Scott Fowler

The Kemba decision: Risks, rewards and how the Hornets have failed their all-star

There’s no way around it: The Charlotte Hornets are just a few months away from taking an absolutely huge risk with Kemba Walker.

Stay or go. Ebb or flow. This decision coming in July, when Kemba becomes an unrestricted free agent following this NBA season, will be one of the biggest in franchise history.

And it’s not as easy as it might seem. No matter if the Hornets end up paying Kemba or somebody else does, there are a number of ways on both sides of the equation where it can all turn bad for Charlotte.

What if you pay him and he gets hurt? What if you don’t pay him and he wins an NBA championship elsewhere?

What if you pay him and you still just keep going 36-46, because the rest of the team around him is so average and remains that way because of all the salary-cap space Kemba will eat up? What if you don’t pay him and you keep going 36-46, because every other Hornet who is supposed to replace Kemba is only a pale imitation of the real thing?

First, the numbers. Walker, 28 years old and likely headed toward playing in his third straight NBA All-Star Game, is making a guaranteed $12 million this season. That’s a bargain in the Willy Wonka fantasy world of NBA salaries. He’s going to at least double his pay next season, and likely more than that.

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Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (with ball) will be an unrestricted free agent in July. While he’s due a huge raise, he will be able to make a decision whether he wants to take more money in Charlotte or try to find a better chance at an NBA championship somewhere else. Chuck Burton AP

As Walker’s current employer, the Hornets have a built-in advantage. They can offer him an extra guaranteed year on a “max” contract – a five-year contract worth $190 million. Not that they would do that, but they could do that. And if Walker makes the official All-NBA team this season, that five-year contract could be stretched to an astounding $221 million.

Any other team can only offer Walker a four-year contract worth up to $140 million – a mere $35 million per year, and, more importantly, one less guaranteed season.

Then again, once you get into those kinds of numbers, is there a lot of difference between $140 million and $190 million? Somehow, I don’t think there is. Barring a terrible investment, Kemba and all of his loved ones will have all that they can spend for generations. And Kemba has never struck me as a guy who would say “My contract is bigger than yours” with his NBA buddies.

‘Create something special’

What Kemba wants is a team worthy of his talent.

The Hornets (18-19 and about to start a six-game road trip) have only made the playoffs twice in Kemba’s previous seven seasons, and in both cases they then exited in the first round. An NBA title team must win four playoff series in one postseason; Kemba hasn’t won a single playoff series in seven-plus years.

If Kemba wants to win a championship, a clear-eyed assessment would say that he has a much better chance if he joins a superstar-laden team elsewhere. Why wait for Charlotte to build something? It’s like moving into a shiny house that’s already built vs. waiting for building permits to start a long-delayed construction project.

But then there’s the loyalty factor. Kemba pours his heart into the Hornets. Through the 7-59 season, through the constant beatings from any team LeBron James plays for and through four head coaches, he has routinely dazzled in defeat. You should have seen how down Kemba was after Charlotte got hammered at home by 38 points by Dallas Wednesday.

“That was a pretty good butt whooping right there,” Kemba said after the game, looking disconsolate. “They just came in and outplayed us from the very beginning. ...We’re really disappointed. Pretty embarrassing. But we know. We knew what it was, and we didn’t have it.”

Kemba cares. He always has. In September, he said of his impending free agency: “I want to create something special here in Charlotte, something we’ve never had here (in the NBA). I want to create some consistency. ...This is the place I love. I’m just really confident I’ll be here, that they’ll figure it out.”

Do you keep him?

But will they? Should they? Even if Kemba is the most dynamic “little man” scorer since Allen Iverson, he doesn’t have a consistent No. 2 to ease the scoring load when he’s shooting 4-for-14, like he did Wednesday night. Kemba only scored 11 points in that game – and yet he remained the Hornets’ leading scorer, because no one else could score either.

One game doesn’t make a season, but Kemba has experienced nights sort of like that with the Hornets since 2011. He’s averaging a career-high 25.4 points per game this season. He scored 60 in one game this year – outscoring the rest of his teammates combined – and the Hornets still lost in overtime. At best, this Charlotte team will go 43-39, squeeze out the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and then quickly lose in the first round.

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Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15) is averaging a career-high 25.4 points per game in his eighth season. But in his career, he has yet to win a single playoff series and has only made the postseason twice. Nell Redmond AP

Obviously, the Hornets would like to keep their best player around. I’d ultimately advocate that they do that. Keeping Kemba, to me, remains the best percentage play.

But I don’t think tying up $35 million of owner Michael Jordan’s money in any player outside of the top five guys in the NBA makes much sense, and Kemba doesn’t fit in that category.

Either way, there’s major risk. Kemba is the Hornets’ all-time leading scorer. But he needs more help, and it’s been that way for seven years.

In terms of surrounding talent, the Hornets have failed Kemba, over and over. And that’s why, if I were him, I would seriously take a look at playing elsewhere.

I want Kemba to stay.

But I totally understand if he goes.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.
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