One last run with Kemba Walker

by Jared Dubin

For several years now, the Charlotte Hornets have been attempting to stave off a seemingly inevitable decline. Michael Jordan wants his team to be relevant, and ideally wants them to make the playoffs every year. Anyone expecting any other attitude from the most maniacally competitive player of the modern era has not been paying attention.

Because Jordan has taken that stance, however, the Hornets of recent vintage have continually refused to take even a moderate step backward in order to open up more options for themselves down the line. That strategy has landed the Hornets where they are right now: potentially on the precipice of being more irrelevant than at any time since they compiled a 7-59 season following the 2011 NBA lockout.

The 2018-19 season marks the final year of the four-year, $48 million contract extension Kemba Walker signed back in 2014, which has turned out to be an incredible bargain for the franchise. Walker’s progression as a star-caliber point guard has been the only thing keeping the Hornets even vaguely involved in lower-rung playoff discussions over the past two years, as the team has regressed from its 48-win 2015-16 campaign to post a 36-46 record in back-to-back seasons.

That stark regression is why rumors that the Hornets would send Walker elsewhere cropped up midway through last season. Jordan shut those rumors down with a rare interview and Walker has since maintained that he wants to stay in Charlotte for as long as the Hornets will have him. He even recently pushed back against the idea that he wants to play in New York for his hometown Knicks, stating again that Charlotte is where he wants to be. In so doing, Walker has positioned himself as the “good guy” in any potential breakup between him and the team — even if that was not necessarily his intention.

Normally, it would be worth digging deep to examine exactly how it is that the Hornets wound up in this place where it feels logical that their franchise player would want to leave after this season. But it’s actually pretty simple.

The Hornets landed Walker himself with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2011 draft. Seemingly half the team showed up out of shape for the lockout season, and they slumped to the worst record in the league. But rather than winning the Anthony Davis lottery, the then-Bobcats slipped to pick No. 2. There, they selected Davis’ teammate, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Rather than blossom into an All-Star like Davis or No. 3 pick Bradley Beal, MKG merely turned into an ace defender and solid fill-in-the-blanks guy — if one who can nevertheless be played off the floor by smart opposing defenses. And it all started right there. Teams rarely land top-of-the-draft picks in multiple consecutive seasons, and hitting a single or a double rather than a home run when you do land in that spot can often result in a team that does a whole lot of running but winds up in the same spot several years later.

At first, though, it looked like things might turn out a bit better than that. Hiring Steve Clifford to replace Mike Dunlap following MKG’s rookie season gave the team a definitive identity and propelled them to the playoffs the following year. But their No. 4 overall pick that season was Cody Zeller, and he, like Kidd-Gilchrist, has become merely a good role player. Zeller seems to be a more important player to this particular Hornets team, given how the team’s performance falls off starkly whenever he misses time.

After making a 22-win jump from one season to the next and leaping into the playoffs, the Hornets signed Marvin Williams and Lance Stephenson in an attempt to take the next step forward. The Stephenson signing failed spectacularly and he was eventually pawned off on the Clippers. That same summer, the Hornets drafted Noah Vonleh at No. 9 overall. He didn’t contribute much during his first season, which saw Charlotte drop from 43 wins to just 33, and so the following offseason he was traded to Portland in a package for Nicolas Batum.

The Batum trade worked out alright for the Hornets, but the biggest move that summer was one they didn’t make: everyone knows by now that they turned down four first-round picks from the Celtics in order to remain at No. 9 overall and select Frank Kaminsky.

Needless to say, that decision does not look smart in hindsight. But for one season, the Batum deal, at least, was a smashing success. Everything coalesced perfectly for the Hornets during the 2015-16 season, and they won 48 games behind a star turn from Walker plus strong supplementary play from Batum, Williams, Zeller, Kidd-Gilchrist, and more. Sensing that they’d finally become the team they wanted to be, the Hornets paid Batum (five years, $120 million), Kidd-Gilchrist (four years, $52 million), and Zeller (four years, $56 million) big money in order to keep the band together.

In the ensuing two seasons, Batum has regressed. Kidd-Gilchrist has plateaued. Zeller has been effective, but too often injured. Meanwhile, the Hornets have been churning through some of the worst contracts in the league in order to find another player to handle minutes at the pivot in addition to Zeller. They’ve employed Roy Hibbert, Spencer Hawes, Miles Plumlee, Al Jefferson, Dwight Howard, and Bismack Biyombo (twice). They’ve yet to find a consistently reliable back-court partner for Walker, nor a secondary scorer who can handle heavy usage on a consistent basis. The team has underperformed its point differential by a combined 12 wins while compiling a record of just 38-54 in games that entered clutch time. Charlotte’s defense, once a consistent strength, checked in below league average in each of the past two seasons, while Walker has just not had enough help to overcome the rest of the team’s deficiencies.

There was not necessarily an obvious inciting incident that precipitated the team’s decline, the one move that drove them to where they are now. In fact, most of the moves the Hornets made seemed at least somewhat reasonable and were easily defensible at the time they were made. (The only one that seemed absurd at the time was turning down all those picks in order to stay at No. 9 and draft Kaminsky, who didn’t seem like a fit in the team’s frontcourt even then.) It’s just that most of those moves ended up landing somewhere between the low end and the median expected outcome, while almost none of them hit the high end.

So, what happens next? The Hornets will attempt to make one last run with Walker, and have a 2018-19 season good enough to convince him that he should stick around for the remainder of his prime. Is it possible that all works out as planned? Sure. Is it likely? Not particularly.

The Hornets as constructed seem likely to battle it out for the East’s No. 8 seed with the Pistons and maybe the Cavaliers, or maybe another surprise team. If they do make the playoffs, they’ll presumably be quickly dispatched by one of the three legitimate contenders from the Atlantic Division. It seems somewhat foolish to definitively state anything about anything this far in advance of the actual season but it’s not as though the Hornets are a team brimming with sources of internal improvement, and the external forces they’ve brought in are not of the kind that propel teams forward in a major way. Charlotte is returning largely the same roster from a year ago, with a few supplementary parts swapped out for others: Dwight Howard and Michael Carter-Williams are gone, and Bismack Biyombo and Tony Parker have taken their place. Malik Monk is a year older and Miles Bridges and Devonte’ Graham are now part of the future.

Whether Walker is part of that future is an open question, and one to which Walker himself will likely get to decide the answer. If the team wanted to trade him, the time to do it was last year when a suitor would get in excess of a calendar year to convince him to stick around over the long term. It’s pretty clear he’s not being traded prior to the start of this season so the most logical timetable would be at the deadline, but (a) not many teams are a point guard away from contention; and (b) any team that traded for him would only have a few months to sell on the roster and culture combination. So, Walker will likely get to make the decision on his own next summer. Charlotte won’t want to lose him, and will presumably offer whatever he wants. But other teams will come calling, too, and it’s reasonable to believe he’ll be tempted, even if he is telling 100 percent of the truth when he says that what he wants is to be a Hornet for life.

If he does end up leaving, the Hornets will have another chance to build from the ground up. That’s now what they want, but it might be what’s for the best. A Charlotte team without Walker would be one of the NBA’s worst, leaving the Hornets with another chance to select at the top of the draft. Perhaps they’d even land a player as good as Kemba himself. What they do after landing that player, though, will play just as large a role in determining the ultimate fate of the next era of Hornets basketball. Maybe this time they’ll get just a but luckier.

Illustrations for this article were provided by Elliot Gerard. Check out the rest of the Stepmoji series here.

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer.