You could say the Charlotte Hornets have come to a fork in the road when it comes to the future of star player Kemba Walker.
One path is working to keep the veteran and three-time NBA All-Star as the centerpiece of the franchise. The other? Letting the unrestricted free agent make his home in another city and chase championships elsewhere.
Because he earned third-team All-NBA status, Walker is eligible for a supermax contract — $221 million over five years. But the Hornets are in salary cap trouble and giving Walker that much cash would only make the finances worse.
NBC Charlotte's Nick Carboni and Locked On Hornets analyst Doug Branson examined what could be best for the Hornets heading into a pivotal offseason on the newest episode of the NBC Charlotte Sports Podcast.
Branson said the Hornets had good intentions to build around Walker when he re-signed in 2015. Unfortunately, he's the only investment that panned out for Charlotte.
"I credit the idea of trying to put a lot of good to really good pieces around him to make the parts better than the whole," Branson said. "The problem with that strategy as we found out, you have to have one or two players significantly improve around Kemba and have everyone stay healthy. Neither of those things happened."
Players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and Nic Batum have disappointed. Marvin Williams has been a dependable starter, but he's getting older on a team looking to the future, Branson explained.
And now that Kemba is eligible for a supermax contract, the celebration was somber for some Hornets fans.
"Normally, when a player makes a third-team all-NBA after setting scoring records for a franchise, season scoring records, three-point records, it feels like the beginning of something. But because of the financial situation they find themselves in, this feels like the ending of something," he said.
Branson also said the Hornets' impatience to remain competitive to avoid a total rebuild has led to bad contracts and salary they're now stuck with. Missing out on Gordon Hayward led to signing Lance Stephenson, which led to bringing in Spencer Hawes, then Miles Plumlee, Dwight Howard and finally, Bismack Biyombo returned. One sports columnist said of the deal it was "like trading in a lemony for a jalopy." Ouch.
Back to Walker. Would anything less than the supermax be an insult to their star player? He's already taken one sweetheart deal to help them build, could he possibly turn away from $221 million? And if he does leave, where does that leave Charlotte moving forward?