For eight years, Kemba Walker was Charlotte Hornets basketball.
He loved the city, and the fans loved him back. Despite being able to ask out whenever he wanted, Walker was loyal to the city and the franchise that took a chance on him as an undersized bucket-getter out of UConn.
However, loyalty in sports is not a real thing. Players shouldn’t expect it, and teams always have a point where loyalty costs too much, because at the end of the day, business is business.
This is why the Charlotte Hornets have now lost the best player in franchise history. To understand how we got to this point, it’s important to look back at how a number of small mistakes added up.
The mandate for the Hornets, outside of 2012, has always been to shoot for being a consistent playoff contender. Once established as a frequent playoff visitor, the team would tinker with the roster and, hopefully, build a title team.
This led the Hornets to re-sign Nic Batum to a five-year, $120 million contract extension and give Marvin Williams a four-year, $54.5 million deal in 2016. At the time, both seemed like no-brainer deals because both were key pieces in a 48-win team. Beyond them, both Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller received lucrative deals from the squad at one point or another — Kidd-Gilchrist got a four-year, $52 million contract, while Zeller’s was a four-year, $56 million extension.
Dedicating money to players you believe in is fine, but going all-in like this proved to be costly. After an injury sidelined Zeller for over a month in January of 2017, the Hornets dealt Roy Hibbert’s one-year deal and Spencer Hawes’ expiring deal to the Bucks for the ineffective Miles Plumlee, who had signed a four-year, $52 million deal in the 2016 offseason, burdening the team with another bloated contract.
The Hornets would finish 11th in the Eastern Conference and draft Malik Monk two spots ahead of Donovan Mitchell.
The following offseason, the Hornets traded Plumlee and Marco Bellinelli for Dwight Howard. I actually like the move, if only because Howard, at the time, appeared to give the Hornets a chance at the playoffs. Instead, teams went small and blistered Charlotte with pace and three-point shooting all season, while the offense was made worse be a center who demanded the ball on the block, killing the team’s flow.
In addition to the team spending all this time looking for expensive guys to play a dying position, two major things happened. The first was that Williams, while still reliable, got old. The other was that Batum fell of a cliff. So, when looking at the Hornets today, we see a basketball team that has a whole lot of money tied up in players who are not able to play major minutes on a team with postseason aspirations as anything other than somewhat reliable reserves.
The one exception to that was Walker, But last weekend, it was reported that he told the Hornets that he was leaving the team to join the Boston Celtics, which offered him a four-year max contract worth $141 million. Charlotte could have paid him much more than that, but they decided against it.
The Hornets could have paid Walker as much as $221 million over five years, but the most the team could justify paying him was less than $170 million, due to concerns about paying the NBA luxury tax in the future.
This is a horrible message to send if you’re the Hornets.
All the work that Walker put towards the franchise when everyone else in the building faltered didn’t matter. For season ticket holders, it sends the message that the bottom line matters more than the product on the floor.
The question that I’ve asked for the last year is why didn’t the Hornets trade Walker when they had the chance? The answer: it tied into a few things, the biggest being that the Hornets were terrified of jumping into a rebuild. With the amount of mistakes that this franchise has made in the draft, trusting the lottery once again risked driving fans away in droves.
It also doesn’t help that the return on a Walker trade assuredly wouldn’t have been good enough to explain away. The Hornets and Cleveland Cavs were actually close on a deal to send Walker to Cleveland before the 2018 NBA Draft, with the sticking point being that the Cavaliers were adamant that they wanted Williams and his contract over Batum’s deal.
Without trying to be unfair to him — because you should never fault a guy for taking nine figures when it’s handed to him and the Hornets haven’t exactly shown restraint in paying other players — any true rebuild for Charlotte begins when Batum’s deal is no longer on the ledger. It’s why it’s hard to blame Kemba for leaving, and why it’s nearly impossible to properly rebuild the roster while he’s making star money.
As for what’s next for the Hornets, the key is to figure out what they have in the young guys currently on the roster.
Miles Bridges and Devonta Graham started their rookie seasons slow but showed promise as the year went on. Dwayne Bacon utilized his time in the G League to show he may be a hidden gem. Monk, while inconsistent, is still young and capable of scoring in bunches. Rookies P.J. Washington and Cody Martin are unknowns but have their whole careers ahead of them.
With Walker gone, and wins in short supply, anything that gets in the way of developing the kids and turning the ship around as quickly as possible should be benched or jettisoned for picks.
In the immediate future, the Hornets don’t possess the talent to build a playoff-caliber team. With Walker gone, you can argue that this may be the worst roster in the league. To make things worse for the Hornets, the New York Knicks have their next two second-round picks, which somewhat limits their war chest of assets.
At the end of the day, it wasn’t one giant mistake that cost the Hornets the best player in franchise history; it was a series of bad moves piled on top of one another, leading to Charlotte deciding the smartest move was to lowball Walker and encourage him to look around.
Perhaps this becomes a learning experience for the franchise, and moving forward, they learn from these mistakes. If not, it’ll be one they’ll be looking back on for a long time, and a cautionary tale for other teams on how not to handle a superstar on an island.