The most complicated free agency in the NBA comes with a massive, $221 million question
- Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker made an All-NBA team and is now eligible for the five-year, $221 million "supermax" contract.
- There is some league-wide trepidation about paying the 29-year-old, undersized Walker a contract that pays an average of $44 million per year, but losing Walker in free agency would also be painful for the Hornets.
- Walker, too, must decide if he wants to stay on a middling Hornets team with few ways to improve or turn down a historic payday to join a better team.
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All-NBA teams were announced on Thursday, and perhaps the biggest winner was Kemba Walker.
The Charlotte Hornets point guard made third-team All-NBA after a season in which he averaged 25.6 points, 4.4. rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game. With Walker making an All-NBA team, the Hornets can now offer him the "supermax" contract, worth five years and about $221 million.
In a free agent class loaded with star talent, some of whom may change teams, altering the shape of the league, Walker's situation may be the most complex.
While Walker put up a career season in 2018-19, the Charlotte Hornets also went just 39-43, missing the playoffs. Perhaps no All-Star in the NBA has a weaker supporting cast than Walker, but there is a common belief in the NBA world that Walker is over-burdened as the No. 1 option on a team. The Hornets have not won more than 48 games and have never won a playoff series in Walker's career.
Further, Walker is 29 years old, undersized, and reliant on speed and agility. Typically, players like him don't age well. The thought of paying Walker an average of $44 million per year on a contract that would take him to 34 years old is unsavory to some.
An NBA front-office member told Bleacher Report's Yaron Weitzman that Walker's deal would age poorly and that the Hornets should have traded him before having to make this decision.
"It'd be like the John Wall deal," the executive told Weitzman. "They should have traded him last year when his value was high. They could have just reset."
The opposite scenario isn't appealing for the Hornets either. They don't have any top-tier prospects in the pipeline. Second-year guard Malik Monk and rookie forward Miles Bridges have shown some promise, but neither player looks like a franchise cornerstone to build around.
If the Hornets let Walker go in free agency, they would be heading for a dramatic rebuild in which they would likely tank, nail a lottery pick, then try to build around that star - or, exactly what they've tried to do with Walker over the last eight years, to little success.
Walker is in a difficult position, too. It would be hard to walk away from the supermax deal. Doing so would cost him millions, as the most opposing teams can offer him is $141 million over four years.
But at 29, he may be facing his last chance to depart Charlotte and join a contender. There have been rumors that Walker could look to join another superstar this summer, whether it's LeBron James on the Los Angeles Lakers or teaming up with Kevin Durant on another team.
Some have suggested that the Hornets could find a happy medium between the supermax, the regular max (5 years, $190 million) and what other teams could offer him. Theoretically, the Hornets could offer Walker a five-year, $200 million deal - still a whopping payday, but an average of $5 million less per season. It's hard to imagine Walker agreeing to a contract worth less than the $190 million the Hornets could have offered him before he made All-NBA.
Even if Walker took a slight discount, the problem remains the same. The Hornets are above the salary cap next year, with a late lottery pick, and few ways to drastically improve the team. The Hornets have several big salaries coming off the books in 2020 and will have cap space. However, Charlotte hasn't historically been a free agent destination and the 2020 free agent class is far less splashy than the 2019 class.
Some in the NBA world believe the Hornets will use their financial advantage to ensure that their best player in years does not get away for free this summer. That will be just one hurdle. How the Hornets build a perennial playoff team around a more-expensive, aging Walker remains a giant question.