Charlotte Hornets

Hornets mailbag: Did Kemba Walker’s playoffs, World Cup define his limitations?

Despite Kemba Walker being a three-time All-Star and third-team All-NBA, the Charlotte Hornets made the playoffs only twice in his eight seasons. Playoffs was a factor in what the team offered Walker to re-sign, general manager Mitch Kupchak said.
Despite Kemba Walker being a three-time All-Star and third-team All-NBA, the Charlotte Hornets made the playoffs only twice in his eight seasons. Playoffs was a factor in what the team offered Walker to re-sign, general manager Mitch Kupchak said. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

For the first time in eight years, the Charlotte Hornets head into training camp Oct. 1 without Kemba Walker.

No matter how his replacement, Terry Rozier, performs, that’s going to be rough. Walker was a constant for this team, a three-time All-Star and an All-NBA guard. He was so durable that he missed five regular-season games in his last four seasons.

How much will he be missed? That tops Hornets fans’ questions for this pre-training camp mailbag:

If Kemba Walker didn’t win in the playoffs or at FIBA (World Cup), did Hornets fans overrate him?

That’s an understandable question, in that the Hornets lost both first-round playoff series with Walker and Team USA didn’t medal in China with Walker as its best player. But the answer is a lot more complex.

In both cases, Walker didn’t have enough help. Last season, even with Jeremy Lamb having a career year, there was a huge gap between Walker’s ability and any other Charlotte player’s. That has pretty much been the case for the Hornets since Al Jefferson had an All-NBA season in 2014. Between all the stars who dropped off Team USA before the World Cup started, and Boston Celtic Jayson Tatum’s injury, the national-team roster was severely depleted.

Specific to what Walker is and isn’t in the NBA: He’s an elite scorer, and as a point guard, he plays the most important position in basketball. That makes him one of the 30 best players in the NBA. But he’s not Stephen Curry or LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard, as far the best player on a team that would contend for the championship.

In Boston, he’ll get a lot more help than he had in Charlotte, between Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward. And he’ll be plenty missed in Charlotte.

Which current players have the best chance of being Hornets in three years?

Rozier would be in a separate category, because the Hornets owe him more than $56 million over the next three seasons.

As far as the youth movement, I’d say Miles Bridges and Dwayne Bacon for sure, and probably PJ Washington and Devonte Graham. All four of those players should get ample playing time this season to establish themselves. Malik Monk and Willy Hernangomez will get plenty of minutes, too, but I’d say each has to demonstrate, after not maximizing past opportunities, he’s a keeper.

When (coach James) Borrego said contracts won’t decide minutes, what exactly does that mean?

It means a player being owed a large salary this season isn’t relevant to how much that player plays. Also, Borrego will lean toward youth because, whether they use this word or not, this is a rebuild.

However, do not construe that to mean it’s automatic a young guy would play in front of a veteran. For instance, Monk won’t be just handed a starting spot over Nic Batum, and Bridges won’t be handed one over Marvin Williams. There will be competition in the preseason to decide playing time.

Will the Hornets be able to trade any high-priced veterans? Who would be the easiest to move?

It doesn’t appear likely. During my recent interview, general manager Mitch Kupchak said he doesn’t anticipate any significant changes to the roster, which I took to mean there isn’t something brewing on the trade front. That doesn’t surprise me. Teams don’t generally have the cap space this time of year to absorb one of the Hornets’ large veteran salaries, and matching salaries to make a trade viable might not be to the Hornets’ long-term benefit.

I know the Hornets made Williams available over the summer. I’d think he’d be the most attractive veteran to other teams. That isn’t necessarily the same as easy to move. It will be interesting after the February trade deadline if a veteran such as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist seeks a buyout (giving up some guaranteed salary in return for a release), looking to sign with a contending team.

If Michael Jordan sold control of the Hornets, should fans fear new owners would move the team?

Considering the original Hornets left for New Orleans, it’s understandable that would be in the back of fans’ minds. I don’t believe that would be an issue anytime soon.

Jordan is selling a piece of the team to two hedge-fund executives from New York. A source with knowledge of Jordan’s thinking says this is not a step toward Jordan giving up controlling interest. However, you never know.

I do think circumstances are different from 2003, in that Spectrum Center isn’t economically outdated as an NBA arena the way Charlotte Coliseum became. The Hornets have a management contract with the city to run that facility that has worked for both parties. With Las Vegas and now Seattle having NHL franchises, there aren’t ideal places to move an NBA franchise.

I don’t hate the Rozier pickup, but does he really fit the youth movement?

Rozier is 25, so he’d be 28 at the end of the contract he signed to play in Charlotte. His first four NBA seasons were not high-mileage — a total of 5,433 minutes in his four seasons as a Celtic.

I don’t think he’s too old to be part of a rebuild. The question is more whether a player with 30 career starts will play well enough to justify an average salary of about $19 million per season. If he lives up to what the Hornets hope, his age won’t matter. If not, it will be an expensive miscalculation.

I read that the only draft picks teams would have offered for Kemba were in the teens. Why didn’t they make that move?

I think that if Walker was traded in February for a lottery-protected pick that might have ended up in the 20s, a lot of Hornets fans would have been furious, viewing that as giving up the franchise’s best player for little.

As ESPN’s Bobby Marks told me two summer ago, the optimum time to trade Walker was before last season commenced. I get why Kupchak played this out to the end, but maybe the best option would have been trading Walker (to Cleveland, for instance?) before the 2018 draft.

Do you see Cody Zeller sticking around until his contract ends?

Zeller has this season and next on his contract at an average salary of $15 million. He is clearly this team’s best center when healthy. The problem has been a series of injuries; he’s played only half of the Hornets’ 164 games the past two seasons.

I think it’s more likely Zeller is a Hornet the next two seasons than it is him playing elsewhere. Hernangomez would have to show a lot more than he has for the front office to feel good about him as starting center. But I could picture where a contender offers a lottery-protected first-round pick for the last season on Zeller’s contract. Is that a good deal for the Hornets? Iffy.

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