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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.

Shaq doesn’t want LeBron James to chase rings to close his career

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Shaquille O’Neal was a dominant NBA center, playing with the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, and Miami Heat.

He was also a ring chaser.

At the end of his career, O’Neal decided to switch between teams, including the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Boston Celtics. It was an open and futile effort to beat his rival and former Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant in number of championships won.

After they retired, O’Neal finished with four championships to Bryant’s five.

Now, as Cavaliers star LeBron James starts to wrap up his own career, Shaq says that James should not follow in his footsteps. Specifically, O’Neal said that he thinks LeBron’s story has already been written, and that he should not try to chase rings elsewhere.

Via ESPN:

“Somebody told me a long time ago — they said your book is already set [before the later stages of your career]. You can add index pages toward the end, but your book is already set. So LeBron’s book is already set,” O’Neal said. “He done already passed up legends; he done already made his mark — he has three rings

I think I tend to agree with O’Neal on this point. Specifically, because the only thing that LeBron could do to boost his resume would be to win multiple championships, consecutively, to close his career. He would need to surpass Michael Jordan at six rings, and approach Bill Russell with 11.

I don’t particularly think that LeBron is trying to ring chase. He’s just trying to get with one good team to close his career (or the Lakers). I don’t think we will ever see LeBron skip around from team to team the way that O’Neal did in the twilight of his playing career.

We’re launching the PBT Mailbag, so what questions do you want answered?

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The 2017-18 NBA season is over, and the Golden State Warriors are champions once again. What that means the offseason is here, and for many fans that is the best time of the year. The summer in the NBA the past few years has given us some incredible stories. For many, this past postseason was rather boring, and the outcome was all but decided.

And so it is time to dig into our postseason favorites, starting with the 2018 NBA Draft. We here at Pro Basketball Talk would like to announce the start of our weekly mail bag, which will run each week on Wednesday mornings.

The first of mailbag will run this Wednesday, the day before the draft. Questions can be submitted via Twitter or by sending us an email directly at pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

The draft is obviously the big focus for many fans as we approach this next week, and much about the situation for many teams heading up into the event in Brooklyn is murky. If you have a burning question about the draft, now is the time to ask it.

Of course, you are encouraged to ask any kind of question you want to hear about from the Pro Basketball Talk crew such as:

  • Where is LeBron going?
  • Is a hotdog a sandwich?
  • Has Nick Young put his shirt back on yet?
  • Will Jordan Bell run out of Hennessy ever again?
  • Where will Kawhi Leonard play next season?

All of these questions are fair game, and more.

We are looking forward to the kind of queries you need answered on a weekly basis as we roll through the summer in anticipation for the start of the 2018-19 NBA season.

Report: Cavaliers have made calls to Spurs about Kawhi Leonard

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We still don’t know where San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard will end up playing at the start of the 2018-2019 NBA season.

The former NBA Finals MVP reportedly wants to head to Los Angeles, apparently to play for the Lakers. However, there are other teams in the mix for Leonard, and the Spurs themselves want to try to keep him and mend the relationship.

One intriguing team for Leonard is the Cleveland Cavaliers, who reportedly have made calls to San Antonio about landing their star. According to Cleveland.com writer Terry Pluto, the Cavs have made it known they are interested in Leonard.

It’s not clear whether that call was simple due diligence, a whack at trying to entice LeBron James to stay, or a long shot way to replace James if he decides to leave this summer.

The Cavaliers are hilariously over the cap for next season, and don’t have much to offer the Spurs that they’d likely want. The best player on the roster that helps match most of Leonard’s salary is Kevin Love, who already plays the position occupied by LaMarcus Aldridge.

Cleveland does have the No. 8 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, but that’s not enough to snag Leonard. If the Cavaliers had a realistic shot at getting Leonard, it would likely need to be in the form of a three-team deal with another party that has a need for Love.

NBA trades can be weird, and this summer is wrapping up to be a special one. However, Cleveland grabbing Leonard from San Antonio is still a long shot.

NBA players celebrate Father’s Day on social media

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Sunday was Father’s Day in the United States, and as such several players around the league decided to share their feelings on the national day of appreciation.

Many got together with their kids or with their fathers, posting photos and giving us a nice little peek into the family lives of some of the league’s players.

Some guys, like Baron Davis and Jameer Nelson, sent out messages wishing well to those whose fathers had passed on.

Via Instagram and Twitter:

Make sure you appreciate your pops today.