CHARLOTTE — There’s a part of Kemba Walker that wants to play his entire career with the Charlotte Hornets. There’s another part that wants to compete for an NBA championship before he’s too old.
With the Hornets not ready to compete with the Golden State Warriors of the world, the 28-year-old Walker enters this offseason having to make a choice between loyalty and chasing a ring.
And he’s just not ready to do that just yet.
“I have no feeling right now, I don’t know,” Walker said of his impending decision in free agency this summer. “Honestly, I don’t know what to expect. I guess it’s a lot of different emotions bottled up into one. I’m not sure. I don’t know.”
The three-time All-Star point guard is expected to be a hot commodity when free agency opens July 1.
He’s coming off his most productive season statistically, averaging a career-high 25.6 points per game to go along with 5.9 assists and 4.4 rebounds. He was selected as an All-Star game starter for the first time and has put himself in the running for the All-NBA team.
Walker’s dilemma is that if the Hornets re-sign him to a max contract, they won’t have many pieces to put around him — which means the team could continue to muddle in mediocrity as they’ve done for the first eight seasons in Charlotte. The Hornets have only been to the postseason twice during that time and have never gotten out of the first round.
Signing with another team could give him the opportunity to compete for the championship he so desperately craves.
“I mean, obviously I do want to be competitive because I want to be able to play in the playoffs,” Walker said. “So, I want to think that would have some influence” on my decision.
At media day last September an excited Walker sounded committed to re-signing with the Hornets, saying he “wanted to create something” in Charlotte. Walker said Thursday that “nothing has changed” in that regard, but his enthusiasm has clearly waned over the past seven months.
“I want to win,” Walker said. “I want to win.”
Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak says the Hornets plan to do everything they can to keep Walker.
“I think this is a place that he wants to be, and we’ll do everything that we can to bring him back here,” Kupchak said Friday. “But he is half of the equation.”
For Walker to stay, Kupchak may have to find productive quality pieces to put around him — and quickly.
They’ve struggled to do that in the past with players like Nicolas Batum — who received a five-year, $120 million contract three years ago — failing to live up to expectations.
Kupchak said he knows Walker is frustrated by losing.
He wants to put more talent around his star player that would make the Hornets a consistent playoff contender, but also knows that won’t be easy.
Kupchak said the best option is to acquire talent through a trade.
Jeremy Lamb, the team’s second-leading scorer, is an unrestricted free agent while backup center Frank Kaminsky is a restricted free agent. Kupchak said the Hornets “financially are not as flexible as I would like us to be, so there could be some challenges going forward with our free agents.”
Whether anything Kupchak does is enough to convince Walker to re-sign with Charlotte remains to be seen.
But in the meantime, Kupchak went out of his way to make sure Walker knows he’s appreciated — and wanted — by the Hornets.
“There has not been a player with this franchise like Kemba Walker,” Kupchack said of the Hornets’ all-time leading scorer. “He is a once in a generation kind of a player and he is fun to watch. He is competitive, he is a good teammate,” Kupchak said. “Those are all qualities that I like to see, and I know that people in the organization and our fans like to see in players.”