Reports: Celtics emerge as favorites for Kemba Walker amid his Hornets stalemate

Kemba Walker and the Charlotte Hornets have reached a stalemate in contract discussions, and the Boston Celtics have emerged as favorites to sign the All-Star point guard when free agency opens on Sunday, according to multiple reports.

The current gap between how much Charlotte is willing to pay and what Walker wants is sizable enough to open the bidding for the 29-year-old’s services to the Celtics, New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks, per The Athletic’s Shams Charania.

Hornets owner Michael Jordan is “no longer willing to extend far enough financially” to retain Walker, who is “increasingly likely to accept” a max deal from Boston when free agency opens at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported.

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The news comes just 48 hours after The New York Times’ Marc Stein outed the Celtics as stealth suitors for Walker. Within hours on Tuesday, The Charlotte Observer’s Rick Bonnell corroborated Stein’s report, and Boston’s pursuit was no longer stealth. The Celtics had joined the Mavericks as Charlotte’s biggest threats.

How much does Walker stand to earn?

Upon making the third-team All-NBA roster this past season, Walker became eligible for a super-max contract from the Hornets worth $221.3 million over five years. Other teams can offer a maximum of four years and $140.6 million. Earlier this month, Walker told The Athletic’s Jared Weiss that the Hornets were his “first priority” in free agency, and soon afterward told reporters at his youth basketball camp that he “would take less” than the super-max figure to stay in Charlotte.

Will Hornets guard Kemba Walker replace Kyrie Irving on the Celtics? (Getty Images)
Will Hornets guard Kemba Walker replace Kyrie Irving on the Celtics? (Getty Images)

Given that the Hornets are already saddled with a handful of overpriced contracts, signing Walker to the super-max would put them at risk of paying a luxury tax with no clear path toward contention. Charlotte has missed the playoffs in each of the past three years and has not gotten out of the first round in Walker’s eight seasons.

What this would mean for the Celtics

If Walker were to head to the Northeast, where he has ties as a Bronx native who won an NCAA championship at the University of Connecticut, it would mark a dramatic turnaround for the Celtics, who just last week learned of All-Star big man Al Horford’s reported plans to join Kyrie Irving in leaving Boston as a free agent.

Barring some serious salary-cap gymnastics, Walker’s arrival would officially spell the end for Irving and Horford in Boston. Horford’s three-year tenure with the Celtics included back-to-back Eastern Conference finals appearances in 2017 and 2018, the second of which came with Irving sidelined in his first season in Boston.

The Celtics entered this past season with championship hopes, but Irving’s impending free agency and leadership style cast a shadow over a season that ended in a disappointing second-round playoff loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Walker, a three-time All-Star and two-time winner of the NBA’s Sportsmanship Award, would bring stability to both the point guard position and locker room.

Walker (25.6 points per game on 55.8 percent true shooting last season) would replace much of the shot creation left by Irving (23.8 PPG, 59.2 TS%). The Celtics would hope that Walker’s on-ball efficiency improves with better teammates in Boston, and that he will be more amenable to playing off the ball in coach Brad Stevens’ motion offense — similar to how they used Isaiah Thomas in 2016-17.

Over the past four seasons, Walker has averaged 1.14 points per possession on spot-up shooting opportunities, 1.06 points per possession off screens and 1.05 points per possession on handoffs, according to Synergy Sports. By comparison, Irving has averaged 1.14 points per possession on spot-up shots, 1.09 points per possession off screens and 1.01 points per possession on handoffs in that span.

Ironically, one of Irving’s public admonishments of the Celtics this season involved Walker. He criticized Stevens’ decision not to trap Walker in isolation, “like every other team in the league,” after the Hornets star scored 18 of his game-high 36 points during a come-from-behind regular-season win against Boston in late March.

Walker also scored the game high when UConn beat Stevens’ Butler squad in the 2011 NCAA title game, and the allure of pursuing another championship — this time with Stevens in the NBA — is surely part of Boston’s appeal over Charlotte. For the third time in four summers, one of the league’s top free agents would be entrusting his prime years to the Celtics’ ability to pursue an 18th ring with a wealth of young talent, following in the footsteps of Horford and Gordon Hayward.

First, though, the Celtics must go about finding a replacement for Horford, the under-appreciated star who defended everyone from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Joel Embiid and served up many handoffs and screens for Thomas and Irving. The current crop of bigs, which includes first-round picks Robert Williams III, Grant Williams and Guerschon Yabusele, is probably still too raw to rely on consistently.

In order to create max cap space for Walker, Boston will also have to renounce its rights to restricted free agent Terry Rozier, cutting into the depth behind Walker at point guard. Still, with Walker orchestrating an offense that would also include stud young wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, along with a presumably healthy Hayward and All-Defensive guard Marcus Smart, the Celtics should expect to be among the conference’s top teams, especially if Kawhi Leonard heads West.

The Celtics would also have the room mid-level exception ($4.8 million annually), a collection of recent draft picks and a lightly protected future first-round selection from the Memphis Grizzlies to shop for a replacement center and guard depth via free agency or a third star in a trade. There would be a roadmap to contention again for the Celtics, which is more than most imagined for them at this time last week.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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