Attempting to tackle the question of whether or not the Hornets will trade Kemba Walker is extremely difficult. Buzz Beat co-hosts Spencer Percy and Brian Geisinger explain every angle of the crossroads that Hornets management currently finds themselves in and why it will spell out the long-term future of this franchise.
1- If you’re GM of the Hornets, would you trade Kemba Walker? Why or why not?
Spencer Percy (@QCHspencer): I would. It’s time to sell a vision to this fanbase. That’s going to require swallowing a pill that might not taste so good going down.
Look, I don’t sit in the business or marketing meetings with the folks that call the shots for this franchise. Would the team take a financial hit? Sure. Will fans laugh at the marketing efforts of whatever player the team attempts to sale after the departure of Kemba? Absolutely. (Frankly, the smart fans already laugh at some of the marketing efforts with this team as currently constructed – *cough, Dwight Howard*)
But those factors shouldn’t be included in the “big picture”. I’m assuming, of course, that ownership does have some faction of a big picture approach. The thought of fans turning their back on this franchise forever if Kemba is traded is silly and injudicious.
This roster is capped into oblivion with mediocre talent that is vastly overpaid. It’s well documented that Rich Cho caught a tough break in the summer of ‘16, when the salary cap spiked and he paid Nic Batum and Marvin Williams $174.5M (gulp), combined, to keep the magic alive from a 48-win team the season before. I didn’t hear many fans complaining then. Those deals predictably haven’t met expectations and now Charlotte has probably the worst cap situation in the entire league.
Running a successful franchise in this extremely competitive league is about as tough as it gets. If the Hornets define success as a proposition that scraps to make the playoffs every year, rake in the revenue of two playoff home games, and walk the financial tightrope of barely keeping your head above water, then there’s no reason to trade Kemba.
In contrast, if ownership and the front office is serious about winning and truly has a vision for the Hornets future, then they’ll move on from Kemba Walker – arguably the best Hornet of all time. It’s not a spite against Kemba. He’s been unbelievable, and has helped this franchise take a huge step forward. But now it’s time for ownership to answer the bigger question: What is the vision?
Small markets that don’t win consistently have to be extremely creative in finding ways to drive revenue. The Hornets have done a very nice job in marketing Kemba – it’s a large part of the reason the uproar from fans exist when his name is mentioned in trade rumors.
Marketing and team building are two very different things. They can harmoniously exist together, and winning usually makes the marketing / revenue generating part easy, but not the other way around. Think about that.
Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird): This has to be one of the most challenging decisions a general manager has to make: should the star player be dealt in the hopes of rebooting the franchise? That’s not fun for anyone. However, when you’re Rich Cho, and your roster is capped out into the darkest pits of Hell, and bereft of young, promising players (on rookie deals), this is the decision you’re faced with.
As much as it pains me to say, like Spencer, I would trade Kemba, too.
If the option of a short-term rebuild around Kemba had a higher ceiling, I would absolutely consider travelling that path. If you squint hard, and are stubborn enough, you could see the vague outline of that trail: Kemba, the often-injured Cody Zeller (still just 25), MKG (still just 24), Malik Monk and Treveon Graham as the framework — plus another lottery pick. Unfortunately, with the books woefully tied up for the next two-plus years, that scenario is off the table. Charlotte simply has too many expensive, borderline unmovable contracts on the books.
(Now, if Charlotte had drafted Donovan Mitchell instead of Monk, I’d consider that vision a little more strongly. Alas, here we are.)
The team’s middle-out approach to roster building has plateaued; there’s simply no way anyone can ignore that. To continue pursuing the 6-8 seed in the East would be a sunk cost fallacy. Charlotte signed several players to fat contracts in the summer of 2016, and 18 months later, it’s time to pay the piper. The cost of doing business is moving Kemba Walker.
That’s truly unfortunate — for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that this could signal the end of a wasted opportunity. For the entirety of his rookie extension (4 years, $48 million), Kemba has played well below market value. Over the last three seasons, Kemba has played at an All-Star level, which made this deal an incredible value.
In fact, now that Steph Curry inked his designated veteran extension last summer, and Isaiah Thomas is dealing with a career-altering hip injury, one could make the case that Kemba’s deal is the best non-rookie contract in the league. (Or is that LeBron? It’s always LeBron, right?)
This should’ve been an opportunity for Charlotte. Other factors were in play, obviously, but Golden State and Boston constructed sustainable powerhouse franchises around the flexibility those deals afforded them. The Hornets didn’t do that; instead, for better or worse, this team went all-in on keeping as much of that feel-good 2015-16 squad together.
Maybe if things had gone differently on draft nights in 2015 or 2017, we aren’t having this conversation. But now, that window — that opportunity — is closed. So, now what?
Rebuilding in the NBA is a risky procedure — Orlando and Phoenix currently serve as cautionary tales. There’s no guarantee that within 3-5 years your franchise will be competitive, or headed in the right direction, or have a single franchise player worth a damn. But not knowing the future is no reason to not do something, especially when it’s proven to mathematically be the best way to acquire franchise players, clear cap space, stack draft picks, build a team that could contend, etc.
Philadelphia bit that bullet, and now, assuming good health, has two players that project as future hall of famers — plus cap flexibility, a surplus of first round picks and other talented youngsters, like Dario Saric, TLC and…Markelle Fultz.
I know the current front office doesn’t have a lot of equity with the fanbase when it comes to the draft. I also think that unease is warranted — to some extent, at least. However, it’s bad logic to use previous draft flops as Exhibit A for why not to rebuild.
It will sting (pardon the horrible pun) if/when Charlotte decides to move Kemba — a wildly entertaining player that made himself into an All-Star through hard work. That dude brings it every single night, and should’ve been an All-Star this year.
But for this franchise to once again find some direction — some guidance — it’s the most rational move.
2 – What’s the best case scenario for Charlotte if they do elect to trade Kemba?
Spence: Probably being able to get off of Nic Batum’s contract. The return wouldn’t be as great in a trade involving Batum – Charlotte wouldn’t get both a future pick and young players – but you get so much closer to a clean slate financially.
Assuming the Hornets landed a 2018 1st round draft pick in a trade with Kemba and Batum along with their own pick, Charlotte could have approximately $15M in cap space next summer. Obviously, you can’t do much with that kind of space – possibly take on bad money from a team fearing their tax bill at the deadline for a pick. But it’s not about next summer – it’s about the summer of ‘19 and beyond when Batum’s mammoth deal isn’t hamstringing your team building strategy.
BG: Man, what’s the going rate for NBA All-Stars these days? Over the last 12 months — starting with the Boogie Cousins’ trade last February — we’ve seen a handful of stars get moved. Cousins, Chris Paul, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Carmelo Anthony (I know defining Melo as a star is no-no in the eyes of some) were all dealt, and the price point for each player was different.
Obviously, these things can’t be viewed in a vacuum, though, right? Like, each player that got moved has a different skill set, overall value, and of course a different financial obligation (money and years remaining on a contract, the team’s current cap situation, etc).
However, if we are focusing on best-case scenario: The hope would be to get a first round pick and/or a young player on a rookie contract, plus some potential cap relief — say, attaching Nic Batum’s massive contract. Something like the rumored deal with Cleveland — Kemba and Batum for Isaiah Thomas’ expiring deal, J.R. Smith (only partially guaranteed in 2019-2020) and the Brooklyn pick — is close to bridging best-case pipedream with a realistic outcome.
3 – What’s the worst case scenario for Charlotte if they trade Kemba?
Spence: Getting talked into a haul of young players that haven’t shown enough promise and not getting a future pick. Young players with limited upside and 1-2 years of their rookie deals already gone isn’t worth it for Kemba.
If Charlotte is serious about finding a deal then landing at least one future 1st round pick in the lottery should be priority numero uno. This team so badly needs contracts that are cost and team controlled. And that pick doesn’t need to be for this June. The team likely won’t have cap space this summer anyways, so making a deal with a contender and allowing that team to kick in an unprotected 1st round pick somewhere down the road – when it could lineup better with the timeline of Charlotte’s rebuild – would be just fine and possibly preferred.
BG: Through a bit of good luck, Indiana struck gold this summer in the trade with Oklahoma City. Victor Oladipo, in year one of his rookie extension, has blossomed into a two-way badass, and an All-Star two-guard; the other player in the deal, Domantas Sabonis, is one of the best reserve centers in the NBA, and is still in the midst of his second year on his rookie deal.
This, however, is the exception. There’s no way the Pacers could’ve forecasted this type of jump, a year after those two chilled idly on the perimeter will Westbrook did everything.
As Spencer said, a deal for Kemba that packages one-to-two young, intriguing players as the principle is sub-optimal. Landing a stud like Oladipo is obviously a home run, but it’s also a rarity. If the Hornets go this route, and don’t also get a pick, it makes the rebuild more challenging. Remember how much we roasted Indy after this move?
Additionally, if Charlotte goes this path, it could also make bottoming out even more of a battle. Hypothetically: It could be costly to add two players that don’t project as future stars, and also “help” the team win 30-35 games. That could work in Charlotte’s detriment in the lottery.
4 – It feels like there a good chance that the Hornets are active in some form at the trade deadline. What should be the top priority for the front office?
Spence: I feel like you could answer this in numerous different ways, with various names. The reality is that any and all of that circles back to Kemba Walker. Without Kemba going out the door, it’s inconceivable to see how management could significantly shake up this roster.
I don’t get night terrors as much as some regarding the price point of Kemba’s next max contract that is scheduled to arrive in the summer of ‘19 – 5 years, $177M with Charlotte – 4 years, $131M elsewhere. What does frighten me, however, is the fact that there’s no conceivable way to build around him until the summer of ‘21 (Batum comes off the books), when Kemba is 31 years old and 2 seasons into his max deal.
Talking about getting off of Batum’s money before the contract expires is effectively worthless. The team would have to attach future assets to make that happen, and for a team stuck in the middle as Charlotte is, and will be in this theoretical thought exercise of the future, that’s a suicide mission.
Sure, Charlotte could dangle guys like Monk and Zeller at the deadline again next season in search of expiring contracts and a pick. Then the team could renounce every cap hold in the summer of ‘19 aside from Kemba’s low $18M number and in theory get to somewhere in the ballpark of $10-12M in space, but that just doesn’t move the needle enough.
Toss out any scenario you want involving Kemba sticking around in the Queen City, but the odds of being able to significantly improve this roster until Nic Batum comes off the books (while Kemba is on a max deal) are slim to none. Emotions are a serious factor for fans, I get it. You want the best player in franchise history to stick around long term, regardless of the cost associated with that. Fair, just understand the consequences – or better put – the restraints on roster building under the current cap situation the Hornets have themselves in.
You don’t have to make the trade involving Kemba at the deadline this season. Wait until the summer, just prior to the draft, and I really don’t believe his market value will decrease. But the bottom line is this: if you want any form of vision for the future of this team, you have to trade Kemba. Take one step back in order to take two steps forward.
BG: We have gone around and around about the probability and practicality of trading Kemba Walker — what makes sense, and why. This is fairly reductive logic, but: Kemba is, by a wide margin, this team’s best asset. Look at the market — name me another All-Star-level point guard or perimeter player that could become available. That, plus the team’s current cap situation, and the timing — Kemba’s 2019 unrestricted free agency looms — make this obvious.
The team’s top priority has to be looking for potential trades for Kemba. It pains me to type that, but that’s just the bottomline.
All of that said, if you deem Kemba unmoveable — then one of the few other options Charlotte should explore is the market for Jeremy Lamb.
Lamb is one of the best bench scorers in the league; he can make an open three (39 3P% on catch-and-shoots), run pick-and-roll, and is a solid cutter, too. Teams that need wing depth or scoring should absolutely be interested in Lamb, especially on his team-friendly deal. If I’m Rich Cho, I call Sam Presti in OKC and Bryan Colangelo in Philly (RIP, Hinkie) every day to guage interest in J-Lamb.
I thought OKC would be an intriguing destination for Lamb even before Andre Roberson’s season-ending injury; now that he’s out, and the Thunder are clearly in Win Now Mode, I think this is an opportunity.
Getting a first round pick from the Thunder is a tricky process, though. Because of the league’s new seven-year rule, and several protected first round picks the team owes out, OKC can’t trade a first round pick until 2024. This means Charlotte would have to target other assets — cap relief, second round picks, Terrance Ferguson, etc. As I mentioned above, that’s not optimal.
5 – What’s your prediction on how the trade deadline shakes out for Charlotte?
Spence: The Blake Griffin trade earlier this week should have set off some signals for Hornets fans. Detroit, a market size similar to Charlotte, traded for a player with a riddled injury history and a massive contract in order to put more butts in seats. The Pistons situation is somewhat unique, of course, since they have a brand new arena that fans don’t seem to be swayed by – 19th in the league in attendance this season. Nonetheless, they made what will likely end up being a shitty basketball decision in order to keep their heads above water financially.
The Hornets are 24th in attendance this season, and without making a serious change, but instead continuing down the path of the Kemba-Batum hopeless era – say it with me: “THERE’S NO PATH TO IMPROVEMENT”. Meaning, that attendance number will not improve (at least not significantly enough to matter), revenue generation will be a pipedream, and management could very well have even worse financial issues on its hands than it does currently.
Don’t listen to some of what you hear out there. If Charlotte tore this thing down to the ground and rebuilt, new marketing opportunities would present themselves and fans would come back in droves when that new and improved product started winning.
All this to be said, I ultimately believe that management will be staring down the barrel of a $177M max contract offer to Kemba next summer. The team will attempt to kick the tires on contract extension talks with Kemba this summer, but since that’d pay him $100M less than what he could be paid as an UFA the following summer, you can count on it not coming to fruition. And honestly, at this point, why should Kemba want to do this franchise any favors?
History tells us Jordan will be far too hard headed in any trade talks involving his best player and prioritize “winning” (40 games) over developing a vision that coincides with patience.
BG: A fever pitch of panic broke out after Woj. tweeted the news about the Hornets being open to trading Kemba a few weeks ago; however, things seem to have mostly calmed now, although Kemba’s name still continues to put up in the occasional rumor.
Currently, FiveThirtyEight gives the Hornets just a 22% chance of making the playoffs — those are, uh, not great odds. I know Charlotte doesn’t want to move Kemba — who would? But I think the writing is on the wall, and it can’t be ignored any longer. This franchise needs to rebuild, and the best way to restart that process, and get some much-needed direction, is to move Kemba.
As painful as it would be, trading Kemba for assets and some cap relief would be a proactive move for the franchise. In the end, though, I’m not sure that option will win out.
I don’t think Kemba will be moved before next week’s deadline, although a trade would certainly not surprise, either.
The Hornets could still potentially move Walker in the summer; or Charlotte could use whatever pick they end up with, which could be pretty good, especially with a sneak second-half tank job, and try to run it back in 2018-19 — hopefully with an improved Monk. I think they will go that route, and if so, well, this will likely be the team’s roster for the next few seasons.