Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Lakers could open up enough cap space to sign a max-level free agent this summer. On that list of potential targets are Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Khris Middleton, Klay Thompson, and Kemba Walker.
All of those players who are entering unrestricted free agency for the first time have compelling reasons to stay with their existing teams, except for maybe Irving, but none more so than Walker. Earlier this week, he told Jared Weiss of The Athletic that going back to Charlotte is his “first priority” for the offseason:
For Walker, the decision is easy.
“Oh no question, Charlotte’s definitely my first priority,” he said. “That’s where I’ve been for eight years and that’s all I know. Not many people get a chance to play for one NBA team throughout their career. When I go on my Instagram, I see, ‘Kemba leave! Kemba get out of Charlotte!’ People don’t understand, when they say you need to go ‘here’ and win, that winning is not guaranteed anywhere.”
Although the pull of playing for the team that drafted him and becoming a franchise icon are legitimate reasons to stay with the Hornets, it would disingenuous to ignore the giant financial elephant in the room.
Charlotte could already outbid any other team with a five-contract worth $189.7 million, compared to $140.6 million over four years. Now that Walker was named third-team all-NBA, he qualifies for a designated veteran contract (a.k.a. the supermax) which would pay him up to $221.3 million for five seasons.
The difference in what the Lakers and Hornets can offer Walker is $80.7 million, which is astronomical. In the piece, Walker was clear that the fifth year is important to him, particularly as a small guard who recently turned 29 years old.
Walker was probably on the lower end of Los Angeles’ free agency wish list anyway, given his physical stature and impact on the floor compared to the other names mentioned above. It’s almost reassuring to know that the Lakers will be hard-pressed to convince to come to Los Angeles, because that contract will be an overpay almost immediately.
All credit goes to Walker, though, for having the type of season that has put him in position to earn this amount of money. He just finished a four-year rookie extension that paid him $48 million total, which is close to the annual value of the new deal he will sign, and his reaction to even getting that first contract is pretty endearing:
“I was so happy with that first contract too, I didn’t even care. My agent, Jeff Schwartz, he called me for my first contract and he was like, ‘They offered you $8 million.’ I was like, ‘For real? All right.’ He was like, ‘No, you can’t take that.’ So I was like, ‘All right Jeff, just get me 10.’ He told me to not take that, then he got me $12 million and told me to not take that, but I was like, ‘I can’t not take that, man.’ But it worked out in my favor, so no complaints at all.
“It’s not about the money though, I just love playing basketball.”
For now, it seems like Walker will be content playing basketball in Charlotte instead of Los Angeles, so the Lakers will just have to set their sights elsewhere.