Kemba Walker is one of the NBA’s fun success stories. After leading Connecticut to a national championship in 2011, Walker became the ninth pick in that year’s draft by the Charlotte Hornets, and he slowly improved to the point that he deservedly was named an all-star last year.
But Walker has just 18 months left on his contract, the Hornets are in the bottom third of the league, and a financial crunch is looming. So the most prudent course of action would be to trade Walker before the NBA’s Feb. 8 deadline.
Why? In the summer of 2016, the league’s salary cap took an unprecedented, single-year spike of $24 million because of a new television deal. That enabled Golden State to add Kevin Durant as a free agent while keeping Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
But because of that spike, and the flattening of the cap that followed, as many as half of the NBA’s 30 teams could be above the projected luxury tax line of $123 million next season. That would be an unprecedented number of taxpayers, and those financial ramifications will affect how many teams — including the Hornets — conduct business over the next couple of seasons.
Charlotte finds itself in just about the worst situation in the NBA. Having gone all-in to try to return to the playoffs this season by essentially taking on the final two years of Dwight Howard’s contract from the Atlanta Hawks for dead money, the Hornets – who have never paid the luxury tax – found themselves pushing up against it this season.
That wouldn’t be a problem if the Hornets were in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, as many expected, but they enter Friday’s game in Los Angeles against the Lakers with a 14-23 record – the 12th-best mark in the East. They’re closer to the worst team in the NBA (the 10-27 Atlanta Hawks) than the East’s eighth and final playoff spot, held by the Indiana Pacers (19-19).
To make matters worse, the financial situation isn’t getting better anytime soon. Next season, the Hornets – as constructed – are guaranteed to be a tax-paying team. They have 10 players with guaranteed contracts making a combined $116.4 million. Add in the cost of their first-round pick — currently the N0. 9 selection, which would be about $3.6 million — and three minimum contracts (worth roughly $4.5 million), and the Hornets would already be more than a million into the tax.
Perhaps Michael Jordan would be fine paying the tax for the first time if he were in the same position that another first-time taxpayer, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, finds himself: with a team that seems positioned to battle for a top-four seed in the East for the next few years, one that features an all-star backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal that’s already signed through the majority of their primes.
But that’s not where the Hornets are. Charlotte likely will enter next season with an aging, expensive roster, with a combined $62 million going to three players – Howard, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams – who signed contracts during the halcyon days of July 2016. If those three were free agents this summer, they might struggle to land much more than half of that amount.
This brings us back to Walker, the team’s one bright light. Even though he’s not playing at the same level he was during his all-star campaign a year ago, Walker is still having a strong season, averaging 21.4 points and 5.8 assists. And with Charlotte on a fast track to nowhere, it’s hard to see what the compelling case will be for Walker to re-sign with the Hornets when his contract expires after next season — when he could go elsewhere and have a chance to find sustained success for the first time in his NBA career.
So what if Charlotte traded Walker to begin to ease its financial burdens, as well as to jump-start a rebuild? Say, for example, Walker was shipped to his hometown New York Knicks, along with Williams, for rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina, Joakim Noah and New York’s 2018 first-round pick. That would save Charlotte about $4 million next season while giving it an intriguing young point guard to install as Walker’s successor. It would also help Charlotte’s first-round pick move into the top five in the lottery, giving the team a chance to land a star in a top-heavy draft, as well as another pick in the middle of the round.
Noah’s contract is another of the many albatrosses born in the summer of 2016, but subtracting Williams and adding him so it can get a young point guard and a first-round pick would at least give Charlotte a chance to start over — and avoid the tax while doing so. The Knicks could pair Walker with Kristaps Porzingis, which would be an awfully fun pick-and-roll tandem at Madison Square Garden.
For another example, the Hornets could try to work out a trade with the Pacers, who have rebounded nicely from Paul George’s departure thanks largely to the man they acquired for him, Victor Oladipo. A trade of Walker and Williams for Darren Collison, Al Jefferson, rookie forward T.J. Leaf and Indiana’s 2018 first-round pick would allow Charlotte to essentially wipe out the $29 million owed to Williams over the next two seasons (thanks to Jefferson’s non-guaranteed salary for next season). The move removes the need for Charlotte to worry about the tax, and it also would receive a rookie project in Leaf, a first-round pick and – again – a boost to its own draft pick’s status. The Pacers could pair Walker with Oladipo and Myles Turner, potentially becoming an interesting team in the East.
By making a move like this, there would be pain for Charlotte. Walker is a terrific player and an easy guy to root for, and the team would go from hoping for a playoff spot to staring at a long rebuild. But these are the kinds of decisions that teams like the Hornets are going to face.
Teams like the Warriors, Thunder, Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets will not have a problem paying the luxury tax if it means they’ll be in championship contention. But for teams like the Hornets, who are nowhere near contention, and even for run-of-the-mill playoff squads like the Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets, having an already expensive team become demonstrably more so because of the luxury tax is a prospect many owners won’t be thrilled about.
That’s why it would make sense for Charlotte to use Walker as a way to avoid that fate. It’s also why this could be the first in a series of financially motivated moves for teams across the league, as they adjust to the league’s new financial reality.
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