The Kemba Walker Squeeze

The franchise player of the Charlotte Hornets has been made available for a trade.  All offers are being considered. It is the intersection of NBA business with NBA basketball. One is drowning the other. One is about to succumb and die. Kemba Walker is the only savior in the room.

A friendly contract, a 27 year old, and a team buried in bad deals has created this perfect storm. The Hornets have to start selling assets (contracts). But no one wants the players that have been absolute dead weights since signing overpay deals. Dwight Howard: $23 million. NIcolas Batum $22 million. Marvin Williams: $13 million. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist $13 million. Cody Zeller: $12 million. The best player on the team, Kemba Walker, is the sixth highest paid player.

The Hornets have won 18 games, are 12th in the East. They have the 13th highest salary at $117 million. At some point, the rubber meets the road. That point is now. Kemba Walker’s stay in Charlotte is coming to an end.

It’s not Kemba by himself. Trade him alone and so what? You get draft picks but you still have a herculean sized payroll with guys no one would pay $8 million for much less $24 million. The Hornets want to execute a Lakers deal, a Magic Johnson special.

Magic wanted to get rid of Timofey Mozgov’s $47 million. No one would touch it because it’s Mozgov. But Magic dangled D’Angelo Russell as a two-some and Brooklyn was willing to deal. It is what Michael Jordan is hoping for. Pair Kemba with Howard or Kemba with Batum and you clear $34-$36 million. The Hornets don’t want to get rid of Kemba but they really have no choice.

They are getting next to nothing from their rich guy stiffs.

  • Nicolas Batum: 39%, 28% from three. $2,157,190 per point.
  • Dwight Howard: 53% free throws. $1,516,129 per point.
  • Michael Kidd Gilchrist: 67% free throws. $1,262,135 per point.
  • Marvin Williams: 9.7 points. $1,357,603 per point.
  • Cody Zeller: 7.2 points. $1,747,815 per point.

So it makes sense someone has to go. But the contracts are prohibitive and the players average. No one wants their financial baggage.

These days teams are particularly sensitive about large contracts, a tax bill, and not making the playoffs, With a $110+ million payroll that erases flexibility and makes it impossible to build a playoff contender, small markets are horribly aware how quickly things can get out of hand. They don’t have the versatility of larger markets who can change their fortunes with elite free agents or make money on television rights, merchandising or tourists willing to pay for overpriced tickets.  On the one hand, small markets have to sign players they developed to contracts they are not worth just to keep them in town. They have to pay the piper or else sink the boat.

The boat is sinking in Charlotte. With Kemba as the only attractive asset, Kemba is economical- $555,995 per point- the Hornets are using him as leverage to try to get from under their financial tsunami. Kemba is attactive, an All-Star with a cheap contract who plays a modern game.

Kemba is having a great individual seaon. He is a 21.7 point scorer with a 114 offensive rating and a 20.4 PER. He is the 8th best point guard, Real Plus-Minus. It makes no sense to trade him. It makes all the sense in the world to trade him when you remember basketball is business.

The Hornets, after trading Kemba, are going to tank and try to get into the top of the lottery to find another Kemba. 7 years of Kemba Walker was good for one playoff appearance. Now it is starting over time but first clearing the books. More than likely, they are stuck with Batum, he can’t shoot. They’ll be able to package Marvin Williams,Cody Zeller and/or Kidd-Gilchrist. Their contracts are moveable. The Hornets are into their Howard marriage and his $24 million for another year.

Bad deals put the Hornets in Dante’s inferno but part of it has to do with what happened in everyone’s free agent year. There was a lot of money being tossed around by way of the increase in the salary cap. Batum has never been a 20 point scorer but he found himself in the $120 million contract club. He never was going to be able to live up to what was expected. KIdd-Gilchrist and Williams and Zeller were paid based on their history with an increase in money. They were going to get overpaid. The Dwight Howard deal last summer made no sense considering what he was making, and considering what Howard can do as a 32 year old. Howard is as adverstised. A rebounder. An average offensive player. Not great. Not cover your eyes awful. He’s Dwight Howard. But that contract is killing the Hornets. Howard had to be exceptional this year. And he wasn’t.

It’s sad for Kemba if you look at it as he gave the Hornets blood, sweat and tears and now he’s expendable.  Most players and fans think that way, call it heartless. But the bottom line is the bottom line. Even as talented as Kemba is, he has to win to make the investement pay dividends. Otherwise, it is lost money.

If you win, everyone is happy. When you lose, everyone is bitter, and those salaries choke you. The salaries are choking the Hornets. They have to start over.

It’s the cruel part of the NBA no one wants to talk about. Capitalism. Sometimes your best player is your best trade piece. He makes it possible to start from scratch. All over again. And who knows, Kemba may be in the playoffs come April while the Hornets will be on the slow road to nowhere.