Since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004, no player has been more synonymous with pro basketball here than point guard Kemba Walker.
For the first time in Walker’s six-plus seasons in the Queen City, that relationship appears in jeopardy.
Walker, an All-Star last season, said he’d be devastated if he’s traded off the franchise that drafted him into the NBA in 2011. He is building a new home in Charlotte, he has built deep roots here, and his long-term goal is to retire a Hornet. However, based on a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski Friday, Hornets general manager Rich Cho has let other teams know that Walker is available in trade.
Cho did not return a voicemail message from the Observer Friday morning seeking comment on Walker’s status, with the NBA trade deadline about three weeks away on Feb. 8.
In a lengthy and emotional interview following practice Friday, Walker expressed how knitted he is to Charlotte, to the Hornets and particularly to coach Steve Clifford.
“That’s my guy. It’s gotten to be bigger than basketball with me and Cliff,” Walker said of his coach the past four-plus seasons.
“We’ve gotten along from Day 1. I love the way he coaches us - the enthusiasm and the passion he has for the game. It rubs off on people. It has definitely rubbed off on me. He has turned me into a whole different player and person.”
Clifford, the only Hornets official who spoke to these trade reports Friday, said he believes it’s unlikely Walker will be traded. He also said he believes he would have some say in the call if that becomes a real possibility in the coming weeks.
“I think it would be hard to trade him,” Clifford said. “He’s our best player, he’s the face of the franchise, and I think it would be very difficult to find a scenario where he’d get traded.”
A source familiar with the situation said so far the Hornets’ discussions with other teams involving Walker have been more exploratory than necessarily on a fast track to a deal. In order to trade away this team’s best and most marketable player, the Hornets would probably have to accomplish at least two agendas: Attach a trade for Walker to discarding a problematic contract (Nic Batum’s five-season, $120 million deal, for instance), plus acquire assets in the form of one or more young prospects and/or first-round picks.
That would probably be difficult to achieve, particularly in-season. Since the Hornets are well over the salary cap and close to the luxury-tax threshold, anything major the Hornets did by the trade deadline would be complicated to pull off.
The context is the Hornets are an expensive (12th-highest payroll in the NBA at more than $116 million), aging roster that has underachieved at 18-25. While the major addition of the off-season -- trading for future Hall of Fame center Dwight Howard -- has been positive, the Hornets have yet to establish consistency in their play.
Walker is by far the most valuable trade commodity on this roster. However, he’s also by far the best reason a fan would have to buy a ticket, or renew season tickets.
Walker did his best to stay composed during post-practice media Friday, but he said it would be devastating to be traded out of Charlotte.
“This is the first time I’ve been in this kind of situation,” Walker said of the trade chatter. “I’ve been here for the last seven years, and I’m going to do what I can do to help my team win games. That’s all I can do.”
And if the Hornets sent him packing?
“I’d be pretty upset,” said Walker, who is about 800 points away from supplanting Dell Curry as the all-time career scorer in Charlotte NBA history. “I have put my heart and soul into this city.”
Walker said he would not allow this trade stuff to distract him from doing his job. The Hornets play the Miami Heat Saturday in the second of a five-game home stand at Spectrum Center.
“I’m a pro, man. I go hard each and every day,” Walker said. “What’s going on in my life, I never bring it to the basketball court.”
Walker said he has not asked Cho for clarity regarding these trade reports, and to his knowledge, neither has Walker’s agent, Jeff Schwartz. “That’s not my place,” Walker said.
A trade sending Walker out of town would be awful for the other players, according to Batum.
“He is everything,” Batum said. “He’s the captain, the best player, an All-Star. He’s our leader. We go as he goes.”
The burning question now: Will Walker go away?
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell