse: It’s not like this will fix things for the Hornets. Charlotte already has nearly $98 million in guaranteed salary on the books; even without Walker, they’ll still operate as a team in the tax, with limited flexibility to be able to add or retain talent. They can’t just quickly move into rebuilding mode, either. Yes, the eight-figure salaries of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo, and Marvin Williams will all come off the books after next season, but veteran swingman Nicolas Batum will still hold a $27.1 million player option for 2020-21. Getting a team with cap space to take on that monster deal would require some serious sweeteners, whether young talent (Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, 2019 lottery pick PJ Washington) or future draft picks, which would make rebuilding even harder.
Moving on from a face-of-the-franchise-type star too early hurts, but not nearly as badly as waiting too long. And now, pain seems like the only option for the Hornets. They didn’t have to arrive “at this stage.” They chose to, and they might have changed the shape of free agency and the competitive landscape of the East in the process.