Charlotte Hornets majority owner Michael Jordan said Monday night he’s not looking to trade point guard Kemba Walker, and would do so only if the return included a major All-Star, such as the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard.
In an exclusive telephone interview with the Charlotte Observer, following the Hornets’ 112-107 home victory over the Sacramento Kings, Jordan said he’s disappointed with his team’s 19-26 start, but has not given up on the chances of reaching the playoffs this season. The Hornets have the 12th-highest payroll in the NBA this season at more than $116 million, and Jordan had aspirations for the team to earn home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Jordan called the Observer primarily to address reports, initially by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski Friday, that the Hornets are actively involved in trade talks that could result in Walker’s departure. Jordan acknowledged there have been discussions with other teams, some initiated by the Hornets’ front office, but that he isn’t looking to lose Walker, clearly the team’s most talented and productive player and an All-Star last season.
“We bred him, we chose him, we groomed him to be a good player for us,” Jordan said of Walker, who the Hornets drafted ninth overall in 2011, to a great extent because Jordan saw traits in Walker that reminded him of his own playing career.
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“I’m not looking to trade Kemba, but I would listen to opportunities.”
As Jordan pointed out, his team has underachieved. An expensive veteran roster -- they traded for future Hall of Fame center Dwight Howard in June -- hasn’t clicked as a group on a regular basis. Jordan said there have been eight to 10 games this season he feels the Hornets should have won and didn’t.
“Yes, it’s disappointing where we are,” Jordan said, “But I haven’t given up on the season.”
Walker was clearly rattled Friday, following practice, when asked about the reports his name has been discussed in a possible trade. He said he would be “devastated” if the Hornets dealt him after six-plus seasons here. Walker has set down deep roots in the community and is currently building a new home here.
Walker, 27, said Friday his ultimate goal would be to play his entire career in Charlotte, which he now considers home.
Jordan said he reached out to Walker Friday, after these reports became public, to reassure Walker the Hornets are not predisposed to moving him.
“Obviously, the season has been a disappointment so far, and there have been teams asking about players. Also, we’ve been asking about players,” Jordan said, with the NBA’s trade deadline looming Feb. 8. “We ask teams who they like on our roster and they always say Kemba.
“It’s not like we are shopping him. We would not just give him up. I love Kemba Walker. I would not trade him for anything but an All-Star player.”
Jordan said several factors beyond the team’s control -- coach Steve Clifford’s six-week medical leave, the early-season injury to Nic Batum and the ankle sprain that cost rookie Malik Monk summer preparation -- all contributed to the team’s record: Seven games below .500 and four games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, currently held by the Philadelphia 76ers at 22-21.
Walker had another strong game Monday, finishing with 26 points, nine assists and six rebounds. Despite a crushing last-minute home loss Saturday to the Miami Heat, the Hornets have played better of late, winning seven of their last 11 games, including a road victory over the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
“Hopefully, Coach is going to turn the season around,” Jordan said of Clifford, in his fifth season overseeing this team.
“I certainly haven’t given up on our best player. He’s done a hell of a job of turning himself into an All-Star.”
Jordan said retaining top-end talent such as Walker is particularly important in a smaller market such as Charlotte, because it is not a given here that the Hornets can recruit elite free agents.
“We’ve got to develop those elite players,” Jordan said.
Jordan said he explained to Walker Friday that while the NBA is a business where sometimes popular players get traded, it is not the Hornets’ agenda to make wholesale changes right now.
“I’m telling you I believe in my team,” Jordan concluded. “I’m disappointed in our record and I’m frustrated at times. But I’m telling you I like everything about Kemba’s work. I’m not just going to throw him away.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell