The Anthony Davis sweepstakes might have to wait

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USA Today Sports

The Anthony Davis sweepstakes might have to wait

This generation’s best big man has made it known: He wants out. 

Anthony Davis, who can be a free agent in 2020, informed the New Orleans Pelicans he will not sign an extension this summer and would like to be traded. Davis is eligible for a five-year, $240 million supermax extension this summer, but he has indicated, through his agent Rich Paul, that he’s not interested. 

This was not a total surprise. As I detailed earlier this month, the Pelicans have a 240-302 (.443) record in the Brow era, which, amazingly, is a smidge worse than Charlotte -- the franchise that lost out on Davis following a 7-59 season and drafted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist instead. The Pelicans have struggled to outfit Davis with a worthy supporting cast, and here we are.

The ten-day countdown to the Feb. 7 trade deadline has begun with fireworks. You can bet that every trade discussion from here on out will begin with a Davis update. 

But here are three reasons why Davis will likely stay in New Orleans until this summer.

1. Boston Celtics can’t really play ball until July 1

On paper, the Celtics are the most logical Davis destination. Jayson Tatum still can’t legally order an adult beverage. Jaylen Brown, as a 21-year-old, averaged 19.7 points per game in last year’s Eastern Conference finals while often guarding LeBron James. Boston could have three, possibly four, first-round picks in the upcoming draft. Marcus Smart’s contract, with an average salary of $13 million through 2021-22, when combined with Tatum and Brown’s deals, magically adds up to roughly Davis’ salary. (This was not by accident).

So when news broke on Monday morning, Celtics president Danny Ainge called up the Pelicans and offered the godfather deal, right? 

There’s one problem to that plan: By rule, the Celtics can’t acquire Davis to play with Kyrie Irving … until this summer. That’s because of a collective bargaining agreement quirk that does not allow teams to have multiple designated veteran players on the roster that were acquired via trade (scroll to Question 24 on Larry Coon’s indispensable cbafaq.com to learn more). Kyrie Irving is one, from the Cleveland deal. Davis would be the other.

That doesn’t mean Irving and Davis can’t play with each other; it just means that it can’t happen at this trade deadline. The good news for Boston is that Irving could forgo his player option and become a free agent on July 1 and sign a long-term contract with Boston. That would mean he wasn’t “acquired via trade” anymore, which would open the door for the Celtics to trade for Davis. 

Of course, Ainge could just put Irving into a deal for Davis and be done with it. Though it’s an unlikely scenario, don’t put it past Ainge. This is the same executive who traded Isaiah Thomas at peak cult-hero status in Boston. Irving needed multiple surgeries in his right knee last season to clear up complications resulting from a fractured knee cap suffered in the 2015 Finals. Could that scare the Celtics out of making him a franchise pillar? 

Probably not. The expectation around the league is that the Celtics will wait until this summer before jumping into the Davis sweepstakes. While the Celtics have the most to offer, it’s not a given that they’d win the Brow sweepstakes. Many still believe that the Lakers are the ultimate destination.

“Ainge will do what he can, but I don’t think AD wants to be there,” said one Eastern Conference executive.

Maybe that’s wishful thinking from a decision-maker that would have to face Davis more if he’s dealt to his conference. But it is interesting that the trade wish didn’t come with more demands.

Davis’ agent reportedly told New York Times’ Marc Stein that Davis hasn’t made a preferred destination list. That being said, the sentiment around the league is that the Lakers are the endgame. Davis’ agent also represents LeBron James, and the chance to play with him while in the L.A. market might give Davis the best chance to make up the forgone supermax money from New Orleans.

There’s just one issue with that idea.

2. The potential Lakers package has gotten worse

Let’s be clear: No one wants to see anybody get injured. But Boston’s chances of landing AD this summer were indirectly boosted by Lonzo Ball’s Grade-3 ankle sprain suffered last week. The recovery time of four to six weeks will sideline the 2017 No. 2 overall pick through the trade deadline, undoubtedly making things a little more difficult in potential trade talks. 

When James signed with the Lakers this past summer, Ball was seen as a crown jewel in a potential Davis deal. But two weeks after James made his commitment, Ball needed arthroscopic surgery to remove part of his meniscus in his problematic left knee. Despite that surgery, Lakers president Magic Johnson saw big things for Ball, telling reporters at a preseason press conference that the point guard was “going to be ready to have a breakout season.”

That hasn’t exactly happened. Ball’s free-throw stroke is broken and his output has been wildly inconsistent this season. Then he got hurt. The truth is that the left leg has been giving him issues all season. He turned his ankle at an early November practice and then needed X-Rays on it a few weeks later after turning it again in a loss against the Nuggets. In late December, he had to leave a game because his left calf muscle was cramping up. And then, the Grade-3 ankle sprain.

If Pelicans GM Dell Demps and the team’s brass love Ball’s game enough, the mounting injuries to Ball may not matter. I’m still a big fan of Lonzo’s skills, but the leg issues have become more of a concern than his shot.

Ball’s spell of injuries is just one of the several misfortunes that have soured Lakers’ potential AD package. Brandon Ingram’s shot has badly regressed in Year 3. Josh Hart is a solid role player but has distinct limitations; he has scored double-digits in just one of his last nine games. Kyle Kuzma has had a nice season, but he’s shooting 28 percent on 7.3 3-point attempts per game since James went down. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope turns 26 years old in a month.

Look, PER isn’t the end-all, be-all by any stretch of the imagination. But it can’t be a good sign that none of Kuzma, Ball, Ingram and Hart have a PER north of 15, the metric’s benchmark for league average. Kuzma is exactly league average (15.0). This season, there are 22 players in their age-23 season or younger with at least 1,000 minutes played that are more productive by that measure (former Lakers first-round pick D’Angelo Russell, at 18.8, is one of them). Denver has three such youngsters, per Basketball Reference.

If you don’t like PER (it does have its warts), the other metrics paint a darker picture of the Lakers’ supporting cast. LeBron is the only Laker in the top 75 in ESPN’s RPM. JaVale McGee is the only non-LeBron Laker to rank top-100 in win shares. Ingram checks in at 418th in RPM, 363rd in win shares per minute and 350th in box plus-minus. Ingram is better than that, but it has to be alarming that a 6-foot-9 shooter has made 21 3s all season.

With Ingram and Ball having down years, who’s the Lakers’ most valuable youngster in 2019? If it’s Kuzma by default, then that’s a bad look for the Lakers, who drafted No. 2 overall for three out of the last four drafts. You know which players were No. 3 in the last two drafts? Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. In an alternate universe, the Lakers could already have Davis by now with Tatum and Brown starting next to Jrue Holiday in New Orleans. The Pelicans could wait and make that Holiday-Tatum-Brown dream a reality but send Davis to Boston instead. Funny how that works.

Front offices across the NBA are waiting for the “preferred trade destination” news to break, which for many seems like an inevitability at this point. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Jimmy Butler all went this route.

Depending on who you ask, LeBron’s presence in L.A. is either the draw or the deal-breaker. Some executives point to Davis’ quiet personality as a reason he’d prefer playing sidekick to LeBron and letting the King take the spotlight. Some point to that very thing -- Davis’ reserved temperament -- as the reason why he’d hate Los Angeles and the LeLakers.

That Davis hasn’t made his preferences be known is telling. It’s also added a layer of uncertainty on top of an already cloudy situation. But there’s one variable that could shift the entire equation.

3. Zion Williamson 

Most AD watchers have Feb. 7 circled on their calendars because it’s trade deadline day, but May 14 may be just as important. That’s the night of the draft lottery when the NBA finds out who will win the chance to draft Duke’s Zion Williamson, who is currently averaging 25 points per game in conference play on -- this is not a typo -- 70.4 percent shooting. 

Right now, there’s too much uncertainty at the bottom of the NBA standings to accurately gauge how much a trade package is worth. Let’s say the Bulls feel good about convincing Anthony Davis to sign longterm in his hometown of Chicago (whether they should feel optimistic is a story for another day). The Bulls could call up Demps this week and put Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter and its 2019 first-round draft pick on the table --- that’s a really nice return for the Pelicans. 

But four months from now, that pick could fall to No. 4, a devastating blow in a top-heavy draft. If the Bulls win the draft lottery, they jump to the front of the line in the Davis sweepstakes. At the very least, the market will be much, much clearer come May 14; figuring out what an unprotected pick is worth today is like shooting darts in the dark. 

Remember, if the Kings -- who have lost four of their last six games -- continue to slide and “win” the draft lottery, the pick goes to Philadelphia because of the pick protections in the Markelle Fultz trade (Philadelphia traded the Kings’ 2019 first-round pick to Boston in order to move up and draft Fultz, but added a top-one protection). Philadelphia doesn’t appear to be a major player for Davis now, but that could change at the drop of a ping-pong ball.

Chicago is a fascinating destination because they have young pieces, a top pick and the hometown element. That package is not something that the other basement-dwellers can match. Because of the new draft lottery rules, the worst five teams -- currently Cleveland, New York, Phoenix, Chicago and Atlanta -- have anywhere between 14- and 10.5-percent odds. Those percentages will likely pose far too much risk for the Pelicans to make a deal at the deadline. 

You think the market for Davis is crazy now? Once those picks become known, the trade winds will blow even louder.

Buy or sell? Checking in at NBA's one-month mark

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NBC Sports

Buy or sell? Checking in at NBA's one-month mark

Well, that was quick. We’ve reached the one-month mark of the 2019-20 NBA season and, admittedly, it’s been a bit of a rocky start. Between the Golden State Warriors falling apart, a slew of PED suspensions hitting the league, and rookie sensation Zion Williamson still sitting out, things have not exactly gone as advertised.

But there are plenty of other feel-good storylines and fascinating developments that have made the season a pleasure to watch. Let’s highlight five trends that I’m buying or selling at this stage of the season.

BUY: Luka Doncic, MVP candidate

Don’t look now but the Dallas Mavericks have the top offense in the loaded Western Conference so far, scoring 112.9 points per 100 possessions. Can the average NBA fan name more than two starters on that team?

It starts with Doncic, who is averaging an astounding 28.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 9.1 assists for the 6-4 Mavericks. Those stats aren’t juiced by a turbo-charged NBA; Unlike the rapid-fire Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks, the Mavericks rank just 20th in the league in pace. Instead, Doncic is seeing the game faster in his sophomore season and, well, he’s playing a lot faster, too.

Following a rookie season in which he was noticeably doughier, Doncic looks like he’s in better shape this season after taking the summer off from national basketball. A source close to Doncic says he’s largely kept away from bread and sugary foods as part of his effort to prepare for the 82-game grind. That’s no small thing for a 20-year-old who flies around the world for a living.

Doncic has trimmed the fat in his game too. He has taken two -- two! -- shots between 16 feet and the 3-point arc this season, per NBA.com tracking. One was an 18-foot floater, which he made. The other was a late-game mid-range pull-up in the epic showdown against the Lakers (he missed). Doncic probably has a slick mid-range jumper, but he’s too good around the rim to settle there.

Like I mentioned on the Habershow with Brandon Payne, Doncic is a puppeteer. At least once a game, he’ll get a 7-footer to bite on his pump-fake in the lane and giggle on his way back on defense after he lays it in uncontested. It’s mean. He’s currently shooting 64.6 percent on shots in the paint, per NBA.com. Only three players have converted a higher percentage with at least 75 attempts in the paint: Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those three are dunk factories. Doncic has one dunk so far.

Doncic’s bag of tricks goes deeper than almost any NBA player at this point. And he will only get better as Kristaps Porzingis shakes off some rust and takes some pressure off of the Slovenian. The Luka hype is very real. 

SELL: The coach’s challenge

Doc Rivers has said it over and over: He hates the newly instituted coach’s challenge. And that’s probably because coaches aren’t winning the challenge much, if at all. 

Outside of the occasional out-of-bounds challenge, it’s been a frustrating experience for NBA coaches. Through Sunday’s games, there have been 95 coach’s challenges, with 32 calls being overturned, a success rate of just 34 percent. Drilling down even further, challenges on foul calls have only produced a 30 percent success rate, which makes sense given the nature of personal foul calls (Again, Doc really hates this rule.). The more clear-cut judgment calls -- out-of-bounds plays, specifically -- have been successful in six of the 11 challenges. That also makes sense; those plays are easier to see.

Behavioral economists will have a field day with the other aspects of the data. The league offers by-quarter breakdowns, which show that only six percent of the challenges have come in the first quarter, but those first-quarter challenges are tied with the second quarter challenges for the best success rate at 50 percent. Challenges in the fourth quarter, when coaches are possibly more emotional and using a might-as-well-burn-it mentality with the challenge, have the worst overturn rate at 24 percent. 

I don’t think the overturn rate is high enough to justify the buzzkilling stoppage in play. Fourth quarters in the NBA are long enough as it is and the overturn rate is so low that it’s mostly a waste of time. Tracking data from inpredictable.com provided to NBC Sports shows that NBA games this season are, on average, two hours and 16.4 minutes long, which is 2.6 minutes longer than this time last season.

The NBA deserves big kudos for transparency in this space. They didn’t just open their referees to extra scrutiny by implementing the coach’s challenge, but they’re also publishing the data from them to their media website. It’s also good for fans to know that the league wants to get calls right, but this is a one-year trial that fans shouldn’t expect to stick. Most of the head coaches I contacted agree with Doc. When asked whether he was for or against the coach’s challenge, one NBA coach simply responded back: “Ugh.” Another’s take from a long-time coach: “I’m a coach, not an official. Gets me focusing on the wrong things. Hate it.” And no, that’s not a quip from Toronto coach Nick Nurse, who finally got one overturned after six unsuccessful tries.

But here's my favorite bit of data. Every coach in the NBA had used the coach’s challenge through Tuesday’s games. Except for one: Gregg Popovich. That streak ended on Wednesday night when he challenged a foul call on LaMarcus Aldridge. 

Popovich lost the appeal. He may never do it again.

SELL: The Phoenix Suns are a playoff team

To be clear, I love what the Suns are doing right now. I’m a proud subscriber to the Aron Baynes Fan Club feed. That satirical Twitter account has been replying to viral NBA tweets with insanely pro-Baynes propaganda for years and it is somehow becoming more accurate by the day. Since being salary-dumped by the Boston Celtics this summer, Baynes has been absolutely fantastic as DeAndre Ayton’s fill-in, averaging 16.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists with a 70 percent effective field-goal percentage (weighted for 3-pointers). Yes, Aron Baynes!

He’s the face of a suddenly very-grown-up Suns team under new head coach Monty Williams, who last coached a fiery New Orleans Pelicans team that held its own against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in the 2015 playoffs. After fielding the second-youngest roster in the league last season, the Suns added actual adults like Baynes and Ricky Rubio to the starting lineup next to Devin Booker and now they’re playing like an actual playoff contender. Three of Phoenix’s four losses went down to the final minute, including Tuesday night’s close loss to the Lakers. This is a team that could be 9-1 with a couple bounces going their way.

So why am I selling? This feels like a best-case scenario start to the season. Booker and Baynes aren’t going to make half their 3s all season. And I think Ayton coming back will actually hurt them. While his 25-game suspension looks bad from an optics standpoint, I think it actually helps the team win in the short-term with Baynes filling in his minutes. 

He wasn’t the No. 1 overall pick, but Baynes does the little things that don’t show up in the box score. Baynes pancakes opponents on screens, ranks fifth in box-outs and is second in charges taken -- all while playing in just 24.3 minutes per game. Ayton, meanwhile, was among the least-impactful rim protectors in the league last season. It’s hard to imagine the Suns bringing their franchise big man off the bench, especially since he’s a favorite of Suns owner Robert Sarver, a fellow Arizona Wildcat. They could trade Baynes and his $5.8 million expiring contract to a contender. You know who could really use him? That team in Boston.

SELL: LeBron James’ double-digit assists

Just when you think you know a guy. In his 17th NBA season, James is averaging a career-high and league-leading 11.1 assists per game. He has never compiled this many assists in the opening 10 games of the season. The closest he came to this level was in 2016-17 when he registered 97 assists and 37 turnovers in the Cavs’ first ten games. This season, he has 110 assists, and four fewer turnovers (34). It’s obscene.

When the trade winds were swirling last February, I declared Anthony Davis as the best teammate LeBron James would ever have, better than Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving. So far, so good. The on-court chemistry between the Klutch clients has been other-wordly. Of James’ 122 assists, 29 of them have been distributed to his new prized big-man Davis. No other Lakers teammate has more than 18, per Basketball Reference tracking

James is certainly on a mission to show love to Davis, who, as Bulls fans will remind you, is an unrestricted free agent this summer. Using data from NBA.com’s stats page, James is feeding 25.5 passes per 36 minutes to Davis while they’re on the floor together. That’s a huge number. For perspective, Jrue Holiday sent 18.4 passes per 36 minutes into Davis’ hands last season when they shared the court. You think James is excited about his new toy?

With that said, I don’t think this keeps up. For one, it’s not a good sign that Davis’ shoulder is already giving him issues. If James’ favorite target goes down for any chunk of time, that’ll obviously hurt the King’s ability to rack up assists. Secondly, Rajon Rondo’s back. Lakers fans know how I feel about this clunky partnership. But the numbers don’t lie: James’ assist rate last season fell from 11.9 assists per 100 possessions without Rondo on the court down to 8.9 per 100 possessions with Rondo on the court, per PBPStats.com tracking

It appears that Davis’ presence has given James new life, especially in the assist column. But Davis’ health and Rondo’s arrival doesn't make me optimistic about James’ ability to set a new career high -- even if the King and the Brow have been a joy to watch so far.

BUY: Pascal Siakam, back-to-back Most Improved Player

I’m all for breaking tradition. I know the Most Improved Player award is conventionally given to an up-and-coming player who ascends from plucky role player to legitimate star. Siakam’s selection last season was just that.

But what about star to MVP candidate? That leap is way harder to pull off and Siakam is doing it right now. You can see the door opening for Siakam’s candidacy. Gordon Hayward and Khris Middleton’s injuries have delivered a significant blow to Boston and Milwaukee’s staying power atop the East. Kyle Lowry’s fractured thumb won’t keep him out nearly as long and Fred VanVleet can fill Lowry’s void better than Hayward and Middleton’s backups can for their respective clubs.

But Siakam is that good. He’s improved his scoring average more this season than he did the previous season, in which he won Most Improved Player. Siakam’s scoring average is higher than LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker entering play Thursday night. And it’s not because of unsustainably hot shooting, like in the case of Brandon Ingram and Booker. Siakam is shooting 49.1 percent from the floor and 37.3 percent from downtown, which is more or less where he’s been in his career. 

The difference -- and this is so difficult in today’s NBA -- is that he’s maintained his efficiency despite nearly doubling his field goal attempts per game from 11.8 last season to 20.9 this year. His improved ball-handling and sharpened shot-making have made him a legitimate scoring alpha. To put Siakam’s scoring load in perspective, the 25-year-old’s usage rate is higher than Kobe Bryant’s in his age-25 season. 

Siakam’s climb is pretty much unprecedented, even when compared to his former Toronto Raptors teammate. It’s cliche to make the Kawhi Leonard parallel, but the truth is that Siakam’s rise has been steeper. Leonard didn’t become “MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard” until his sixth season in the league. This is Siakam’s fourth. And as crazy as Leonard’s ascension was, Siakam rose from a lower floor, averaging just 4.2 points per game in his rookie season after being selected 27th overall in 2016. (It’s early, but Siakam may end up being the best of a class that also features Ben Simmons, Ingram, Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis.)

With the top of Eastern Conference battered and bruised right now, the Toronto Raptors should remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed. If Siakam keeps this up -- and I think he can -- there will be whispers about his MVP campaign. He might not win it, but if there’s a player who deserves to be the first two-time Most Improved Player award, it’s Siakam.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Kemba Walker's departure still stings in Charlotte

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NBC Sports

Kemba Walker's departure still stings in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE -- Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning greet customers as they walk into the buzzing North Davidson Street establishment. Immortalized on a painted mural on the wall, the legendary Charlotte Hornets trio is a deliberate fixture of Salud, a local hangout nestled in Charlotte’s art district.

Jason Glunt, a lifelong Hornets fan, opened Salud’s doors in 2012, two weeks after his daughter Jade was born and three months before Charlotte lost the Anthony Davis draft lottery. Three life-changing events, Glunt says now, with a laugh.

Glunt makes sure the painting -- a reminder of the Hornets’ glory years -- is the first thing people see. The whole place is one big play on nostalgia. The shop’s motto hangs on the wall, “Sour Beer. Old School Hip Hop. Pizza. Nintendo. Salud.” 

Behind the line of beer taps rests a team-issued Kemba Walker campaign poster from the 2015-16 season during the presidential election year, urging voters to “Win With Walker” and stuff the ballot box for Most Improved Player. Fans in Charlotte adore Walker, who ascended from the wreckage of a dreadful 7-59 season and developed into an All-NBA talent. When Charlotte hosted All-Star weekend last year, the team marketed Walker’s All-Star candidacy with the tagline: “His City, His Time.” For years, Glunt kept losing Walker souvenirs in the shop because patrons would take them home.

“I just do old-school Hornets memorabilia,” Glunt says. “But I made an exception for Kemba.”

His daughter Jade grew up watching Walker on a nightly basis, wearing his jersey to games (Jason and Jade share season tickets with Jason’s brother-in-law, Dalton). This summer, when Boston acquired Walker in a sign-and-trade, the 7-year-old asked her father why Walker wanted to leave.

“It’s not that simple,” Jason told her, before attempting to translate complicated cap machinations into terms that a first-grader can understand. 

We couldn’t afford Kemba, you see. 

“She’s so confused,” Glunt says. “It’s really weird here. For kids, Kemba was a good role model. Kids loved him. And he was their size.”

Earlier this season, Glunt flipped through the channels when his daughter saw the Milwaukee Bucks-Boston Celtics game pop up on the TV. She told him to stop.

“Kemba’s on the Celtics,” Jade said. “I want to watch Kemba.”

Together, they watched Walker do the things he used to do in purple and teal. He crossed over the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, for a game-sealing bucket and unleashed a wide grin, celebrating two of his 32 points in a victory over the towering Milwaukee Bucks. Glunt couldn’t help but sigh. He knew what it meant. 

Another beloved Hornet went elsewhere in search of playoff glory.

* * *

In many ways, Walker embodies what a franchise pillar is supposed to be. Selected with the ninth pick in the 2011 draft, the UConn legend became a three-time All-Star and averaged 25.6 points last season while playing in all 82 games. A beacon in the Charlotte community, Walker is a two-time recipient of the NBA Sportsmanship Award and has never been ejected in his NBA career.

Jeremy Lamb knows what kind of person Walker is. He played four seasons with Walker in Charlotte, reuniting with his college teammate after they won a championship together at UConn in 2011. Two years older than Lamb, Walker used to put his arm around Lamb as the freshman struggled in Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun’s system. 

“I didn’t really know my way,” Lamb said. “One day, Kemba told me, ‘Keep working hard and you can do whatever you want on the court. You’ll go as far as you’ll want to go.’ That really stuck with me.”

Last season, when Lamb hit a game-winner at home against Detroit in December, he was mobbed by his teammates and promptly doused with water. In the postgame interview, Walker snuck up from behind him and hugged him on camera, rubbing his head like a big brother. But it was clear this moment went a little deeper for Walker. Lamb had gotten off to a cold start that game, but Walker trusted him with the final shot.

“Of course!” yelled Walker. “That’s my son! I raised him!”

It was hard to see then what laid ahead for the Hornets. Walker and Lamb posted career-highs in scoring, but the Hornets finished 39-43 and out of the playoffs. Charlotte let both players go in free agency. This week, as Walker comes back home to Charlotte, Lamb reminisced about their time in the Queen City.

“Everyone knows he’s a great player on the court,” Lamb said. “But he’s a great person off the court. He continues to get better, continues to be a great leader, night in and night out, he brings it. There’s never any excuses, whether it’s a back-to-back or five games in seven days, whatever is, he gives it his all.”

Walker was the only player on the team that played all 82 games last season and helped instill a  culture of hard work. 
“I’m excited to see Kemba, I’m excited to see him,” Hornets coach James Borrego says. “He was wonderful for me and to me. I will always think highly of that player and that person. Special player, special person.”

* * *

When the NBA and the NBA Players Association agreed to implement luxury tax punishments to the collective bargaining agreement, they were intended to discourage deep-pocketed teams from bullying small markets in free agency. Then, in 2017, Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City to go to the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. Later that summer, the league and the union came to an agreement to add supermax contracts to give teams with a homegrown superstar a financial carrot to keep those players from bolting for bigger cities or brighter lights. Or so the league thought.

In the case of Walker, both provisions backfired. By making the All-NBA team, Walker locked in his “supermax” eligibility, which, in theory, would give the Hornets an upper-hand in free agency. The other 29 teams could only offer Walker a four-year, $141 million deal, while the Hornets could entice Walker with a package totaling $221 million over five years, including a $32 million supermax bonus thanks to the All-NBA selection.

But that supermax bump had the opposite effect. When asked when they felt Walker was going to leave, multiple Charlotte team officials told NBCSports.com that it was the day he earned All-NBA status. For Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, whose net worth is pegged at about $42 billion, a supermax contract that pushes L.A. deep into the luxury tax might be a drop in the bucket. But that’s not the case for the Hornets principal owner Michael Jordan, whose net worth is but a small fraction of his technocrat peers in NBA ownership circles. In late June, Charlotte general manager Mitch Kupchak was asked whether the Hornets would go into the luxury tax if it meant keeping its team together. Kupchak confirmed what Hornets fans dreaded, saying: “I would not anticipate that is something we would look to do.”

The Hornets indeed balked at paying the tax and reportedly offered Walker about $60 million less than the supermax, a gulf Walker saw as too wide to overcome. Months after telling ESPN’s Zach Lowe that “he couldn’t care less about big markets,” Walker agreed to a four-year, $141 million max with one of the biggest markets in the NBA. 

In the same summer when Anthony Davis, Paul George and Russell Westbrook fled small markets for bright lights and big cities, Walker stood out as a potential worst-case scenario for the league’s more frugal franchises. The Hornets helped Walker develop from an undersized combo guard into one of the league’s most dangerous perimeter players, only to watch that success make him nearly impossible to keep.

Borrego spent 11 seasons on the Spurs’ coaching staff and had a front row seat for the Kawhi Leonard experience, which saw the homegrown superstar miss almost an entire season en route to forcing his way out of town over, at the very least, a difference in medical opinion. In the player empowerment era, teams can only do so much to keep their stars, especially if you’re in a market like Charlotte.

“It’s a reality in today’s NBA,” Borrego says. “That’s not going anywhere. That’s our new NBA. The days of San Antonio are gone.”

* * *

When Charlotteans look at Kemba Walker, many see themselves. Charlotte is a shiny metropolis in the New South, a growing center of transplants who migrate south for a warmer climate and an easier cost of living. Walker, a New York City native who went to college in New England, came south for work and instead found a second home.

For many, this is why it was so painful to see Walker leave. It’s the story of Jason Glunt, who moved to Charlotte in 1988, the inaugural season of the Hornets, when his family decided to leave the cold winters outside Detroit, Michigan, for the promise of a bright, new future. Glunt was 6 years old then, about the same age as his daughter is now.

“They just don’t get it,” Jason says of Walker’s departure. “A lot of the kids are sad.”

And then Jason remembers his childhood heroes Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and Glen Rice leaving Charlotte and reaching the Finals elsewhere, and in the case of Mourning and Rice, winning titles.

“It was like when I was growing up,” Jason said. “When you think of Glen Rice, what do you think about? You think about the Heat. Same with ‘Zo.”

Glunt wonders if Walker will have the same story. After a series of rebuilds, the Hornets still haven’t made the conference finals in his lifetime. He cheers himself up by reminding himself that Walker still has a house in Charlotte. Perhaps he’ll come back one day and live in town, just like Muggsy Bogues did.

“I’m kind of sad, but also excited for Kemba,” Jason says. “He can try to make the Conference Finals. And we can move on, and try to rebuild.”

After watching the Celtics-Bucks game in their apartment living room, it was time for Jade to get ready for bed. After Jason turned off the television, Jade looked up at her father.

“Can Kemba come back next year?” she asked.

That probably wouldn’t happen, Jason explained. Contracts and all that.

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