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The Most Interesting Free-Agent-to-Be Not Named KD, Kyrie, or Kawhi

Kemba Walker’s decision this summer will also have a major impact on the NBA’s title picture. And it could all come down to how he and the Hornets fare in their next seven games.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ever since leading the Connecticut Huskies to an NCAA championship in 2011, Kemba Walker has been stuck on a carousel of mediocrity. It’s as if all of his good basketball karma was spent during his heroic college run. Whether Walker’s misfortunes with the Charlotte Hornets are due to something cosmic or the failings of the team’s front office, the end result is the same: He’s made the playoffs only twice in seven seasons before this one, and his chances this season aren’t looking good, either. As Walker and the franchise brace for his free agency this summer, there’s no end in sight to the Hornets’ lousiness. This offseason will likely feature some of the game’s biggest superstars changing places, but Walker also wields immense power. His decision to either stay and continue building his legacy in Charlotte or go elsewhere will also have a major effect on the NBA’s title picture.

For now, the Hornets are at least showing signs of life. Charlotte is making a late run for the playoffs with wins in each of its past four games. The Hornets closed Saturday’s win over the Boston Celtics with an epic 30-5 run; on Sunday, Jeremy Lamb went full March Madness with a buzzer-beating, half-court heave to defeat the Toronto Raptors; and on Tuesday, Walker and Dwayne Bacon combined for 62 points to outlast the Spurs in overtime. But time is running out; Charlotte is currently in 10th place in the Eastern Conference and trails the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic by a game and a half with only eight games remaining. The Hornets will hold tiebreakers over the Magic and the Miami Heat, who are currently in ninth. It may not matter. Walker is having the best season of his career, but it still might not be enough to make it to the postseason.

Walker has blossomed into a star since being drafted ninth overall by the then-Bobcats. He’s become one of the most ball-dominant scorers in the league, a player who thrives running pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll to generate shots. But his heavy volume of shots is necessitated by the Hornets’ lack of other top talent. As sad as it is to say, Walker’s best teammate ever was probably Al Jefferson in 2013-14 or Nicolas Batum in 2015-16. Younger players like Lamb, Bacon, and rookie Miles Bridges are helping the Hornets scrape together victories now and providing some hope for the future, but the solution to beating Charlotte is still rather simple: Get the ball out of Walker’s hands and make someone else try to beat you.

It’s unfortunate that Walker hasn’t been surrounded by more high-level shot creators so that he could flaunt his skills off the ball more often. Over the past four seasons, Walker has shot an excellent 41.4 percent on spot-up 3s, per NBA.com/Stats. Almost two of every five of Walker’s 3s have come off the catch, which is a decent number for a primarily on-ball threat, but he’d be better off attempting fewer lower-efficiency isolations and increasing his off-ball chances. Walker’s ability to shoot off the catch and move without the ball is what makes him such an intriguing fit next to superior teammates, whether that’s in Charlotte or elsewhere.

Many of his catch-and-shoot 3s have come after racing through a maze of screens to get open, like in the clips above. Walker has all the moves in the book—hesitations, pivots, and jukes—to spring free from his defender. With good footwork and the body control to balance himself in midair, he’s capable of draining shots from tough angles, just like shooting specialists can. Since 2015-16, Walker has shot 37.8 percent on 3s off screens, including shots off the bounce, per Synergy. Walker is about as effective using dribble handoffs, scoring 1.05 points per possession since 2015-16, per Synergy. Walker has logged 143 possessions in dribble handoffs this season, the eighth-most in the league. In the clip below, he lulls his defender to sleep before shuffling side to side to create a sliver of space to unleash his shot.

Walker’s ability to make plays with the ball in his hands can be a weapon when he receives the ball in off-ball plays, too. Since he can attack off the bounce, he can slingshot around screens and handoffs toward the rim to score himself or cause the defense to rotate, opening passing lanes to create 3s for his teammates. Walker has become an All-Star because of his emergence as an on-ball presence; his next phase should be flourishing as an all-around scorer on a winning team.

Can Walker tap into this area of his game in Charlotte, though? Walker said last September that he wants to “create something special here in Charlotte,” but he’s also expressed his deep frustration with watching the postseason on television. Longtime Hornets beat reporter Rick Bonnell wrote in The Charlotte Observer last week that he no longer feels it’s likely that Walker will re-sign. Considering Walker’s desire to play in high-stakes games, making the playoffs might be the difference between keeping and losing him; it could also be a deciding factor for whether he’ll make an All-NBA team.

If Walker is named to one of the three All-NBA teams, he’ll be eligible for a supermax contract worth $221.3 million over five years. That’s a big jump from the five-year, $189.7 million contract he could receive from the Hornets if he’s not an All-NBA player. The most any other team could offer is $140.6 million over four years. Making an All-NBA team isn’t a guarantee. James Harden, Steph Curry, and Damian Lillard are locks for three of the six guard spots. Russell Westbrook will likely also be voted in, considering his numbers. Walker has the credentials to earn a nod with averages of 25.2 points and 5.9 assists, but he’ll compete for the two remaining spots with Kyrie Irving and Bradley Beal, as well as guys like Klay Thompson, D’Angelo Russell, and Ben Simmons. Making the playoffs with a team that’s closing fourth quarters with “Who He Play For?” lineups might be enough to give Walker the edge in the minds of voters.

Re-signing Walker would come with risks: He’ll be 29 next season, and he’s a 6-foot-1 point guard heavily reliant on his speed and explosiveness to get buckets. Smaller point guards historically begin to decline as they hit their 30s, sometimes rapidly. The scariest part is that Walker has already undergone three surgeries to his left knee. The Hornets could re-sign Walker and then trade him later if the rebuild doesn’t work well, but how many suitors would there really be? John Wall’s contract was an untradable albatross even before his injury. Only a few teams chased after Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley ahead of the deadline—namely the Jazz and Pistons—and Conley has a far more team-friendly contract than Walker would get. As the league becomes more and more positionless with larger players like Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokic serving as primary ball handlers, the demand for a smaller player is naturally diminished. Size matters, and Walker’s small stature, age, and history of knee injuries are all red flags. If the Hornets do re-sign Walker for the supermax, they could be married to him until after he earns a mind-blowing $50.4 million at age 33 in 2023-24 (or $43.2 million, if it’s the regular max contract) without the cap space or assets to build a competitive team around him, never mind pursue another star. Walker will be taking a risk if he re-signs with the Hornets, but the Hornets will also be taking a risk by giving him that much money.

If Walker does re-sign in Charlotte, whether for $221.3 million or $189.7 million, then the franchise will have to make a few sacrifices to the roster to avoid paying the tax in 2019-20. It’d also be a significant challenge to create maximum cap space in 2020 without trading or stretching the expiring contracts of Batum and Cody Zeller. But the list of players the Hornets could realistically sign from the 2020 unrestricted free-agent class is incredibly weak. The best option might be Draymond Green, who’s nearing the wrong side of 30, showing signs of decline, and would be playing outside of the comforts of Golden State’s system. Andre Drummond and Gordon Hayward have player options that summer too. But Drummond’s career-long inconsistency doesn’t inspire much optimism, and Hayward may never return to form following the left ankle injury that cost him virtually all of last season. Free agents like Joe Harris and Montrezl Harrell could help, but they aren’t stars. The restricted class has Domantas Sabonis, Jaylen Brown, and Pascal Siakam, all of whom could see any offer sheet matched—just like Utah did with Charlotte’s offer sheet for Hayward in 2014.

The Hornets may be better off waiting for the deeper free-agent class of 2021, when they’ll have only Bridges, maybe Walker, and whatever other players they add over the next two years. Walker will be entering his age-31 season then, and Charlotte doesn’t have a history of signing big free agents, but that doesn’t mean available players won’t have interest in the franchise’s future or that the team will continue to make poor decisions. Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak’s tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t end well, as he traded multiple picks for an aging Steve Nash in 2012, extended an aging and injured Kobe Bryant for two years in 2013, and then dropped a bag of money for Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng in 2016. But Kupchak also had plenty of successful trades, signings, and draft picks in his long tenure in L.A., which led to five championships. Ownership may have played a role in some of his decisions, and Hornets fans know the challenges involved in owner meddling all too well. Charlotte owner Michael Jordan vetoed a trade that would’ve sent the pick used on Frank Kaminsky to the Celtics for at least four first-round selections—and declined two first-round picks for Noah Vonleh the year prior. If Jordan stops interfering, maybe the Hornets will finally get themselves on track and ensure that his track record as a team owner doesn’t start looking like his one as a baseball player.

No matter how the Hornets use their cap space, they will likely need Bridges, Malik Monk, or a young player not yet drafted to bloom to pave a path toward a winning team. Bridges, drafted 12th in 2018, has shined as of late. Hornets head coach James Borrego is using his rookie all over the floor, much like Tom Izzo did at Michigan State.

In the clip above, Bridges motions to set a screen, then slips into a postup against Marcus Smart before making an athletic spin move toward the rim. Borrego hinted earlier this month that his younger players would see more minutes at the close of the season, and Bridges has looked better in an expanded role. He’s driving to the basket from the perimeter, hitting catch-and-shoot 3s, making timely cuts to finish around the rim, and even running an occasional pick-and-roll. Bridges plays with a hunger. With his sturdy frame and energetic style, it should be only a matter of time until he’s a versatile, effective defender too. Kupchak may have landed a good one in Bridges, but it will still take years until the rookie could potentially be the Robin to Walker’s Batman.

The bigger problem is that Walker’s ideal role isn’t Batman. He’s a flawed, undersized defender who is a good-but-not-great isolation scorer and playmaker. Teams that can place him into his ideal role as the second option could come calling this summer. If Kyrie Irving re-signs with the Celtics, then Walker could be New York’s second option to pair with Kevin Durant, who is expected to strongly consider joining the Knicks. New York is home for Walker, who grew up in the Bronx, went to high school in Harlem, and attended college just 100 miles away at UConn. It would be only fitting if Walker takes his talents to Madison Square Garden for the next chapter of his career. LeBron James and the Lakers could also chase Walker, as their options this summer will likely be more limited than they expected.

Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis will define the offseason, but Walker’s decision will play a role in determining which teams can vault into contention. Walker could be the piece that makes Durant and the Knicks work or takes LeBron and the Lakers to the next level. Those are the typical big-market destinations, but multiple teams inquired about Walker’s availability prior to the deadline. In January, I reported that the Mavericks were the most aggressive team in pursuit of Walker ahead of the trade deadline, and The Charlotte Observer reported last week that they’re the greatest threat to sign Walker this summer. Walker could rapidly accelerate Dallas’s rebuild around Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Whether the Mavs should be rushing things or punting cap space to 2021 is a topic for another day, but Walker can shift power in the league, even if he himself isn’t a top-tier superstar.

Jordan knows this. That’s why he refused all offers this deadline and wasn’t interested in 2018 when the Hornets reportedly listened to offers. Jordan loves Walker as a person and player, league sources have repeatedly said, and that’s the primary reason Jordan wants to keep him. But he also knows that without Walker, the Hornets have nothing else.

Walker is oxygen for the Hornets offense. Over the past three seasons, Charlotte has outscored opponents by 2.6 points per 100 possessions with Walker on the floor, compared with being outscored by 7.1 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the bench, according to PBP Stats. They essentially go from a middle-seed playoff team to a bottom-feeder. The difference has been even more extreme lately; since February 5, Charlotte is an unfathomable 21.3 points per 100 possessions better with Walker on the floor. Unsurprisingly, the team has gone 9-13 in that stretch.

Passing out and waking up at the bottom of the league could be exactly what the Hornets need. They’ve been stuck in the middle of the lottery for years now—a range that’s yielded Vonleh, Kaminsky, Monk, and Bridges over the past four drafts. There have been misses, sure, but that’s a hit-or-miss area of the draft. The Hornets have whiffed at the top of the draft—most recently by selecting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist no. 2 overall—but they need a shot at a true difference-maker to change the course of the franchise.

The Hornets currently have the 12th-best draft odds; realistically, the closest to the top of the draft order they could get is 10th. The new draft odds increase the chances of teams near the middle of the lottery jumping up into the top four, but it’s still slim—a 7.1 percent chance for 12th, 9.4 percent for 11th, and 13.9 percent for 10th. Even with the playoffs in reach, the Hornets might be better off in the long run staying in the lottery and even falling a few more spots in the standings to help their chances of landing a better pick. What would be the reward in the playoffs besides a first-round trampling at the feet of the Milwaukee Bucks and some extra playoff revenue for the pockets of Jordan’s deep, loose-fitting jeans? Are four games of playoff experience really that important for Bridges in the grand scheme? Are they really going to make Walker more likely to stay? Is it worth increasing the chances that Walker will get named to an All-NBA team and get overpaid? Making the playoffs can be a sign of progress, but in the weak East grabbing the last spot just means you’re the best of the worst.

The final weeks of the season will determine whether the Hornets will make the playoffs and whether Walker did enough to earn himself the right to sign for an additional $31.6 million. Months later, teams will present different career paths for Walker to select from. Earning the 8-seed in the East is an accomplishment worthy of only a golf clap, but the results of the race will impact Walker’s future, the Hornets, and the league as a whole.

Stats are current through Tuesday morning, except where otherwise noted.