Tom Sorensen

No more blue-light special. Here’s why the Charlotte Hornets must trade Kemba Walker.

If you’ve met Kemba Walker, you don’t want to see him leave Charlotte and the Hornets. He’s classy, unassuming, and as low-maintenance as two-time NBA All-Star can be. This is how low maintenance Kemba is: If he played for the Carolina Panthers, he’d be an offensive lineman.

If you haven’t met Kemba, you don’t want to see him go. You love the fakes and jukes that break ankles and damage psyches, the back, forth, which way is he going because nobody knows moves, and even if you’re in a room by yourself, you yell. Last season, Kemba averaged 22.1 points and 5.6 assists.

There were evenings the last two seasons when, if it wasn’t Kemba, it wasn’t anybody. He had no choice but to go one-on-one, one-on-two, one against the opposing roster. Reinforcements never arrived.

But how do you keep him in Charlotte? How do the Hornets justify hanging onto him? They can’t.

Next season will be the last on Kemba’s contract. He will make $12 million, which is to the NBA what $8 an hour is to the rest of North Carolina. He is a blue-light special bargain. He never will be again.

If the Hornets don’t trade him, they could lose him after next season. He can walk, and his employer gets nothing.

If the Hornets retain Kemba, he presumably will insist on a five-year contract. No other team can sign him to more than four. And he will want huge money, Nic Batum money, and he has earned it. The Hornets signed Batum to a five-year $120 million contract.

Let’s say the Hornets keep Kemba and pay him the huge money to which he is entitled. He came to the Hornets in 2011, so after playing three seasons at Connecticut, he’s played seven in the NBA. He’s not quite the 6-1 the roster implies he is. Through will and work, he’s improved markedly. What he has, he gives.

But how many more years can that body function at the level it has? Kemba is 28, which means he’ll be 33 when his next contract expires, and the money he collects could limit the talent the Hornets assemble around them.

In other words, the Hornets have to trade him.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are a tantalizing option. In a talked-about trade, they’d get Kemba, which conceivably could help them retain LeBron James. The Cavaliers could send Charlotte the player they selected eighth last week in the NBA draft, Alabama point guard Collin Sexton, as well as a veteran.

Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker (15) will make $12 million next season, which is to the NBA what $8 an hour is to the rest of North Carolina. He is a blue-light special bargain. He never will be again. Chuck Burton AP

That is a powerful possibility. The Hornets add talent and youth, and the rebuild becomes less odious and more interesting.

Players are entitled to free agency. Free agency protects a player from being taken advantage of. Shop around.

But on those occasions when a player and a place come together, the result supersedes victories and losses. Most players pass through. Kemba has dug in. No Hornet in history has scored as many points.

Kemba is one of the draft picks the Hornets got right. Or, he’s the draft pick they got right.

He did everything but win a playoff series, and you can’t blame him. Like most of you, I’d love to Kemba stay. But I don’t see how.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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