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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.

LeBron, Lakers top Tatum’s big afternoon for Celtics

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LOS ANGELESLeBron James scored 29 points and put the Lakers ahead on a fallaway jumper with 30 seconds to play, and Los Angeles split its season series with the Boston Celtics with a 114-112 victory Sunday.

James missed a tying free throw moments before he coolly nailed the shot the put the Lakers ahead to stay in a frenetic fourth quarter to cap the latest chapter of this famed NBA rivalry.

Anthony Davis had 32 points and 13 rebounds in the fifth straight win overall for the Lakers, who took a 32-point blowout loss in Boston last month.

Davis hit two free throws with 12.3 seconds left and added one more with 6.7 seconds to play, before Jayson Tatum was called for charging in the final second as he attempted to create one last basket.

Tatum matched his career high with 41 points for the Celtics, who had won 12 of 14 starting with that dominant win over the Lakers in January.

Boston turned the ball over with 15.5 seconds left after James’ big shot, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens got a technical foul for arguing about it. Davis missed that free throw, however.

Grant Williams hit two free throws for Boston immediately afterward, and Davis hit one of two to give a final chance to the Celtics.

Jaylen Brown scored 20 points for Boston, but Kemba Walker missed his second straight game with left knee soreness.

The rematch was far more competitive than the teams’ first meeting this season, with both taking small leads in the fourth quarter before the exciting finish.

Davis’ third 3-pointer put the Lakers up 108-105 with 2:08 to play, but Gordon Hayward hit a jumper before Brown’s 3-pointer put the Celtics back ahead 110-108 with 1:17 to go.

With the Lakers’ immediate return to excellence since beating out Boston to acquire Davis last summer, these longtime rivals are both playoff-bound championship contenders yet again.

Los Angeles is comfortably atop the Western Conference standings, while the Celtics sit third in the East. Both teams have a decent shot of meeting in the NBA Finals for the 13th time if they continue to grow from big games like this thriller.

Tatum underlined his growing superstardom by matching the career high he set against New Orleans last month. He scored 16 points in a five-minute barrage alone during the third quarter, finishing the period with 18.

The Lakers hung in with 16 points in the third from Davis after his quiet first half.

Walker scored 20 points against the Lakers last month to beat James for the first time in the stars’ 29 career meetings. The Lakers took their worst loss of the season in that initial meeting while getting just 23 minutes from Davis, who had just returned from a two-week injury absence.

The rematch featured much more defense than the teams’ first meeting, with Rajon Rondo and Brown both making big steals for their respective clubs. Only Tatum made a major offensive impact in the first half with 19 points.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Walker’s injury is “not a long-term thing,” Stevens said. Walker did work in the weight room before the game. … The bench scored just five points in the first three quarters, including only one field goal, and finished with 11 points.

Lakers: James went down in pain early in the fourth quarter when Daniel Theis ran into him under the basket. James stayed in the game after a timeout. … Rondo spent much of the pregame warmup chatting with Kevin Garnett, his longtime Celtics teammate. Garnett then watched the game from the baseline near the LA bench with Lakers part-owner Patrick Soon-Shiong. … The matchup is always a hot ticket for celebrities. Fans near courtside included Eddie Murphy, Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington.

UP NEXT

Celtics: Visit the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night.

Lakers: Host the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Jaren Jackson Jr. out for at least two weeks for Grizzlies

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Gordon Hayward
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The Memphis Grizzlies announced that Jaren Jackson Jr. suffered a sprained left knee late during the second quarter of Friday’s game vs the Los Angeles Lakers:

Memphis says Jackson will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

In his second year, Jackson has been a big part of the Grizzlies surprising success. Memphis is currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with a record of 28-28. Jackson has proven to be an ideal running mate for rookie point guard Ja Morant, as the Grizzlies have rebuilt quicker than anyone expected.

With Jackson out, Memphis will need to replace 16.9 points and 1.6 blocks per game. Jackson also regularly functions as the Grizzlies backup center, sliding over to play the pivot when starter Jonas Valanciunas is out.

With Jackson out for at least two weeks, and potentially longer, Memphis will lean on Kyle Anderson and rookie Brandon Clarke at the four. The trickle-down impact may be more minutes for backup center Gorgui Dieng, who was acquired at the trade deadline, up front behind Valanciunas. In addition, Josh Jackson, who spent the first few months of the season in the G-League, has had a bit of resurgence in recent weeks. With Anderson likely to play more at power forward, Jackson may see even more minutes on the wing.

Ben Simmons out at least through Monday

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Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons‘ troublesome back will keep him out at least through Monday reports NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters. Winters reports that Simmons went through testing upon the Sixers return to Philadelphia on Sunday and will have further testing done on Monday:

Simmons missed the first game back from the All-Star break on Thursday due to back soreness. He then exited Saturday night’s game at the Milwaukee Bucks after playing less than five minutes.

Simmons went to his second-straight All-Star game last week. He’s averaged 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.2 assists and a league-leading 2.1 steals per game through 54 games this season.

An up-and-down season sees Philadelphia currently fifth in the Eastern Conference. The 76ers are an equal 1.5 games behind Miami for fourth and ahead of Indiana in sixth. The Sixers would love to climb to fourth for homecourt advantage in the postseason, as they’ve been dominant at home with a 26-2 record, while underwhelming on the road at just 9-20.

With Joel Embiid continuing to suffer from injuries, while also having his minutes managed, Philadelphia can’t afford to be without Simmons for long. The 76ers added depth on the wing at the trade deadline with Alec Bucks and Glenn Robinson III, but have little behind Simmons at point guard. Raul Neto started in Simmons’ place on Thursday, but did not play on Saturday until the game was well in-hand for Milwaukee.

Lance Stephenson hopes strong season in China springboards him back to NBA

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The Chinese Basketball Association season is up in the air because of the Coronavirus outbreak. The season is postponed and, while there is talk of restarting it on April 1, there are more questions than answers about that plan right now.

Lance Stephenson was in China playing for the Liaoning Flying Leopards and — as many American scorers can do against the soft defenses in the CBA — put up impressive numbers. Stephenson is hoping to use that as a springboard back to the NBA, reports Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Will it work for Stephenson? Maybe. It only takes one GM looking for a little scoring punch down the stretch to buy-in.

However, GMs also know the numbers are inflated in China and it doesn’t translate to being able to do the same thing in the NBA. Jimmer Fredette is example 1A. Or, here are the top five scorers in the Chinese league so far this season:

1. Dominique Jones (Jilin Northeast Tigers) 37.8
2. Joe Young (Nanjing Monkey Kings) 35.9
3. Darius Adams (Qingdao Eagles) 34.9
4. Tyler Hansbrough (Sichuan Blue Whales) 32.3
5. Jonathan Gibson (Jiangsu Dragons) 31.2

All of those guys, and a lot more, would like to use China as a springboard back to the NBA. That, however, is proving to be a long leap.