The Charlotte Hornets opted against bringing Kemba Walker back in free agency this summer. Despite the fact that both sides seemed like they wanted to make things work, Charlotte was unwilling to fork over the amount of cash that a player of Walker’s caliber demanded, and as such, he decided to join the Boston Celtics while the Hornets gave a three-year deal to his replacement, Terry Rozier.
Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak and head coach James Borrego sat down with Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer to discuss this offseason, which of course, meant discussing Walker’s departure. One of the matters that complicated things, according to Kupchak, is that Walker became eligible for a supermax extension by nature of his third-team All-NBA selection this past year, which caught the franchise off guard.
Kupchak told the Observer the Hornets were somewhat blindsided by Walker making All-NBA, and thus becoming supermax-eligible. He said while Walker didn’t demand the full supermax, the wide gap between what the Hornets could justify paying and Walker’s growing status changed the dynamic.
This is a somewhat surprising thing to admit. Walker was open about his willingness to take less from the Hornets so he could stay in the only city that he had called home to that point in his NBA career, and while he took a $141 max deal from the Celtics, Charlotte could have offered much more. In fact, the team’s offer was reported to have been a five-year deal worth around $160 million, which is a lot, but is also a whole lot less than the $220 million or so for which Walker was eligible.
The Hornets, of course, decided to use the argument that they could not fork over the money for Walker because of their cap sheet, which exploded during the now-infamous summer of 2016. Kupchak leaned on this rationale in his interview, giving Bonnell a rather blunt quote about Walker’s inability to lead the team to the playoffs over the last few years.
“We had great years with him, and we didn’t get into the playoffs,” Kupchak said. “What makes us think that next year (would) be different?
“I’ve got to step back and look at where we’ve been and where we’re going,” Kupchak continued. “Chart out a course that gives us the best chance to build something that is sustainable for more than a year or two.”
Saying this about respected veteran like Walker is quite the quote to put on the record, especially because he wasn’t exactly put in a position to succeed in Charlotte. Again, most of the financial decisions that hamstrung the team were made back in 2016, before Kupchak took over the front office and Borrego was the head coach, and following this season, a handful of the team’s more unsavory contracts (specifically Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, and to a lesser extent, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) will come off the books. While Nic Batum’s monster contract has a player option for 2020-21 and Cody Zeller will be back next season, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and with Charlotte’s historical struggles to land a big-name free agent, keeping Walker around would have, theoretically, given them a building block once they get to that point.
However, instead of bringing perhaps the best player in franchise history back, the team opted to offer him less money, watch him leave for nothing, and instead turn to Rozier as the point guard who is tasked with bringing the team back to the postseason for the first time in 2016. What might be worse, though, is blaming Walker for being unable to overcome a troublesome cap situation and using that as an excuse for low balling him after he earned a little extra cash.