What happens to Charlotte Hornets when Kemba Walker isn’t great?
Back in September, I was undecided who was the Charlotte Hornets’ second-best player. It didn’t seem like a big deal that that was to-be-determined entering training camp.
It’s March and it’s still unclear who is second to Kemba Walker. Losses like Sunday’s to the Portland Trail Blazers make that uncertainty a very big deal.
For the Hornets to win, All-Star Walker generally has to be somewhere between great and magnificent. Sunday he wasn’t. He went 5-of-21 shooting from the field in a 118-108 home loss that knocked the Hornets out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference. If that slide continues, the Hornets miss the playoffs. The postseason is the No. 1 goal, according to coach James Borrego and general manager Mitch Kupchak.
Kupchak and Borrego are new this season. They can’t be blamed for failed lottery picks of the past. The bloated player payroll is also something they inherited.
While that’s not their failing, it is their problem. If the Hornets don’t get Walker some serious help, this franchise will continue to trudge in mud, as it has for more than a decade.
The problem and the stakes
Walker can’t carry this team offensively every single game. He was coming off a 25-point game in Friday’s road victory over the Brooklyn Nets. He missed his first four 3s Sunday, which is trouble because it emboldens an opponent to focus primarily on limiting his drives.
Walker still found ways to be productive; he finished with 18 points and a season-high 12 assists. But there just wasn’t enough there from someone else to pick up the slack against a Blazers team with a lot more choices.
Portland, now third in the Western Conference at 39-24, also had a star with a bad shooting game in C.J. McCollum (2-of-13). The difference was all of the Trail Blazers’ alternatives: Center Jusuf Nurkic, point guard Damian Lillard, and unexpectedly Rodney Hood with 21 fourth-quarter points.
The Hornets got good games off the bench from Jeremy Lamb (23 points) and Frank Kaminsky (18), but the question has lingered all season: What is their reliable fallback when Kemba isn’t quite Kemba?
“We’ve won games when Kemba has not shot the ball well, when he’s not scoring at a high level,” Borrego replied, when I asked about the tiny margin for error in that situation. “It puts a lot of pressure on us, but other guys have to continue to play, have to continue to step up.”
The Hornets have a lot of good NBA players. It’s no rip of Lamb or Kaminsky -- or Nic Batum or Marvin Williams or Cody Zeller, for that matter -- to say none of them is an obvious candidate to be a secondary star on a team good enough to advance deep into the playoffs.
The Hornets are approaching a crossroads regardless of whether this season ends in a playoff appearance for the first time in three seasons. Walker becomes an unrestricted free agent in July for the first time in his career. Retaining him will cost more money -- perhaps as much as $200 million-plus -- than this franchise has ever committed to one player.
Both Hornets management and Walker must ask how this would play out over the next five seasons: Does Walker have faith they can surround him with enough help? Do owner Michael Jordan and Kupchak see a path that makes paying Walker all that money a prudent investment in winning?
Kupchak tried to find that No. 2 in various ways. Early this season, he checked with the Washington Wizards to see if Bradley Beal was available in trade. Closer to the February trade deadline, Kupchak inquired with Memphis about Marc Gasol (now with the Toronto Raptors) and Dallas about Harrison Barnes (now with the Sacramento Kings).
Bottom line: Kupchak and Jordan have to decide whether that No. 2 option is gettable anytime soon because this paddling in circles is just exhausting the patience of everyone who cares about this team.