Did somebody say NBA free agency doesn't start until Sunday night at 6 p.m. ET? So much for that. if these reports are accurate, two of the biggest names on the market have already committed -- Kemba Walker to the Celtics and Kyrie Irving to the Nets. For now, let's talk about Walker.
Shams Charania of The Athletic was the first on the news that Walker has informed the Hornets he intends to sign with the Celtics on a max deal upon the official opening of free agency.
This is a great signing for Boston, for all the reasons. The Celtics get a virtual replica of Kyrie Irving's production with a much more galvanizing personality in Walker, but the big question here is about the Hornets. Why did they not look to trade Walker at any one of the numerous points they had the option?
You can drop the "hindsight is 20-20" line, but this was pretty clear all along. Given their cap constraints with Kemba on board and small-market realities, the Hornets were never in a realistic place to put a team around Kemba that was going to be anything more than a half-threat for a bottom seed in the Eastern Conference, at best.
When Walker's name came up at the 2018 trade deadline, the Hornets said they were looking for an All-Star player in return, and a rival executive told CBS Sports that was probably asking too much. So it's tough. You don't know what the market was for Walker as he ascended higher and higher in the league hierarchy, but the fact is, at some point, the Hornets, a pretty asset-starved organization, could've gotten something pretty decent for Walker. Now they're going to get nothing.
It's a fine line for a team like Charlotte that was in a lot of close games and believed it had a chance to get on the upswing and become a playoff team. You don't want to just cash in the best player you have. The Hornets were rumored to be in the market for Marc Gasol at the trade deadline, but didn't make that happen. Their young players -- namely Malik Monk, Miles Bridges and newly drafted P.J. Washington -- are pretty blah in terms of trade value.
No big free agents are going to come to Charlotte, let's just be honest. And even if you want to say that an impact free agent would consider them, re-signing Walker, even if he would've taken a huge discount, puts them well over the cap this summer. There was a path to signing Walker to the max and having north of $20 million in space open in 2020 if all they did was one-year deals alongside him this summer.
But again, what meaningful pieces are you going to add when you're constantly dipping on the C-level free agents? What you're doing is staying just good enough to not get a high-leverage draft pick. The answer would've been to tank for Zion last year, really. That could've landed them a real player to put next to Walker. But again, the Hornets thought they were good, and they were better than their record, and good for them for competing.
Still, this situation just is what it is, and Walker, for a substantial amount of time, was the one significant asset the Hornets had, the one card they had to play that could've potentially expedited a reasonable rebuild. As great as Walker was for the Hornets -- and he was great -- you know what you are with him and the rest of what the Hornets have to offer. Everything goes right, you can be a 6-8 seed in the Eastern Conference and a first-round doormat.
And even that is a blue-sky outlook. The Hornets haven't made the playoffs, in the Eastern Conference, in three years. You know what you are with the Walker-and-nobody-else model, and it's not anything worth committing the $221 million Charlotte was eligible to commit to Walker. It's a hard choice, but given the reality now, as the Hornets are reportedly about to watch their best player and best asset walk to Boston for absolutely nothing, it's the only logical conclusion.
The Hornets probably should've traded Walker. They can have less than $60 million in committed salary next summer., which could be somewhere north of $50 million in cap space, and that looks good on paper. But again, who are they going to be able to get with that money? Trade Walker, and you have that space PLUS the assets in what could be thought of as a super-light version of the Anthony Davis deal that left New Orleans with assets, cap space and good young players.
Relatively, speaking, the Hornets could've, and probably should've, taken the same approach in trading Walker. And not doing so may have set them back years.