Charlotte Hornets

As Kemba Walker returns to native New York, time again to ponder: ‘Hornet for life?’

Kemba Walker on his attachment to New York City

Kemba Walker now calls Charlotte home, but his emotional attachment to New York is still strong.
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Kemba Walker now calls Charlotte home, but his emotional attachment to New York is still strong.

Will Kemba Walker be a Charlotte Hornet a year from now?

I think so. I’d be surprised if not. But it’s no lock, and can’t be before he actually reaches unrestricted free agency come July.

The Hornets play the Knicks Sunday, which is their first game this season in New York. I suspect it’s going to get a bit weird. Walker is the best New York City native playing in the NBA right now, the Knicks are bad, and the New York tabloids need something to fill columns.

He’ll be peppered with questions about free agency and whether he’s receptive to moving back to the city where his basketball career began.

If Walker sticks to the plan he announced in late September, he’ll tell reporters that he addressed free agency before training camp and he’s done talking. So here was Walker’s stated position the day before camp:

▪ He wants to remain a Hornet.

▪ He believes the Hornets will make the same sort of commitment to him.

▪ He trusts owner Michael Jordan and general manager Mitch Kupchak to assemble the parts around him to build a winner.

Soiunds like a plan. I know he’s sincere in his desire to stay. But again, that’s no lock.

The mechanics

The complication in this is there’s no practical way under NBA rules for the Hornets to take Walker off the market before July. Since the Hornets are above the salary cap (so far above that they are in vicinity of the luxury-tax threshold), the only contract the Hornets can offer Walker right now is a percentage raise over his current $12 million salary. That wouldn’t come close to matching his value on the open market in the summer.

Walker is comfortable with that, as is Hornets management.

“I think I’ll be here.,” Walker said, adding “they’ll do the right thing.”

Later in that interview, Walker was asked why he seems so confident of the outcome.

“I’ve just got the feeling,” Walker replied. “I’ve been saying this is where I want to be, the place I love.”

Kupchak said in October that he and Jordan feel the same about Walker as Walker does about the Hornets:

“Our hope is that Kemba ends his career in a Hornets uniform, and that’s the end of it,” Kupchak said.

The New York draw

There has always been a romantic link between Walker and New York. He was born in the Bronx, lived there until he went to Connecticut for college and has had some of his greatest games at Madison Square Garden. He scored 130 points in five games of the Big East tournament there in what became a launching pad for the Huskies’ run to the national championship in 2011.

“What kid doesn’t want to play in MSG?” Walker said Friday. “I’ve been fortunate enough to play there many, many times during my basketball career. Every chance I get to play there, I try to embrace it. I just love playing there.”

As he still loves his native city.

“I will always have an attachment to and a love of that city,” Walker said. “That city made me who I am today.”

The risk/reward

On the one hand, it seems a no-brainer for the Hornets to do whatever it would take to retain Walker. He is the franchise’s all-time leading scorer (10,553 points). He reset his own franchise record this season with an astonishing 60-point game in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, then scored 43 two nights later in a victory over the Boston Celtics.

At 6-foot-1, he is the most dynamic scorer of his size in the NBA since Allen Iverson. But in his seven previous NBA seasons, the Hornets have reached the playoffs only twice and have not advanced past the first round.

Assuming Walker is worth a maximum-salary type of contract, the Hornets would be committing to pay Walker about $190 million over the next five seasons, as much as $221 million if he qualifies for a super-max deal by being named All-NBA.

No matter how well Walker plays this season, Jordan and Kupchak will have to weigh many factors before July: What is the longevity of 28-year-old Walker’s prime? Is that prime affected by his size? How can the Hornets build a better roster around him to maximize his talent? Would re-signing Walker limit their ability to do that?

Kupchak spent about 20 seasons running the Los Angeles Lakers, so these calculations are nothing new. He had a stoic way of sizing all this up at the season’s outset.

“If we play well and we’re fun to watch and we win games, everything will take care of itself,” Kupchak said.

“That’s really the bottom line in this business.”

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