The Charlotte Hornets are taking the ball out of Kemba Walker’s hands - at least a little bit.
That isn’t just OK with the two-time All-Star point guard, it’s something he advocates.
“I like it a lot, not having to be on the ball all the time, not having to be in pick-and-roll all the time,” Walker said after Monday’s preseason victory over the Chicago Bulls. “It gives me a chance to get some rest on the offensive end and be more fresh on the defensive end.”
The Hornets were not bad overall offensively last season, ranking ninth among 30 NBA teams in offensive efficiency. But a factor in them missing the playoffs the past two seasons was their dependency on Walker, particularly in late-game situations when they were so predictable in pick-and-rolls.
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The Hornets have a reputation for losing close games. The NBA keeps a series of stats for “clutch time” - how a team performs in late-game situations with the score close. Last season they had one of the league’s best ranking in defensive efficiency in clutch time (fifth, allowing 98.2 points per 100 possessions), but were poor in clutch-time offensive efficiency (24th, averaging 98.8 points per 100 possessions).
Whether the changes new coach James Borrego is making will impact that clutch-time performance isn’t measurable until well into the regular season. But there’s no doubt Borrego is shaking up how the Hornets view offense and who is empowered to make that happen.
A small example from Monday: Borrego was excited about small forward Nic Batum leading the Hornets in rebounds (12), not just in a vacuum, but because that put Batum in position to start the offense. Not coincidentally, Batum was by far the Hornets’ assists leader with seven.
Batum, Malik Monk, Jeremy Lamb and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist all have liberty to push the ball up-court off a rebound or turnover. That’s not to say only point guards were ever allowed to bring up the ball under former Hornets coach Steve Clifford, but there’s a greater emphasis on quick-strike offense - probing the defense in the first 8 seconds of a possession - and free flowing ball movement.
Walker views this, not as diminishing his importance, but freeing him to do more things.
“I don’t have to have the ball” constantly, Walker said. “It allows me to get out in transition, get out in the open court, and it allows (Batum) to make plays for everyone else.
“It give me a chance for spot-up (jump shots) and that’s a huge deal for me. I love not having to come back to the ball all the time - to be able to get out and get to the corner.”
Hand-in-hand with empowering more players to handle the ball is Borrego’s determination to enforce quicker, more decisive choices: Pass, drive or shoot within a half second of catching the ball.
That is something he was accustomed to as a longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant, and it was a factor in why Borrego wanted ex-Spur Tony Parker as Walker’s backup at point guard.
“Look at where I come from. There were a number of Hall of Famers there and nobody dominated the ball: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan,” Borrego said. “The success came out of the team. The whole was better than one or two parts. Especially as you get into fourth-quarter situations, as you have multiple threats out on the floor, the more dynamic you are and the more hard you are to guard.
“Our challenge now is to be in games in the fourth quarter, and (opposing) teams don’t know where we’re going to go. All we’re doing is looking for the best shot. And it may come from Kemba, but it may come from Malik Monk or Jeremy Lamb. It may come from Marvin Williams.
“That is off balance for other teams. It keeps them guessing. That makes us harder to guard.”
That works if you have someone like Duncan was: a superstar who cared more about wins than touches or attention. Walker has proven over seven NBA seasons he isn’t afraid to decide games and live with the consequences, and that won’t end. The shift now is not placing that burden on him perpetually by default.
“It’s been great: giving up good shots to get great shots,” Walker said of Borrego’s agenda.
“It’s exciting. It’s different, but I think everybody is embracing it.”