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Kris Dunn locks down point guards, but what about Bulls’ starting job?

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DETROIT – For the first time in his life, Kris Dunn lost his confidence.

Dunn expected to hit the ground running in the NBA. The Timberwolves drafted him No. 5 in 2016. After four years at Providence, he looked like one of the most polished rookies in his class.

But Dunn struggled last season. He didn’t play as much as he wanted. When he did, he wasn’t always at his natural position of point guard, spending time at shooting guard and even small forward. He was tentative and, despite being more selective in shooting, inefficient. His combination of usage percentage (14.2) and true shooting percentage (43.2) was ghastly and rare.

“My whole life, that’s all I did, attack and be aggressive,” Dunn said. “I play off of instincts, and last year, I really couldn’t do that.

“That’s the first time. I always play with that swagger, always play with confidence. Everywhere else I’ve been, because I go hard and I work hard, people liked it.”

The Bulls still did. They acquired Dunn in the Jimmy Butler trade, a deal Dunn called a “restart” for him. Dunn, whom Chicago shut down late, improved across the board this season.

In the last two years, Derrick Rose, Jerian Grant, Rajon Rondo, Michael Carter-Williams, Cameron Payne and now Dunn have been the Bulls’ point guard du jour. Can Dunn seize the starting role long-term?

“If I keep working hard and keep improving, I definitely think I can be that player,” Dunn said. “It’s not going to be easy. Just got to keep improving.”

The 24-year-old Dunn is still a low-end starting point guard – better than some even younger than him and stop-gaps, but few others. But his age and attitude give him a chance to stick.

His approach starts defensively. Dunn is tied for fourth in the NBA with 2.0 steals per game:

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Dunn gets those steals without gambling too often or losing track of his man. They’re a product of dogged defense and a 6-foot-9 wingspan on his 6-foot-4 frame.

Even in Minnesota, after a rough start on both ends and continued offensive struggles, Dunn settled in as a solid defender.

“Defense, you can control,” Dunn said. “It’s just about energy and effort. That ain’t never going to leave me. No matter what happened in Minnesota, I know I was always going to go out there and bring that. That’s one thing I was proud about.”

Dunn should also be proud of his strides as a scorer. His shooting has improved in all three phases:

  • 2-pointers: 40% to 46%
  • 3-pointers: 29% to 32%
  • Free throws: 61% to 73%

Yet, those marks all still fall below league average – 51% on 2-pointers, 36% on 3-pointers, 77% on free throws – let alone good rates for a starting point guard.

Chicago scored a dreadful 101.0 points per 100 possessions with Dunn on the floor. It’s hard on everyone when the lead ball-handler is such a limited scoring threat.

But he can continue to improve. The Bulls are only one season into rebuilding, and though they can always get impatient, there probably won’t be a worthwhile quick fix available. Dunn should get opportunities to grow.

He rediscovered his confidence this season and found a coach in Fred Hoiberg who believes in him.

“I love everything about Kris,” Hoiberg said. “And, again, I hope we’re around for a long time together.”

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto is looking down on everyone else

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The Toronto Raptors have been the clear best team in the East for a little while now, but the win over the Rockets last week bumps them up to the top of NBC’s NBA Power Rankings. And yes, the Raptors are legit and could win the East.
The Warriors couple of losses drop them to third, and the Portland Trail Blazers are up to fifth with their win streak. At the bottom, there is not a lot of movement because in the great tankapaloza everyone is losing (except the Bulls).

Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (50-17, Last Week No. 3). Winners of nine in a row including beating the Rockets (in a game that should have been televised nationally). The Raptors knocked off the Rockets with the things that make them a legitimate threat to come out of the East. They defended well, taking away shots inside and not fouling James Harden (much) on drives, and on offense they moved the ball and didn’t settle, getting good looks. The Raptors are for real and deserve to be the favorites in the East.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (53-14, LW 1). Winners of 19-of-20 (they didn’t take and make enough threes in Toronto (a healthy Ryan Anderson would have helped in that matchup), but this team is still on target to get the two things it wants: the No. 1 seed and James Harden the MVP. The question becomes at what point does Mike D’Antoni start thinking about rest for guys? James Harden likely needs to play in 70-72 games to secure the MVP, which means at least 11 more of the 15 remaining for Houston, but he has hit a playoff wall before D’Antoni should be thinking about getting him a night or three off.

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (51-16 LW 2). They lost a couple in a row without Stephen Curry, a reminder that his play and gravity to draw defenders out of position is what the Warriors’ offense was built around. When Curry is on the court the Warriors offense is 14.1 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits (without him the GSW offense tends to be about league average, although there is a lot of noise in that stat). The Warriors are still in the hunt for the best record in the NBA not because they want it but because they have a much softer schedule the rest of the way than the Rockets.

Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (46-21, LW 4). Boston is pretty locked into the two seed in the East, which means Brad Stevens can focus on getting his very banged up team healthy: Kyrie Irving (knee, likely out a couple of games) and Jaylen Brown (concussion) will be back but need to get right; Marcus Smart is out with a right thumb injury (shooting hand) that may or may not require surgery and his status is up in the air. Daniel Theis (knee surgery) and Gordon Hayward are out for the season (no, he’s not coming back). Boston still has a shot to make the Finals (fivethirtyeightt.com gives them an 11% chance) but they need to be back to their “whole is more than the sum of their parts” ways and that means guys as close to 100% as possible.

Blazers small icon 5. Trail Blazers (41-26, LW 7). Winners of 10 in a row — which includes a couple wins over the Warriors — and there are a lot of reasons for the streak. Damian Lillard is clutch and on fire. Portland’s defense continues to be one of the top five in the league (best in the NBA over the last 10). But the team’s bench play is getting overlooked — Evan Turner is getting buckets, rookie Zach Collins has grown into a reliable scorer who can defend some in the paint, and Ed Davis is just rock solid. The Trail Blazers should be able to hold on to the three seed in the West.

Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (41-29 LW 12).. They have won four in a row and OKC is doing it the way they won early in the season — elite defense (top 10 since the All-Star break) and enough offense courtesy Russell Westbrook to make it work. The Thunder are currently the four seed in the West but have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA, they have a lot of work to do to hang on to a favorable first-round matchup (as much as that exists in the West).

Pacers small icon 7. Pacers (40-28, LW 6). Darren Collison is back, providing needed depth and stability at the point (with Cory Joseph, who has remained the starter).However, the biggest boost of late has been great play from Myles Turner, who has averaged 15.4 points per game and shot 44% from three in his last five games
(and 50% from three in his last 10). Turner is one of the league’s best pick-and-pop bigs. Indiana slid ahead of Cleveland for the No. 3 seed in the East, but the Pacers have the toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, holding on to home court will not be easy.

8. Timberwolves (40-29, LW 8). I’d tell you what I think of the Derrick Rose signing, but he doesn’t need my f****** validation. Minnesota has gone 4-3 since the Jimmy Butler injury — including a win over the shorthanded Warriors — and been pedestrian, middle-of-the-pack on both ends of the court in that stretch. This team needs to do a better job feeding Karl-Anthony Towns with Butler out, in his last five games Towns is getting about the same number of shot attempts as with Butler (although more of them are inside, close to the basket, and he’s drawing more fouls). Lean on KAT, he’s a bubble All-NBA player.

Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (36-30, LW 11). Currently the six seed in the East, the Sixers have the softest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way (by far) and should be able to climb up the standings, maybe even getting a round at home (they are currently 2.5 games out of the four seed). The question down the stretch for Brett Brown has to be about how much to rest Joel Embiid — the young big man has never played this many games (55 so far, on pace for 68), and for the team to have a shot in first round of the playoffs Embiid going to have to go 35+ minutes a night. Brown would be wise to get him a few nights off over the final few weeks of the season.

Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (38-30, LW 16). Rudy Gobert’s defense — and how he has lifted the Jazz since his return — has pushed him into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. The Jazz are 18-2 in their last 20, and in their last 15 have allowed just 95.5 points per 100 possessions. Utah is currently tied for the eight seed in the West but have the easiest schedule of any team fighting for a playoff slot in the conference, fivethirtyeight.com gives them a lofty 93% chance of making the postseason.

Pelicans small icon 11. Pelicans (39-28, LW 5). Anthony Davis missed only one game with a sprained ankle, but the Pelicans have started out 1-2 in a stretch of 8-of-9 at home where they need to pad their record and rack up wins to ensure they make the postseason in a crowded West. It will not be easy to rack up wins this week with a key game against the Spurs on the road Thursday, then a home back-to-back against the Rockets and Celtics over the weekend.

Cavaliers small icon 12. Cavaliers (39-28 LW 10). Kevin Love has his cast off, is working out, and should return to the rotation next week, which leaves the Cavaliers with some interesting questions. Do they start Love with Larry Nance Jr.? That brings shooting and athleticism to the front line but doesn’t solve any of the defensive issues. The more likely outcome is Love starts and Nance moves to the bench again, bolstering a struggling unit (especially with Rodney Hood out). The bigger issue after watching this team twice in person this week: They have a long way to go to become anything near a cohesive defensive unit, and they don’t have a lot of time to figure it all out.

Clippers small icon 13. Clippers (37-29 LW 15). Lou Williams dropped 26 on the Bulls Tuesday, the 24th time this season he has topped 25 points in a game, by far a career high. If there is one postseason award that is locked up, it’s Williams as Sixth Man of the Year. Tuesday’s win over Chicago was the first of 9-of-11 on the road that will be key to the Clippers’ playoff chances. Their next four games are huge — Houston, Oklahoma City, Portland, and Minnesota.

Wizards small icon 14. Wizards (38-30, LW 13). The Wizards are dangerous in transition, but 30.8% of their shot attempts come out of the pick-and-roll, and they are just average on those scoring 0.95 points per possession (via Synergy Sports). That includes the time with Wall, who is working out but no return is imminent. A tough couple of losses (Miami and Minnesota) lead into big games for them in the East vs. Boston and Pacers (that Indiana game could have big tiebreaker implications).

Nuggets small icon 15. Nuggets (37-31, LW 14).. If Denver misses the postseason, it will be because their defense isn’t good enough, which has led to some ugly losses (like Tuesday to the Lakers). Since the All-Star break, the Nuggets have the best offense in the NBA but the 29th ranked defense (and that is with Paul Millsap back and actually making things better on that end). The Nuggets need a few stops. Denver’s loss to the Lakers Tuesday started a run of 8-of-9 away from home that may well determine the franchise’s playoff fate.

Spurs small icon 16. Spurs (38-30, LW 9). The Spurs will have a losing record on the road and win less than 50 games in a season for the first time since Tim Duncan joined the team. It’s been a rough year in San Antonio, and it’s not getting easier. The Spurs had lost 9-of-11 before they beat up on the Magic on Tuesday night. The Spurs could use Kawhi Leonard, but it’s unknown when Leonard’s own medical team will clear him to play.

Lakers small icon 17. Lakers (31-36 LW 19). Technically the Lakers are a below .500 team, but they are the squad teams fighting for a playoff slot least want to see on the schedule — the Lakers have been 20-12 in 2018, and since the All-Star break they have beaten Miami, San Antonio, Cleveland, and Denver. Los Angeles plays at the fastest pace in the NBA, Lonzo Ball creates an energy when on the court, and that transition play throws other teams off and gets L.A. easy buckets.

Bucks small icon 18. Bucks (36-31 LW 18). Since the All-Star break the Bucks have been a pretty average team (-0.4 net rating), with a slightly worse defense than we saw in the Jason Kidd era and an offense that is just about the same level. The post-coach firing bounce was short lived, the Bucks are who they are. Milwaukee seems destined for the eight seed (and a rematch with Toronto) after going 4-7 during a stretch with 8-of-11 at home.

Heat small icon 19. Heat (36-32, LW 17). Since the All-Star break the Heat have gone 6-4, but they have played better than that outscoring teams by 6.4 points per 100 possessions and with a top-10 offense and defense. Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow have formed an impressive wing tandem that defends well on one end and can get buckets on the other. It will be interesting to see if the Heat can reach an extension with Winslow this summer that both sides agree to (probably not, he’s more likely a restricted free agent in 2019).

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (30-37, LW 21). Detroit is 7-12 since the Blake Griffin trade, and while Griffin has taken heat for the unimpressive record and the fact the Pistons will miss the postseason, the real problem is the roster construction and injuries. With Reggie Jackson out, the Pistons need Griffin to do all the shot creation as well as getting buckets, and while he can do some of that he has certainly been overtaxed.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (29-39, LW 20). Malik Monk may be the most disappointing rookie this season, but with the Hornets out of the playoffs and Michael Carter-Williams out injured, Monk is getting more run. In his last four games he’s shot 12-of-33 overall and 3-of-18 from three. On the flip side, Dwight Howard has had a run of strong games, and frankly a very solid season.

Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (23-44 LW 28).. The Bulls have gotten “hot” by their standards of late, having won 3-of-6 — which probably makes Adam Silver happy but frustrates the pro-tanking crowd in Chicago. The Bulls have complied with the NBA’s meddling into their rotations (something the league should not be involved with) by playing Robin Lopez the first quarter of games then sitting him the rest of the time. Because that looks sooooo much better than just having him sit out.

Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (22-46 LW 22). The biggest question in every Mavericks’ road stop now — as it was in Madison Square Garden Tuesday — is “will this be Dirk Nowitzki’s last game in this building?” The future Hall of Fame player has made it clear that he wants to play one more season, but will make his decision this summer when he sees how his body feels and if he wants to put in the extra effort to get ready for one more run.

Kings small icon 24. Kings (21-47, LW 25). Sacramento is outplaying the league’s other tanking teams — they have three wins in their last 10, beating the Nets, Knicks, and Magic — but struggle against the teams making any kind of playoff push. Bogdan Bogdanovic has set a Kings rookie record with 107 made threes this season, one thing the rebuilding team learned this season is he’s a keeper.

Nets small icon 25. Nets (21-47, LW 27). Since the All-Star break D’Angelo Russell has averaged 17.4 points per game, taking about half his shot attempts from three and hitting 41.5 percent of them (including six in a row on Tuesday night). Russell is taking a fair amount of midrangers (19% of his shots on the season) but is knocking them down, however, he is just 9-of-21 at the rim this season. With Russell having more of the offense in his hands, Spencer Dinwiddie has struggled to find a comfort level playing off the ball next to him, he’s taking fewer shots overall and hitting a poor percentage.

Magic small icon 26. Magic (20-48, LW 23). Evan Fournier is out with a sprained MCL, and while he is talking of getting back on the court this season I would be surprised if the Magic let him. While they were never going to be a very good team with this roster, injuries have hit them fairly hard this season and is one reason they are in the tanking race to the bottom right now.

Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (20-48, LW 24). The Hawks 10-season streak of making the playoffs — the longest such streak in the East — is now officially and mathematically dead (although we knew that was coming for a while). Losers of four in a row, they are without Kent Bazemore for the rest of the season, which has put the ball in the hands of Taurean Prince more and he responded with 38 points against the Bulls on Sunday.

Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (24-44, LW 26). Losers of eight in a row and 16-of-17, and since the All-Star break New York has the worst defense in the NBA — a ridiculous 118.7 points per 100 possessions allowed, 5 per 100 worse than any other team in the league. Since the All-Star break Emmanuel Mudiay is averaging 10.6 points per game on 37.1% shooting overall and 28% from three, and the Knicks are -12.1 per 48 minutes with him on the court. On the flip side, Trey Burke has looked like a guy who can be a backup point guard in this league (something I would not have said a year ago).

Suns small icon 29. Suns (19-50, LW 29). The Elfrid Payton experiment continues to flounder — since the All-Star break he is averaging 12.6 points per game on 40.8% shooting, just 7.1% from three, and the Knicks are getting outscored by 13.5 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court. The Suns have lost 6 in a row, 16-of-17, and have a tough stretch of their schedule coming up including the Jazz and Warriors this week.

Grizzlies small icon 30. Grizzlies (18-49, LW 30). Memphis’ 18-game losing streak could come to an end this week with games against other tanking teams, Chicago (Thursday) and Brooklyn (Monday). You have to look hard for a silver lining with the Grizzlies, but Dillon Brooks dropped 29 on the Bulls a week ago, which is a good sign for the developing rookie.

Hornets’ Michael Carter-Williams undergoing season-ending surgery

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If Kemba Walker is so good, why are the Hornets just 28-38?

The simple answer: They’re good when he plays and a train wreck whenever he sits.

That’s in part due to backup point guard Michael Carter-Williams‘ underwhelming production. Now, his poor year has taken a turn for the even worse.

Hornets release:

Hornets guard Michael Carter-Williams has suffered a posterior labral tear in his left shoulder. The injury was confirmed after Carter-Williams underwent an MRI and was examined by Hornets team orthopedist Dr. Marc Cook of Novant Health. The injury occurred with 4:05 left in the second quarter of Charlotte’s game at Toronto on March 4. Carter-Williams will undergo surgery to address the injury and will miss the remainder of the season.

Carter-Williams will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Obviously, getting healthy will help his stock. But this is a lost opportunity to show improvement. He looks like a minimum-salary player – if that.

It’s stunning to think a former Rookie of the Year could fall out of the NBA at age 26. But this just continues him trending in the wrong direction.

The Hornets are already out of the playoff race, so this could actually help them. As bad as Carter-Williams has been, Malik Monk has been worse – understandable, considering Monk is just a rookie. Riding out Monk’s growing pains could improve Charlotte’s draft position and help Monk develop.

That said, the Hornets – with the NBA’s 10th-worst record – are 3.5 games ahead of the ninth-worst Knicks. That’s a lot of ground to make up this late. This at least reduces the possibility the freefalling 11th-place Pistons (1.5 games ahead) slip below Charlotte, though.

Spencer Dinwiddie, after facing threat of being forgotten by NBA, flourishing with Nets

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DETROIT – Spencer Dinwiddie looked like he might be finished in the NBA.

Major ACL injury at Colorado? He declared for the 2014 draft while still recovering.

Slipping to the second round? He drew confidence in being the Pistons’ first pick that year and the initial selection of the Stan Van Gundy era in Detroit.

Barely playing with the Pistons in two seasons? He engineered a trade to the Bulls, who needed a backup point guard and had roster room then played well for Chicago’s summer-league team.

But the Bulls traded for Michael Carter-Williams just before the season and waived Dinwiddie, who signed in the D-League. For the first time in years, the player who believed since he was 4 years old he’d make the NBA was neither in the league nor on track to reach it.

Then, the Nets called.

They weren’t offering much – $100,000 guaranteed in exchange for Dinwiddie signing a three-year minimum contract in December 2017. If he lasted a month, the rest of his salary that season ($726,672) would become guaranteed. But the remaining two seasons would remain up to Brooklyn. If Dinwiddie flopped, he’d get waived with a small payout. If he exceeded expectations, he’d be stuck on a cheap contract for years.

“A lot of people don’t make it out of the D-League,” Dinwiddie said. “Or, if I don’t sign it, then what if nobody picks me up? Am I still down there? Am I overseas right now?

“It’s very easy to be forgotten about in this league. There’s a lot of good players all over the world that, whatever reason, didn’t hit off right off the bat, and their careers paid the price for it.

“I was told that there was no other opportunity. There was no other option. So, obviously I wanted to be in the NBA. So, I signed.”

Much to Brooklyn’s benefit. And maybe Dinwiddie’s.

Dinwiddie played relatively well in a narrow role last season, doing enough to show he belonged in the NBA. This year, he’s making his case as an NBA starter.

After injuries to Jeremy Lin and D'Angelo Russell, Dinwiddie became the Nets’ starting point guard. Tasked with greater responsibility, Dinwiddie is playing his best basketball. He averages 13.4 points and 6.4 assists per game, but those marks don’t quite show how he has steadied an erratic team.

Dinwiddie ranks No. 18 overall in real plus-minus – behind only potential All-Stars, Robert Covington, and Tyus Jones and ahead of Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant, Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Andre Drummond, Paul George and Kristaps Porzingis. That isn’t to say Dinwiddie is as good as those stars. But that his production holds its own in such elite company is also revelatory.

Especially considering Dinwiddie’s contract.

He ranks third in real plus-minus among players on minimum salaries, behind only Nikola Jokic and Tyus Jones:

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This makes Dinwiddie an intriguing trade candidate in advance of next month’s deadline.

How helpful would it be to have a credible starting-caliber point guard making just the minimum this year and next? That’d free so much money – below the salary cap and/or luxury-tax line – to spend on other positions.

The Nets aren’t positioned to take advantage. They’re still below the cap and, still recovering from years of lost draft picks, not ready to build a competitive roster. They also might want to tank next season, as they’ll finally keep their own first-rounder in 2019. Plus, Russell is acclimating back into the rotation, and Lin should return next season.

If Dinwiddie no longer fits in Brooklyn, in a sudden reversal, numerous teams should covet him. He’s not sweating whether he gets moved, but whatever happens, it won’t change how he views the Nets.

“I’m forever indebted to Brooklyn for giving me this opportunity,” Dinwiddie said.

Of course, the Nets could keep him. They’re trying to build a culture, and continuity matters for that. They’d also be positioned to extend his contract next December, two years from when he initially signed (as would a team that trades for him).

Dinwiddie’s max extension would follow the same format as Josh Richardson‘s with the Heat and Norman Powell‘s with the Raptors – which were each worth $42 million over four years – though a rising salary cap will lift Dinwiddie’s max slightly. Perhaps, Dinwiddie could get more in unrestricted free agency in 2019. But for someone set to earn around the minimum his first four seasons, an extension would provide nice security.

Dinwiddie isn’t holding his breath for a payday in December, though.

“You know how long a year is?” Dinwiddie said. “A year in the NBA is an eternity. Anything can happen.”

Just look at Dinwiddie’s last year.

“When we first got him, he was really not a confident player,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “Very timid to make plays.”

Now, he’s hitting gamewinners, including one at Detroit on Sunday:

Did that one mean more to him?

“I’ve kind of tip-toed around it. Let’s just be real here,” Dinwiddie said. “I start my career off here. For lack of a better word, I was essentially cut. So how would y’all feel?”

This wasn’t the caretaking point guard the Pistons and Bulls gave up on. Dinwiddie was holding court in the visiting locker room, assured he belonged.

The 6-foot-6 point guard plays with an even keel, steadily using his size advantage offensively and defensively. He’s not flashy, and this doesn’t appear fluky. A sudden jump in 3-point shooting is the easiest way a prolonged hot stretch can be mistaken for a meaningful breakthrough, but Dinwiddie is shooting just 34% from beyond the arc – below his mark last year (38%) and below league average. A high 3-point attempt rate makes his outside shooting helpful, and that’s something he can more easily control than whether the ball goes in.

A more aggressive shot hunter, Dinwiddie can develop as a passer next. Among 284 players who qualify for the assist-per-game lead, Dinwiddie ranks third in assist-to-turnover ratio, behind only Tomas Satoransky and Shelvin Mack. The leaderboard, with assists and turnovers per game noted:

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While that’s helpful in some ways, especially on the young and up-tempo Nets, Dinwiddie doesn’t often enough create quality looks through his passing. He takes what the defense gives him and nothing more.

“He’s not a high-risk guy,” Atkinson said. “It’s just not his personality.”

It’s the same mindset that contributed to Dinwiddie accepting Brooklyn’s team-friendly offer last season.

The Nets couldn’t be happier with the results. Dinwiddie is aware he lost a potential opportunity to prove himself then hit free agency sooner, but he chalks up any thoughts of regret to looking through the lens of 20-20 hindsight.

And no matter what happens through the rest of his minimum contract, he’ll always have Sunday, when he got revenge against the Pistons.

“No hard feelings,” Dinwiddie said before breaking into a slight grin, “especially after a win.”

Can Kemba Walker save the sinking Hornets? He doesn’t want to jump the ship he’s (barely) keeping afloat

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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):

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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.

Only Isaiah Thomas has a lower salary among reigning All-Stars:

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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 shoulders.

“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.