Advertisement
Advertisement

Since being drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 2011, Kemba Walker has generally been the best player they've put on the court. His next teammate to be named an All-Star will be his first. They've played in just two playoff series, winning a total of three games, while Walker has improved at an almost yearly pace. In all but two seasons, his scoring has gone up from the year before and in only one season has he not increased his assists per game.

Kemba Walker's numbers

In the latest self-improvement installment, Walker has upped his scoring to a career-high 25.2 points per game, a career-high 6.2 assists per game, a career-high (tied) 4.4 rebounds per game and a career-high 49 percent two-point field goal percentage.

Finally, it seems as though all the hard work is (slightly) paying off. They're currently sitting at 16-17, a half game out of the sixth seed in the East, with the tiebreaker over the Pistons who are ahead of them.

Advertisement

Sure, Charlotte changed coaches, GMs, added a rejuvenated Tony Parker and drafted the ultra-athletic Miles Bridges, but the biggest reason for their leap into the playoff conversation [VIDEO] has been Walker, as it always has been.

The Hornets go as Walker goes, although not to an exact science. He scored 60 in an overtime loss, where most teams who have a 60 point scorer go on to win. Teams that have had a 60-point scorer in NBA history are 50-19. In that game, Walker outscored his Hornet teammates 60-59 on nearly half the shots. He followed that up by scoring 43 (21 in the fourth quarter) to lead Charlotte past Boston.

The leap Walker has made from a rookie sixth man shooting 36 percent from the field to (if he makes it this year, which he easily should) three-time All-Star and long-shot MVP candidate.

Advertisement

You can make a case that he has less talent surrounding him than any other All-Star. The next two highest scorers Charlotte has are Jeremy Lamb and Malik Monk, with 15.4 and 10.6 respectively. He doesn't have a dominant big man; Cody Zeller averages 9.1 points and 6.0 rebounds. He leads the team in points, assists, steals and is sixth in blocked shots on a per game basis.

Teams are throwing everything they can at him. The Brooklyn Nets, in their double-overtime win over Charlotte, used a couple of old defensive tactics on Walker. They used a 2-3 zone, which the Knicks utilized in erasing a 21-point deficit to Charlotte, and a box-and-1 in which the four players are in a zone and one man trails Walker. They blitzed him at halfcourt during the overtime periods, forcing someone else to beat them.

And it worked. With 25 seconds left, Walker brought the ball up and was double-teamed immediately. He swung the ball to Malik Monk and resorted to letting him dribble the clock down before setting up or taking the last shot.

Only, Monk never got to that point, because he slipped and lost the ball with about six seconds left giving Brooklyn the breakaway game-winning layup. A turnover that most likely would not have happened with the ball in Walker's hands.

During his 60-point barrage, Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said, "We tried double-teaming him, we tried hard-hedging him. The reality of it is, is that you have Joel (Embiid) and Jimmy (Butler) in that situation a lot, and he is doing that against two all-league defensive players. He is just hard to guard and really unique... Sixty points in an NBA game against a pretty good defensive team is a remarkable effort." Butler, who hit the game-winning three, also said " As much as I wanted the shot to go in to win the game, I also wanted it to go in because I didn't want Kemba to give me 70. I wanted it to stop at 60."

What this means for the future

With the NBA's All-Star Game in February 2019 being hosted by Charlotte, and with Walker's incessant push towards the top of the league hierarchy, a lot of eyes are on Charlotte. With trade rumors (that were publicly shot down by Michael Jordan and Hornets brass), Walker and the team made it clear that they have a mutual interest in sticking together. Earlier this year, Walker insisted he wanted to stay and create something special in Charlotte.

The only question is how to do so. How can Charlotte give him what he deserves while maintaining the flexibility to sign free agents and improve the team? The short answer is, they can't. Nicolas Batum is in the third year of a five-year, $120 million contract. Marvin Williams is in the third year of a four-year, $54 million contract. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is in the third year of a four-year, $52 million contract. Those three combine to average 28.8 points a game, with Walker, who is in the last of a four-year, $48 million contract, averaging 25.2.

Walker makes $12 million a year. For comparison, Steph Curry makes $40 million, Kyrie Irving makes $19 million, Russell Westbrook makes $41 million, Damian Lillard makes $28 million and John Wall makes $17 million. So for a point guard of Walker's stature, upwards of $20 million a year is not out of the question. But unless you can figure out a way to offload one or two of those aforementioned bad contracts, then Charlotte won't be singing many quality free agents. They'll continue to probably make the playoffs as a lower Eastern seed, probably not higher than the fifth spot, meaning not a great draft slot. Neither of those things is the formula for success.

On the other hand, trading Walker or allowing him to walk in free agency and gaining nothing would be a disaster, as well. Walker, who leads the franchise in three-pointers, free throws, points scored and is second in assists and offensive plus/minus, is Charlotte basketball. Charlotte basketball possibly doesn't even exist without Walker. The Spectrum Center is rarely filled to the top, but it would certainly be very empty without Walker.

Trading him away would be trading the greatest Hornet to ever lace them up. Trading him away would be trading a Charlotte icon. Trading him away would drive more than half the fanbase into apathy. And for what? The potential to sign more free agents? How many of those free agents are going to be better than Walker? Not many, that's for sure. And with no Walker, you still have three bad contracts to underperforming players with no superstar to drag them to victory. The Hornets would likely endure many losing seasons before stumbling onto a player of Walker's caliber with a draft pick, with not even close to the same stature Walker has achieved in Charlotte.

The reasons to trade Walker are risky, ill-advised, and it's a short list. The reasons to keep Walker far outnumber those for losing him. If you're Charlotte, even if it means crippling the team's cap space, you sign Walker for whatever you have to. If that means you're stuck being the perennial six seed with not much improvement in the off-season, so be it. Because losing Walker would likely lose a fanbase as well. And since we've seen Walker give his all to Hornets teams that gave him no help and stuck it out and kept improving, it only makes sense he should be rewarded.