Houston is making a bold attempt to overtake the Warriors (a plan that could include other big moves). The Clippers are launching into rebuilding.
Kurt Helin breaks down what it means for both teams.
DETROIT – Around this time last year, Kemba Walker‘s reputation peaked.
The season prior, he led Charlotte to its first playoff-game wins since the franchise reemerged as the Bobcats. The Hornets were on pace to make the playoff again, which would have been their first back-to-back postseason appearances in the second Charlotte era. And Walker made his first All-Star team.
While basking in his personal and team success, Walker found one downer: The NBA moved the All-Star game from his home arena to New Orleans due to North Carolina’s anti-gay law.
“It would have been really special if this had been in Charlotte,” Walker said.
The Hornets have gone south since.
They stumbled in the second half and missed the playoffs last season. They’re even worse this season, 18-25 and 11th in the Eastern Conference. As a result, Walker’s stock has tanked. He’s treated as a fringe All-Star candidate at best.
Yet – as trade speculation emerges – Walker has come to a conclusion similar to his a year ago: His experience would be more special in Charlotte.
“I would definitely be devastated if I was to get traded,” Walker said. “I do want to be here.”
Walker is one of the most intriguing cases as the trade deadline approaches. The 27-year-old is earning $12 million this season and is due the same salary next season before his contract expires. It’s not clear the Hornets would trade him. It’s not clear they should trade him.
Charlotte is bad around Walker, not because of him. The Hornets have played better with Walker on the floor (+5.2 points per 100 possessions) than the Cavaliers have with LeBron James (+0.3), Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo (+3.7) and Pelicans with Anthony Davis (+5.1).
Put another way, using Pythagorean win percentage, Charlotte has played like 55-win team when Walker plays and a 12-win team when he doesn’t. That 43-win-pace drop is the fourth largest league-wide (minimum: 20 games):
The Hornets have struggled with Michael Carter-Williams at backup point guard and even more with rookie Malik Monk (a natural shooting guard) in the role while Carter-Williams was hurt. Backup point guard was a glaring weak spot last season, too, and Charlotte signed Carter-Williams to stop the bleeding.
But he was a budget choice. The Hornets’ mid-level exception sits mostly unused as they duck the luxury tax.
Using starting shooting guard Nicolas Batum as the primary playmaker when Walker sits has worked better than most alternatives. Staggering those two more often could right Charlotte.
However, even if Batum is the solution to the micro problem, he’s central to the macro problem.
The Hornets’ payroll has become bloated with prohibitive long-term deals. Several players are owed major money after this season:
With those constraints, it will be difficult to build a winner around Walker without paying the luxury tax, which Charlotte has never paid.
Walker is the Hornets’ most valuable asset, and trading him could make their second-most valuable asset – their upcoming first-round pick – even more valuable. Charlotte also use Walker as enticement to unload a bad contract, a tactic Adrian Wojnarowski reports is being explored. Still, the Hornets are in so deep, it’d be difficult to escape salary-cap purgatory, even while shedding Walker.
Because he signed his rookie-scale extension before the national TV deals carried the salary cap into the stratosphere and before he rose into stardom, Walker has a low salary for his status. That could open the door for trades not possible with other stars, especially if the Hornets want to attach an albatross.
Of course, teams looking to upgrade at point guard for the stretch run – Pistons? Pacers? Jazz? Nuggets? Cavaliers? Spurs? – would be interested in Walker. But because he has an another season left on his contract, other teams – Knicks? Magic? Suns? – could trade for him as a head start on next year. The best analogue: The Jazz getting out ahead by trading Deron Williams to the Nets before his contract entered its final year.
A team must also prepare to pay Walker in 2019, when he’ll be 30 years old. Though the $48 million over four years he’s earning now is nothing to sneeze at, free agency will be his first opportunity to really cash in on the new TV money. In the extremely likely event he doesn’t make an All-NBA team next season, the largest extension he could sign (starting July 1) would be four years, $64,512,000. That probably won’t cut it. So, Walker’s team – unless it has cap space to renegotiate-and-extend his deal – will likely have to ride out his unrestricted free agency.
“Of course, it would be nice to get a big contract like a lot of the guys around the league are getting,” Walker said. “But, at the same time, I just try to take it one day at a time.”
All these discussions have thrown Walker for a loss. Charlotte drafted him and built around him. He’s not quite sure how to handle this.
“I’ve never really been in trade rumors like that, like I’ve been hearing lately about myself,” Walker said. “But I mean, I don’t know. I don’t even know. I don’t know.
“This is very new, and I really just don’t know.”
Walker said management hasn’t told him anything, and he won’t ask. It’s easy to read the writing on the wall: Walker is a good player on a losing team, and those players are always ripe to get dealt. On the other hand, a team owned by Michael Jordan is probably less inclined to enter rebuilding voluntarily.
“I’m here,” Walker said, “and I’m just trying to play and trying to win and trying to do what I can for this organization and try to get back in the playoff hunt. That’s the main priority.”
The Hornets have won two in a row, and head coach Steve Clifford is back. A surge into playoff contention isn’t out of the question.
If it happens, it’ll probably be on Walker’s shouldeers.
“We put so much pressure on Kemba to do so much,” said assistant coach Stephen Silas, who served as acting head coach in Clifford’s absence.
Too much pressure?
“At times, it can be,” Silas said. “But that’s what he signed up for, and that’s how we’re built.”
For now, at least.
Remember Mindaugas Kuzminskas? The Knicks waived him early in the season and more than a month before All-Star voting even began.
He still received four fan votes – the most meager total of anyone the NBA counted.
By comparison, LeBron James received a league-high 2,638,294 fan votes (which made him a captain for the new draft), all 99 media votes and 220 player votes (curiously, fewer than Giannis Antetokounmpo).
You can dig through totals in each category for LeBron, Kuzminskas and everyone in between.
Each player’s rank in fan, player and media voting is given. Exact totals are in parenthesis. Players are sorted by their “score” – (fan rank * two + player rank + media rank)/four).
Eastern Conference guards
Eastern Conference frontcourt
Western Conference guards
Western Conference frontcourt
Marv Albert (Turner)
David Aldridge (Turner)
Sam Amick (USA Today)
Kevin Arnovitz (ESPN.com)
Steve Aschburner (NBA.com)
Brent Barry (Turner)
Jon Barry (ESPN Radio)
Michelle Beadle (ABC/ESPN)
Howard Beck (Bleacher Report)
Sherrod Blakeley (CSNNE.com)
Stefan Bondy (New York Daily News)
Scott Bordow (Arizona Republic)
Mike Breen (ABC/ESPN)
Chris Broussard (Fox Sports)
Clifton Brown (Indianapolis Star)
Hubie Brown (ABC/ESPN)
Ric Bucher (Bleacher Report)
Doris Burke (ABC/ESPN)
PJ Carlesimo (ESPN Radio)
Davide Chinellato (LaGazetta Dello Sport)
Joe Cowley (Chicago Sun-Times)
Brett Dawson (The Oklahoman)
Sean Deveney (The Sporting News)
Amin Elhassan (ESPN.com)
Vince Ellis (Detroit Free Press)
Paul Flannery (SB Nation)
Mike Ganter (The Toronto Sun)
Rosalyn Gold-Onwude (Turner)
Ben Golliver (Sports Illustrated)
Vince Goodwill (CSNChicago.com)
Michael Grange (Rogers Sportsnet)
Jared Greenberg (Turner)
Will Guillory (New Orleans Times Picayune)
Kevin Harlan (Turner)
Chris Haynes (ESPN.com)
Kurt Helin (NBCSports.com)
Chase Hughes (NBCSportsWashington.com)
Frank Isola (Sirius Radio/New York Daily News)
Mark Jackson (ABC/ESPN)
Lee Jenkins (Sports Illustrated)
Ernie Johnson (Turner)
Jason Jones (Sacramento Bee)
Tony Jones (Salt Lake Tribune)
Mark Kestecher (ESPN Radio)
Nira Kihurana (Excelsior)
Jon Krawczynski (The Athletic)
Kristen Ledlow (Turner)
Connor Letourneau (San Francisco Chronicle)
Jason Lloyd (The Athletic)
Greg Logan (Newsday)
Jackie MacMullan (ESPN.com)
Brian Mahoney (Associated Press)
Rob Mahoney (SI.com)
Chris Mannix (Yahoo!)
TJ Manotoc (ABC-CBN)
Diego Martínez (Periódico Reforma)
Jeff McDonald (San Antonio Express-News)
Dave McMenamin (ESPN.com)
Reggie Miller (Turner)
Yoko Miyaji (Sports Graphic Number)
Gina Mizell (Denver Post)
Manny Navaro (Miami Herald)
Rachel Nichols (ABC/ESPN)
Kevin O’Connor (The Ringer)
Bill Oram (Orange County Register)
Kevin Pelton (ESPN.com)
Keith Pompey (Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News)
Jason Quick (NBC Sports Northwest)
Tim Reynolds (Associated Press)
Jalen Rose (ABC/ESPN)
John Schuhmann (NBA.com)
Dennis Scott (Turner)
Eddie Sefko (Dallas Morning News)
Andrew Sharp (Sports Illustrated)
Ramona Shelburne (ESPN.com)
Lisa Shen (Tencent)
Bill Simmons (The Ringer)
Doug Smith (The Toronto Star)
Sekou Smith (NBA.com)
Steve Smith (Turner)
Thales Soares (Globoesporte.com)
Marc Spears (The Undefeated)
Elliott Teaford (Southern California News Group)
Justin Termine (Sirius Radio)
Ron Tillery (Memphis Commercial-Appeal)
Flavio Tranquillo (Sky Italia)
Xavier Vaution (BeIn Sport)
Matt Velazquez (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Ailene Voisin (Sacramento Bee)
Richard Walker (Gaston Gazette)
Gary Washburn (Boston Globe)
Chris Webber (Turner)
Michael Wilbon (ABC/ESPN)
Brian Windhorst (ESPN.com)
Matt Winer (Turner)
Royce Young (ESPN.com)
Jerry Zgoda (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
Weiping Zhang (CCTV)
Jeff Zillgitt (USA Today)
It seemed pretty obvious to most: In picking the two All-Star starting guards in the Western Conference, you couldn’t go wrong with any combination of Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook (Curry and Harden got the nods).
When it comes time for the coaches to pick the reserves (announced next Tuesday) they will select Westbrook. However, Damian Lillard might not make that cut.
Lillard said he’s frustrated but resigned to not making the All-Star Game (he’s missed it the last three), he told ESPN.
“I’ve gotten frustrated just for the fact that it feels like I always got to be the fall guy and every other guy has been deserving,” Lillard tells ESPN. “In the past, the thing has been, ‘All right, my team has been 10 games under .500 or not in the playoffs,’ but every year we’ve found a way to be in the postseason, and this year I think we’re in much better position than we have been in the past two seasons that I didn’t make it. I think I’ve gotten over the emotional part of it the last few times that I didn’t make it. Now I’m kind of like expecting it to go that way, but I feel like I should be there.”
“(Ball) plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the most, if not the most, storied franchises in that big of a market,” Lillard explained to ESPN. “So, so many people are going to support him throughout that, and also with his dad and all the attention that’s been surrounding him since college. There’s a lot of people that follow him, so, that’s not really a surprise to me. The market size and what’s going on with his family, it’s no surprise really to me.”
Lillard deserves to be an All-Star — he’s averaging 25 points per game, plus he’s dishing out 6.5 assists per night, and his defense has improved.
Whether he makes it is another story. The Western Conference is STACKED. When the coaches pick the seven West reserves, they have to take two guards, three frontcourt players, then two wild-cards. Westbrook and Jimmy Butler are locks to get selected as All-Star Game reserves at the West. That leaves one or two of the wild-card slots for guards, and both Klay Thompson and Lou Williams have legitimate cases to make the team, too.
Lillard would be a snub. So will whichever one of those guards gets left off. There is just too much talent in the West.