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Kemba Walker feels love from Charlotte fans, returns it All-Star Weekend

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Stephen Curry was only a few podiums away. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid were elsewhere on the court and could be seen in flashes on the big screen above. Some of the biggest stars in the basketball universe were floating around. Then the chant broke out from the stands.

KEM-BA WALK-ER. KEM-BA WALK-ER

In Charlotte, Kemba Walker is as beloved as any of them. Maybe more.

Walker raised his arm and acknowledged the chanting fans with a smile. The love is mutual.

While All-Star weekend in Charlotte has been a triumphant homecoming for Stephen Curry and a celebration of the Curry family — who Commissioner Adam Silver called the “first family of Charlotte” — there also is love for the slightly undersized point guard who was drafted by Charlotte, adopted the town, and has become its biggest NBA star and ambassador.

“The fan support has been A1, which is how it is each and every day for me,” Walker said. “For the fans, I’m happy they have this opportunity, I’m happy we got this event here. I think we deserved it.”

Walker, a three-time All-Star, said he and the city have been taking in everything around All-Star weekend — the concerts, parties, pop-up stores and more — and savoring it. Walker competed in Saturday night’s Three-Point Contest (although it was not his best outing). He admitted to being tired because of the fast pace of everything in a city that usually moves a little bit slower, but that and a little more traffic were his only complaints. And minor ones at that.

“I’m just happy to be home, honestly,” Walker said. “Excited to welcome people into the city — I’ve been getting a lot of good feedback about the city. Like today, a lot of guys have been telling me it’s their first time in Charlotte, they didn’t know how cool it was, so I was really excited to hear that.”

Walker grew up in a very different world, the Bronx in New York. However, his story of not having a lot of money — spending his days after school at the Boys and Girls Club — and having to work hard has resonated with the city and its residents.

So has his loyalty. Walker has not tried to push his way out the door despite the franchise not putting players around him who can win consistently. (Walker is a free agent this summer and will have options, although the Hornets want to re-sign him and will break the bank to do so, and Walker has professed his love for the city and sounded like a guy who wants to re-sign.)

This season’s Charlotte team is a good example of what Walker faces. It feels like Walker against the world — the team is 6.2 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits, mostly because the offense falls apart. The team’s second best player is Jeremy Lamb. Or maybe Cody Zeller. Walker has pushed Charlotte to a 27-30 record this season, good enough for seventh in the East at the All-Star break, but just half a game ahead on nine-seed Miami and one up on surging Orlando. Charlotte also has the toughest remaining schedule in the East over its final 25 games, and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 45 percent chance to make the playoffs.

“Hopefully my teammates are getting some rest now, because when this weekend is over we need to make a strong, strong push,” Walker said of the team’s playoff drive. “We have a pretty tough schedule.”

But that’s for next week.

For the remainder of this weekend, Walker — and his mother — are around and just trying to soak it all in. He admitted it’s been surreal to be named an All-Star starter the season the game is in Charlotte, and he wants to make sure those fans who love him and chant his name get a show.

“I’m going to enjoy it, but I’m definitely going to go out there and compete and try to get a win,” Walker said. “Put on a show for the fans.”

Damian Lillard opposes idea of later NBA season start running into summer

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At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference a few weeks back (although it feels like a lifetime ago), Atlanta  CEO Steve Koonin suggested the NBA should permanently shift its schedule to a mid-December start with the Finals running into August. The idea was to stop going head-to-head with the NFL and college football at the start of the season. Then the pushed back playoffs forced by the coronavirus have made that discussion more relevant. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said everything is on the table.

Damian Lillard is not a fan of the idea.

He likes the schedule just the way it is, something he said during a video conference with the media on Tuesday, hat tip to Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Portland.

“I just don’t see it. I mean, the season starts when it starts now, then February all-star weekend, getting toward the end of the season in April and then getting into the playoffs. You get that early June Finals and then you get to go off into your summer…

“You get to enjoy real-time summer,” Lillard said. “Our break is into the summer and then you get to come back as summer is leaving. I think that’s been perfect…

“It’s been perfect for us,” Lillard said. “So, for that to change and for things to be pushed back, I’m definitely not a fan of that and I don’t see many guys being a fan of that.”

Lillard is not alone in thinking this way, but Silver is more open to change than most sports commissioners. That said, changes that break with long-standing traditions are hard to make a reality.

There would be a lot of questions around a schedule change. Would the ratings still be as high for a Finals series in the heart of the summer? The NBA season no longer would sync with the NCAA or international leagues’ schedules, leading to questions about the draft and timing for players who want to test the waters. There would need to be reworked television contracts, both regionally and nationally. It could make scheduling a challenge at arenas used to having more concerts and other events in the summer.

Plus, all of this would need to be negotiated with the players union — and Lillard speaks for a lot of players on this issue.

If the NBA could somehow convince players that starting later meant more money in their pocket, those union negotiations would take on a different tone. But would the move increase revenue? That’s not an easy sell.

With this NBA season likely running late, the start of next season could be pushed back, and this theory could get a little bit of a test. Or, the next season could be shortened a little to get the league back on its regular schedule.

Which would make Lillard happy.

Report: NBA deprioritizing playing regular-season games for local TV

Steve Kerr and LeBron James before NBA game
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The NBA is financially incentivized to play more regular-season games to satisfy local-TV contracts.

How does that square with resuming play – currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic – with a play-in tournament and playoffs?

It doesn’t.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

According to one source, getting some teams to a magical number of 70 regular-season games had been a goal, but in the last week has taken on less of a priority.

This stoppage is going to cost the NBA a lot of money. There’s no way around that. Not every source of revenue can be preserved. It’s about finding the optimal setup.

Importantly, canceling games could allow the NBA to reduce player salaries through force majeure. Of course, the union would consider that action when negotiating how to proceed.

LeBron James advocated for playing some regular-season games before the playoffs so everyone could get back into shape. But Steve Kerr called it very unlikely the Warriors would play another regular-season game. Perhaps, playoff-bound teams like the Lakers will play tune-up regular-season games while Golden State – the only team officially eliminated from the playoff race before the hiatus – doesn’t. It’d be a little odd to have such different formats, though. (Then again, these are odd times).

Considering this report, we ought to give more credence to the idea that Kerr knows something about the NBA’s plan and that the regular season is finished.

Lakers update that all players ‘currently symptom-free of COVID-19’

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Nearly two weeks ago, the Lakers announced that two of their players tested positive for the coronavirus. “Both players are currently asymptomatic, in quarantine and under the care of the team’s physician… All players and members of the Lakers staff are being asked to continue to observe self-quarantine,” the Lakers said at that time.

On Tuesday, the team provided an update saying nobody on the team is showing any symptoms after a couple of weeks of quarantine.

“All Lakers players are currently symptom-free of COVID-19. The team will continue to follow the health and safety guidelines set by government officials, the Lakers and the NBA,” the statement said.

The Lakers’ players who tested positive were never publicly identified (in fitting with HIPAA regulations).

A total of 10 NBA players — plus five members of staff associated with teams — have tested positive for the virus that has upended life in the United States. None reportedly have had to be hospitalized. Players such as Marcus Smart and others have recovered and free from the virus.

The NBA remains suspended, with the league hoping to jump-start the playoffs in June, possibly with all the teams in one location.

Report: NBA won’t hold draft until after season

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The NBA draft is scheduled for June 25. Most expect that date to change as the coronavirus pandemic causes postponements around the world.

Apparently, the draft will come after the NBA season – whether the season is completed in a modified format or just cancelled.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I think everybody in the league feels it’s almost impossible to have a draft if you still have a season that’s ongoing.

You can’t have a draft while teams are still playing. You can’t have some teams able to do trades because their season’s done and then some teams unable to do trades because they’re still playing.

It doesn’t strike me as difficult to hold the draft before the season ends. Teams wouldn’t be allowed to trade current players. The restriction would apply across the board, just like the interrupted pre-draft process. That’s not ideal, but compromises must be made amid this chaos.

Importantly, holding the draft sooner could appeal to both sides of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

It’d be an opportunity to hold a revenue-producing TV event. Obviously, drafted players wouldn’t attend a mass gathering. But with sports fans starved for content, people would watch the selections. A handshake with NBA commissioner Adam Silver is only a small part of the festivities.

The National Basketball Players Association should also push for an earlier draft. Prospects want information sooner so they can prepare for their next step – whether that’s the NBA, returning to college or playing overseas. That said, the union has bigger priorities than potential future members.

So, it’s easy to see why postponing the draft has gained momentum, even if that’s not a no-brainer solution.