After Kemba Walker scored 60 on Saturday, chatter grew that it was proof that the Hornets should offer the all-star guard a maximum-value contract this summer as he hits unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. Rick Bonnell’s column captures the sentiment.
One game shouldn’t determine such a hefty matter, of course, but the explosion was a strong reminder that Kemba is the best thing Charlotte’s had going since it got an NBA franchise back in 2004.
But the sentiment is all wrong. Saturday’s game isn’t proof the Hornets should do whatever it takes to keep Kemba. It’s proof Kemba should do whatever it takes to leave the Hornets.
Charlotte lost that game with Walker dropping 60 on 61 percent shooting. Why? Because most of the rest of the Hornets stink. Kemba had 60 on 21-34 shooting. The other Hornets scored 59 points on 21-65 shooting. And because of that, Charlotte lost by three in the best game of their best player’s career.
The Hornets have been a nightmare most of Kemba’s career. He has two playoff appearances, the first an unceremonious sweep at the hands of the last LeBron-Wade-Bosh Heat team and the second a 7-game heartbreaker to the ... uh, Goran Dragic-Hassan Whiteside Heat in 2016 after a 48-win season. The Hornets are 231-342 (.403) in the seven years and change since drafting Walker. One of those years was the worst season in NBA history.
Kemba’s on his fourth head coach. It’s hard to say how many co-stars he’s had, because none of them have actually been stars. He played with mid-career Al Jefferson — those two are the reason Charlotte made the playoffs in 2014 — and has been a part of some of the best of Marvin Williams. Nicolas Batum had one good season in Charlotte, a campaign that landed the Frenchman $120 million worth of Hornets’ regret.
The pairing with Walker led to the 48-win season and high hopes. Charlotte’s won 36 games in each season since then.
This 60-point game is proof that Walker should be Charlotte’s highest-paid player? No. The last seven seasons are proof that Walker should be the Hornets’ franchise cornerstone, that Charlotte should be breaking every piggy bank in the Carolinas to keep him.
Walker is a 28-year-old, two-time NBA All-Star despite playing for a smaller-market, mediocre team. Franchise like Charlotte dream of players like this. No, he’s not a future MVP or even an All-NBA first teamer, but he’s really very good in any context — there’s no question about that, as there had been with Batum.
Charlotte’s primary goal shouldn’t be debating whether he’s worth the dough. Its primary goal should be convincing Kemba that Charlotte is worth the best years of his career.
In the draft and free agency and on the trade market ever since Walker arrived in June 2011, the Hornets have failed to convince Kemba that Charlotte is worth the best years of his career. Through multiple front offices, with multiple strategies, the Hornets have failed to give Kemba a supporting cast he can consistently lead to victory.
Saturday’s game was a microcosm of the last seven years — an exaggerated example, no doubt, but a fitting rebuke to that franchise. Here you have one of the most dynamic guards on the planet, at the peak of his powers in a new era of electric scoring where outside-in dynamism is one of the most valuable traits, and he’s on a 7-8 team whose second-best asset is a late-lottery rookie (Miles Bridges).
Batum, by the way, scored zero points on 0-4 shooting in 18 minutes. Malik Monk, last year’s lottery pick, was 0-5 from the floor in 11 minutes. Frank Kaminsky, a top-10 pick in his third season, is out of the rotation. Legend Tony Parker, Charlotte’s big free agent pickup the summer before Kemba hit unrestricted status, had two points and five assists in 15 minutes. Cody Zeller, picked No. 4 overall in 2013 to be Kemba’s co-star of the future, has averaged better than 10 points per game once in his career.
This is what the Hornets have given Kemba. The least they could do now is give him $189 million over five years as an apology if nothing else.
If Kemba likes Charlotte (a wonderful city), if he likes playing for Michael Jordan (what a strange thrill that must be), if he likes his teammates, his stability, his new coach James Borrego, his future as the best player on a team that bounces between mediocre and respectful but never more, then Walker should take the money. If he wants to make a bigger imprint on the NBA, he has to consider his options on July 1.
Charlotte owes Kemba that max offer, but Kemba doesn’t owe it to the Hornets to take it. That team has seven years to prove it’s capable of putting a consistently good roster around him so that his 60-point nights don’t come in vain.