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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.

Rumor: People close to Kawhi Leonard think he’ll re-sign with Raptors

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Kawhi Leonard has made it known that he wants to play in Los Angeles. Specifically with the Lakers, although playing for the Clippers reportedly has become more of an option as of late for Leonard.

Still, for the meantime the former San Antonio Spurs star will be playing with the Toronto Raptors, at least to start the season. Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri leveraged his goodwill from the city as well as the future of his team by trading DeMar DeRozan to get Leonard. Now, the question is whether Leonard will be healthy enough to play, or whether he will prove difficult much in the way he was last season in Texas.

Rumors are already swirling in Ontario about whether or not Leonard will prefer to stay with the Raptors after this season when he can opt out of his current deal. According to at least one rumor, some close to Leonard think he will stay with Toronto.

Via The San Diego Union-Tribune:

Here’s what someone who knows Leonard as well as anybody told me privately: “He’s going to fall in love with Toronto – it’s going to happen. He’s not going to leave, I’m telling you.”

We have to treat this as hearsay at this point, as a lot of the recent talk from people rumored to be close to Leonard has turned out to be inaccurate.

Even further, Leonard’s wants and actions have been hard to predict. Two years ago, Leonard changed agents and with the help of his uncle, has taken a new direction with his business management. It’s been staunch, and conservative, and stubborn. On paper, forcing his way away from the best-run franchise in the NBA is a real head-scratcher.

That’s also why you can’t necessarily dismiss the idea of Leonard staying in Ontario. His wants and needs seem to shift, and what will affect him one day to the next seems hard to gather. It’s entirely possible that he ends up liking playing in Toronto, and the city itself, which is magnificent.

Yes, we all saw the rumor that Leonard doesn’t like the cold, but that contradicts with the idea that Leonard is “all about basketball”. It’s not as though the basketball situation in Los Angeles is better than the basketball situation in Toronto. And despite their playoff failures, you could say that management installed in Canada is better than those acting in Southern California.

We will see whether Leonard even plays a significant amount of games for the Raptors. We all thought it was impossible that he would sit out an entire season for San Antonio last year, and now we can’t dismiss that possibility moving forward. Getting him on the floor and in a Raptors jersey is first.

Then we can talk about him re-signing in Toronto.

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JR Smith finally says goodbye to LeBron 21 days after Lakers announcement

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Cleveland Cavaliers guard JR Smith isn’t the most aware player on the court. We learned that the hard way during the NBA Finals.

But life in Cleveland will move on, and with Smith apparently still on the roster for the foreseeable future. Smith was at one point in time a favorite of LeBron James, who is now wearing a Los Angeles Lakers jersey.

Apparently, that fact has finally kicked in for Smith. On July 22nd, three weeks after James made it clear that he was heading to the Lakers, Smith decided to finally acknowledge the departure of The King.

Via Instagram:

Thanks bro @kingjames

A post shared by JR Smith (@teamswish) on

NBA players were not shy about sending out their reaction to James heading to the Lakers on social media the day it happened. No doubt actual teammates of LeBron would need to take some time to process it, but even guys like Cedi Osman were more punctual with their well wishes.

Some people bring out the worst in you, others bring out the best. And there are remarkably rare ones, who just bring out the most of everything that even you don't know that you have. They build you up. They make you feel alive. They make you feel strong. They make you feel indisputable. From the first moment we met, you’ve always been that rare one for me, King. I don’t believe in coincidences. I choose to believe my path crossed with you for a reason. And that reason will be uncovered as I continue to walk through. Please accept my highest gratitude for your support and appreciation for your inspiration. I’m truly blessed to have been surrounded by your charm. Bazı insanlar doğanızdaki kötü tarafları ortaya çıkarır; bazıları ise içinizdeki iyiyi katlayarak yansıtmanızı sağlar. Ama bazı özel insanlar vardır ki, onların sayısı çok azdır, sahip olduğunuzun farkında bile olmadığınız yönlerinizi parlatmanızı sağlar. Sizi geliştirir, yaşadığınızı hissettirir ve güçlü olduğunuzu hatırlatır. Kral, ilk buluşmamızdan itibaren benim için eşsiz biri oldun. Biliyorum ve inaniyorum ki seninle yolumuz özel bir nedenle kesişti. Bu özel neden, hayatım boyunca benimle olmaya devam edecek. Verdiğin tüm destek için sana kalpten teşekkür ediyorum. Seninle geçirdiğim her dakika için minnetarım. Yolun açık olsun…

A post shared by Cedi Osman (@cediosman) on

Los Angeles and Cleveland will be interesting teams to watch next year, and largely for the same reason. Each might end up being a complete tire fire, although they will attack things from different ends of the spectrum. How Smith operates in that void for the Cavaliers will be interesting to watch.

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DMV in Cleveland tapes a photo of LeBron to their camera to stop people smiling

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A trip to the DMV is never at the top of anyone’s list of ways to spend an afternoon. Still, it’s a necessary evil of adult life.

The DMV is a place for rules, one of the most common ones is that you are not allowed to smile in your picture for your driver’s license. In Cleveland, the DMV there has decided to make a small alteration to their camera setup to ensure that citizens follow this rule.

Specifically, they taped a photo of LeBron James in a Los Angeles Lakers jersey to the camera that takes the driver’s license photos.

Via Twitter:

At least for this year, putting a photo of LeBron on a camera at the DMV in the Cleveland should keep straight faces on people getting their photo taken. However, seeing as the Cavaliers probably won’t be very good moving forward, it might be just as easy to tape a photo of the team logo up there.

It appears that everyone is upset about Lebron leaving for the LA.

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DeMar DeRozan with classy goodbye to Toronto fans

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DeMar DeRozan did not want to be traded from the Raptors.

He will eventually warm to San Antonio and the Spurs, but for a franchise that has seen star after star push their way out of town — Chris Bosh, Vince Carter, Damon Stoudamire, and on down the list — DeRozan was the one guy who embraced the city, repped it, and not only said he wanted to stay but did just that. DeRozan was all in on Toronto and loyal, and they shipped him out anyway. It may well have been the right basketball move, but it was cold. And a lot of Raptors fans were not happy about how it went down.

DeRozan, classy as always, thanked the Raptors fans in a heartfelt Instagram post.

Someday they will retire DeRozan’s jersey in Toronto. Deservedly so.