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Top free agent everyone seems to think they can poach, Kemba Walker, focused on Hornets playoff push

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DETROIT – Kemba Walker got up from his seat, headed toward pregame warmups then returned to his locker apparently because he forgot something. Then, he again headed toward the door and again returned before finally exiting the locker room.

Is Walker in or out?

That’ll be the big question for him and the Hornets this summer. Walker is approaching his first free agency. If he makes an All-NBA team this season, he’ll qualify for a super-max contract that projects to be worth $221 million over five years.

In the meantime, Charlotte has won three straight – including yesterday’s big victory over the Pistons – to remain in the playoff race. Walker insists he’s focused on finishing this season strong, not setting up his next contract.

“There’s no way I could play basketball thinking about those kind of things,” Walker said. “You know what I mean? Yeah, I just can’t. I just can’t go on the court thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get 30 because I need to.’ I just can’t think about those kind of things. I mean, I see it, hear about it. But it’s nothing that comes to my attention too much.”

The noise will grow only louder as July nears. Walker feels more attainable than most star free agents.

Kevin Durant could leave the Warriors, but most view him as ticketed for the Knicks. If Kawhi Leonard leaves the Raptors, he’s widely expected to join the Clippers. Kyrie Irving is most commonly linked to the Celtics and Knicks – not a wide-open field. Klay Thompson can say only so many times how badly he wants to stay with the Warriors.

But rumors are already swirling about Walker leaving Charlotte. No clear destinations have emerged, though the Mavericks are reportedly interested. That opens the door for many fan bases to view landing Walker as realistic.

Don’t rule out the Hornets, either.

“This is the team that believed in me from day one,” Walker said. “So, of course. They’re always going to be on top of the list.”

If there’s any bitterness Charlotte must overcome, a $221 million super-max contract could go a long way. Sans super-max, Walker’s max projects to be $190 million over four years if he re-signs or $141 million over four years if he leaves.

But Walker must make an All-NBA team even to be eligible for the designated-veteran-player contract. That’s hardly a given.

James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving seem highly likely to take four of the six All-NBA guard spots. That leaves two spots up for grabs with Walker, Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson and Jrue Holiday the main candidates.

Walker has fallen off after a hot start to the season, but he remains highly effective on a team built around him.

Walker has been Charlotte’s lone star for years. The Hornets are usually solid when plays and awful when he sits. Walker – not owner Michael Jordan – was the face of the franchise as Charlotte hosted All-Star Weekend.

“As he go, we go,” Jeremy Lamb said.

Yet, the Hornets haven’t gotten far with Walker. They’ve made the playoffs only twice and have never won a series with Walker. If he re-signs, Charlotte – which has never paid the luxury tax – will face major payroll concerns. Especially if Walker gets the super-max.

It’s far from a given the Hornets would or should pay Walker that much, even if he qualifies. He’ll turn 29 next month, and short guards can decline quickly.

On the other hand, Charlotte also projects to be taxed out even if Walker leaves. If the Hornets are stuck in a dismal situation regardless, maybe they’d be better off with the franchise icon who can at least keep them competitive.

Walker has certainly done that this season. Whatever speculation occurs about his future, he set a tone of steadiness.

“I think the biggest thing that Kemba tries to establish, obviously as the leader of our team, is that this is the team that he’s on,” Marvin Williams said. “This is the only thing that he’s focusing on. And as a teammate, it does give you a good feeling knowing that he is all-in, he’s not thinking about this summer.”

Walker appears to be enjoying the playoff race, especially considering the Hornets were three games and two teams out of playoff position with five games remaining. Now, they’re only one game back with two games left.

“It’s crazy that we’re in this situation,” Walker said. It’s been such an up-and-down year. For us to be in this situation, it’s fun, man. I’m really enjoying it. I’m happy to still be playing for something.”

This summer, other teams will offer Walker a clearer opportunity to play for something. They’ll try to convince Walker he deserves his meaningful games to come in May and June, not April. They’ll sell deeper playoff runs and stronger supporting casts.

And maybe Walker will choose one of those situations. But he also said just over a year ago he’d be “devastated” if Charlotte traded him. He has laid roots there and grown accustomed to playing for the Hornets.

Asked about Detroit keying on him yesterday, Walker shrugged.

“That’s every night for me,” Walker. “I know I’m the guy that every team is trying to stop.”

Soon, he’ll be the guy many teams are trying to get.

Doc Rivers said Clippers knew Thunder wanted to breakup Westbrook/George combo

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Oklahoma City looked like a small market success story — they had Russell Westbrook (he stayed and re-signed for the max) and rolled the dice on Paul George, and then he stayed. It was a top-heavy roster (Stephen Adams makes a lot of money, too) but one that won 49 games… and then got bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Portland.

That playoff loss seemed to show a ceiling for the Westbrook/George Thunder and had the franchise doing some soul searching.

However, in the wake of George forcing his way to the Clippers in a trade, rumors bubbled up that teams thought the Thunder wanted out of their expensive, non-contending team. Clippers coach Doc Rivers confirmed they knew that, speaking to Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times.

“We showed [Leonard] everybody else and he didn’t want to hear it. He just stayed on Paul George, so after the meeting we sat down and I said, ‘We got to get Paul George. I don’t know how we are going to do it, but we have to do it.’ We did know that Oklahoma City wanted to break their team up, so that helped, but we didn’t know if we could get him.”

Turns out they could get him, but the price was high — one the Clippers saw as worth it, but steep nonetheless. For the Thunder, that high price is the foundation of a rebuild.

How did the Thunder get there?

After Damian Lillard sank his “shot for Seattle” that sent the Thunder home for the summer, it seems all the soul-searching in OKC had them thinking about breaking it all up earlier rather than later. If they really felt this is as far as they could go with Westbrook and George — and it would have been tough to put a much better team around them due to cap limitations, either way this was a team that needed a lot of things to go right to get out of the first round — then it made sense to move on if the right deal came along.

Fans in Oklahoma City have never had to sit through an NBA rebuild, the team that showed up from Seattle may have won only 29 games that first season but had Kevin Durant and Westbrook and was already a team on the rise. After that, the team has never won fewer than 45 games, had one Finals trip and years of contention. There’s going to be some ugly basketball in OKC for a few years, we will see how that market reacts.

League executives reportedly think Clippers are better than Lakers, but by how much?

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis is the best two-man duo on the NBA.

If this were a classic game of NBA Jam, everyone would pick them to win it all.

However, NBA basketball remains a 5-on-5 sport where rotation players, depth, and fit all matter. A lot. Especially for contenders.

In that context, the Lakers’ Staples Center roommates — the Clippers — are better poised to win it all. The Clippers have Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, JaMychal Green, and a team that was both tough to play against and made the playoffs before Kawhi Leonard and Paul George showed up.

Don’t take my word for it, Ethan Straus of The Athletic polled some NBA executives about the Lakers and Clippers and got this response:

Everyone agrees that it exists, but to varying degrees. In league circles, Lakers skepticism has burbled about for some time, before and after Anthony Davis awkwardly made his way to Los Angeles. Questions of fit and chemistry persist, and many are noting just how many games LeBron James has played up to this point. Like the Warriors, the Lakers are also lacking in perimeter defense, in a league where it seems to matter more than ever….

Shoulder injuries are unpredictable and George will be out for a lengthy stretch. Given that Kawhi Leonard already only plays so many games, the Clippers might struggle to keep pace in the standings. As one executive put it re: the Los Angeles gap, “There is a big gap in likelihood of winning the title. Not sure about reg season wins.”

What makes the Clippers the favorite going into the season is not simply Leonard and George, it’s that they have two of the elite two-way wings in the NBA, and those kinds of players at that position have a great track record of playoff success. The Clippers should be a strong defensive unit that can throw a lot of different looks and players at teams, but also one that can score efficiently. Then they bring Williams and Harrell off the bench for a jolt of energy and scoring. Doc Rivers knows how to coach and meld a team. There’s a lot to like.

There are a lot of questions with the Clippers, there are just far more with the Lakers — nobody really trusts their role players to all fit well, there’s coaching staff turnover, and then there’s the question of whether LeBron’s injury last season was a one-off fluke or the start of a trend for the 35-year-old.

The Los Angeles squads are not alone, every contender this season has some serious questions to answer. It’s what makes this season so fascinating and different from recent ones.

Klay Thompson on Trump: “I didn’t appreciate the language he used with Bahamians”

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Klay Thompson has said it before and is saying it again:

He’s pissed at what President Donald Trump said and did in the wake of the destruction hurricane Dorian brought to the 700-island nation of the Bahamas, where at least 51 people died (that number is likely very low, with more than 1,300 people still listed as missing).

Thompson has deep ties to the Bahamas. His father Mychal — a former No. 1 NBA draft pick who was a member of the Showtime Lakers — was born there. The Thompson family has long had a special relationship with the island, with Klay having spent a lot of time there in his youth. Klay felt the need to defend the Bahamas after the Trump Administration did not grant “Temporary Protected Status” to the people fleeing the destruction on the island so they could come work and live in the USA until it was safe to return.

Thompson spoke to Mark Medina of the USA Today.

“I didn’t appreciate the language he used with Bahamians,” Thompson told USA TODAY Sports. “They’re gang members and criminals? I’ve known Bahamians my whole life. Yes, there are criminals in Nassau. But there are criminals worldwide. When you lose everything, your home, your loved ones and thousands are dead, and then you generalize a whole population, I thought it was very very ill advised and bad timing. That language really (ticked) me off.”

Trump, while not granting “temporary protected status” to the people of the Bahamas fleeing the destruction from Dorian, said “I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers.”

“He’s wrong about the gang affiliations over there,” Mychal said. “There are people over there that are good people. Hard-working people. So he was wrong with that statement. I don’t think (other) Americans have misconceptions about Bahamians. We don’t have gang problems and that type of hard problems in the Bahamas. We have people who are in need and in poverty. But for the most part, Bahamians are great people and help each other out in times of need. That’s what they’re doing right now.”

Klay and Mychal, through their family foundation and a golf fundraiser with proceeds going to Bahamas relief, think they will donate about $1 million to the relief effort.

It’s going to take billions of dollars and many years for the Bahamas to return anywhere near its former self. The Thompson family is raising money, but more importantly, is raising awareness. It’s the start of a long, long process.

Thompson himself continues his recovery from a torn ACL suffered during the NBA Finals, an injury that will keep him out for much, and potentially all, of next season.

Clippers reportedly plan on playing Kawhi Leonard more than Raptors did last season

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Kawhi Leonard was the poster child for load management last season.

The Raptors essentially let him set his own schedule in a return from the quadricep tendon issue that cost him the previous season (and, ultimately, helped ruin his relationship with the Spurs). Leonard played in just 60 regular season game — and it worked. He was a force in the playoffs, leading Toronto to its first-ever title and winning Finals MVP again.

So the Clippers are going to follow that same script, right? Nope. Expect to see more Leonard, according to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this. One is that Leonard may be feeling a little healthier and that he can take on more now. With a deep Clippers roster (especially once Paul George returns from his shoulder surgeries) it’s also possible the Clippers can limit Leonard’s in-game minutes, he averaged 34 a game when he played, which was top 20 in the league.

The bigger factor is the West is so deep with good teams the Clippers simply can’t have him sit as much and still get a good seed. Toronto could let Leonard rest and still won 58 games and had the two seed. That’s not how the West — with the Lakers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Warriors — is going to go. The Clippers are going to need Leonard to win games most nights, and they certainly want to get a top-four seed and be home to start the postseason.

Leonard may play more early in the season and get more rest on the back half, once George returns to form and takes over some of the load on the wing. But he’s going to play.

The Clippers simply need him.