Kemba talked about staying in Charlotte
For eight years, Kemba Walker has dazzled us all.
Buzzer-beaters and broken ankles. Step-back jumpers and “How did that not get blocked?” driving layups between three guys a foot taller.
It has been an incredible show. When you’re talking about work done only in a Charlotte uniform, Walker has already proven himself to be the best Hornets player of all time.
Now, as early as Wednesday night, The Kemba Show may be ending after what would be a 616-game run with Charlotte. It’s very possible that the point guard will play his last game as a Hornet against Orlando in the home season finale (8 p.m., ESPN).
For the Hornets’ season to extend beyond that, Charlotte will need to beat Orlando Wednesday and the Detroit Pistons will need to lose to the worst team in the NBA -- the New York Knicks. If both those things happen, Charlotte will make the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the East and will play No. 1 Milwaukee in a best-of-7 first-round series.
But it’s hard to imagine the Pistons losing to the Knicks (16-64), which means the Hornets’ season is in major danger of ending Wednesday about 10:15 p.m. And if Walker does then decide to go elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent in July, I absolutely won’t blame him. Nor should anyone else.
Because the bottom line is that while Walker has never failed the Hornets, the Hornets have often failed him.
Team owner Michael Jordan and a series of team presidents and general managers have never surrounded their point guard with enough talent. In Walker’s eight seasons, the Hornets have yet to win a single playoff series. Not one.
And that 0-for-forever postseason drought has all but guaranteed — if you take off your teal-covered glasses for a moment — that Walker needs to look elsewhere if his No. 1 goal is winning an NBA title.
Kemba Walker has given everything he could to his town and his team — a run of amazing work that has largely gone unrewarded. In one game this season, the Hornets’ five starters had a total of 53 points. Walker scored 47 of those 53. Charlotte lost.
In another game, Walker scored 60 points. Charlotte lost.
Those games were emblematic of much of Walker’s eight-year tenure. Teams have long tried to make the Hornets find anyone but Walker to beat them. Usually, Charlotte couldn’t. Miami won the seven-game playoff series against Charlotte in 2016 exactly like that.
Occasionally, someone in a Hornets uniform does come up big – Jeremy Lamb has hit game-winning shots against Toronto this season , and he’s done it twice.
But those kinds of contributions have never occurred often enough, which means that teams mostly double-team Walker in key situations and dare the Hornets to adapt.
“I get a lot of attention,” Walker shrugged after a game last week.
Yes, he does. He’s also been a human highlight film for the Hornets, a player who never embarrassed himself or his team off the court and the best thing about a never-quite-good-enough Charlotte squad for eight years.
Walker came to Charlotte in 2011 via the draft — only two months after Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. But unlike Newton — who saw Luke Kuechly join the team the next year and who made it to a Super Bowl in 2015 — Walker has never been blessed with a consistently superb running mate. Al Jefferson came closest, but that didn’t last long enough.
Walker has just never had someone in the way that Steph Curry has had Klay Thompson (and now Kevin Durant, too). Or Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen. Or even the way John Wall has Bradley Beal. The Hornets could have had Beal in 2012, but they picked Michael Kidd-Gilchrist instead.
And yet Walker just keeps running, just keeps rolling, just keeps playing. He hasn’t missed a game this entire season. He suffered through a 7-59 season as a rookie. He re-invented his three-point shot early in his career so that teams couldn’t slide under picks every time when guarding him, and that improvement transformed him as a player. He has made the league’s all-star team the past three years, even starting in that NBA showcase for the first time in February when the game was in Charlotte. He has paced the Hornets’ final surge this season -- they have now won four games in a row as they try to salvage a playoff spot.
The problem – and again, I subscribe to the theory that this isn’t Walker’s fault – is the Hornets haven’t won anything big with him on the team. So should they pay him the maximum of $190 million over the next five seasons, and also give Lamb a huge new contract, and know that they just used up about all the money they’ve got and still didn’t add any appreciable talent?
Or should they pay Walker even more – a “supermax” contract of $221 million over the same five-year period – should he make one of the three All-NBA teams announced in May?
Those are tough decisions for general manager Mitch Kupchak. The “supermax” contract, in particular, just seems like too much money for anyone other than a player in the NBA’s overall top five. Walker, for all his superlatives, is not that.
I want him to stay. But I totally get it if Walker goes.
In September, he said of his impending free agency: “I want to create something special here in Charlotte, something we’ve never had here (in the NBA). I want to create some consistency … This is the place I love. I’m just really confident I’ll be here, that they’ll figure it out.”
That confidence has to be somewhat shaken after a third straight season in which the Hornets will finish under .500. Walker turns 29 in May, and it’s fair to wonder how long he’s still going to have that extraordinary first step. Isn’t the best percentage play for him to join another team – Dallas, the New York Knicks, wherever – that loads itself up this summer with talent to match his?
So if you’re going to Charlotte’s game against Orlando on Wednesday night, hoping for a last-second playoff reprieve, give Kemba Walker one long, well-deserved standing ovation while he’s still wearing a Hornets uniform.
Maybe this won’t be the last time. But we should act like it is.