Celtics' demise falls on shoulders of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward

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USA Today

Celtics' demise falls on shoulders of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward

The Boston Celtics were moments away from punching their ticket to the 2018 NBA Finals. With a little over six minutes left in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, Marcus Morris drew a double-team on the left block and passed out to Jaylen Brown at the top of the key, who whipped the ball to Marcus Smart on the right wing, who immediately swung the ball to Jayson Tatum in the right corner. Boom, boom, boom. Tatum took a confident side-dribble and rose up for a 3-pointer in front of the raucous Boston crowd. 

“BANG!” yelled ABC’s Mike Breen on the call.

Just like that, the Celtics were up one inside six minutes against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The defense dug in and the ball was humming. That 3 by the 20-year-old Tatum came on the heels of his thunderous one-handed slam over James, again fed by Smart, that nearly blew the roof off of TD Garden. 

This was an unthinkable scenario. Could the baby Celtics really pull this off without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward?

That question would be answered with a resounding “no.” The Celtics imploded from there, missing their next 10 shots from the floor to spur a 15-2 Cavs run that slammed the door shut on the Celtics’ Cinderella playoff hopes.

The ending was tough to stomach, but logic dictated that if the Celtics could play like that and add Irving and Hayward to the mix, this team would be nearly unstoppable. 

However, the NBA doesn’t always follow a linear progression. The "If they could play like that" assumption turned out to be foolish. Integrating Irving and Hayward proved much harder than anticipated. Tatum, Brown and Terry Rozier largely struggled in smaller roles, and the Celtics won just 49 games. The top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks dismantled the updated version of the Celtics in just five games.

The 2018-19 season ended up being a case of subtraction by addition. But should we have seen this coming? And what does it mean for team’s future?

Kyrie Irving is a magician with the ball. The six-time All-Star often pulls himself out of impossible knots that would draw the envy of even Houdini himself. Other times, he’s more deliberate. Irving’s iconic dagger against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Finals was preceded by 14 hypnotic dribbles on Stephen Curry just before he darted to his spot. It’s easy to get caught up admiring Irving’s handiwork.

Too often, that was the case with the Celtics this season, a bad habit that only festered in the postseason. Irving held possession of the ball for 6.9 minutes per game this postseason, according to NBA.com tracking. That’s way up from his average of 5.5 minutes of possession in the regular season and represents one of the largest playoff jumps among all players. 

Ball-watching was always a worry with an Irving-led offense. You can get away with that hero-ball if Irving is hitting his shots, but Irving often found himself stuck in the mud, shooting 35.6 percent in the series against Milwaukee. More often than not, it was Kyrie against the world. He summed up his Mamba Mentality after struggling through 7-of-22 shooting in Game 4: “I’m trying to do it all. For me, the 22 shots, I should have shot 30. I’m that great of a shooter.”

There were hints of Kyrie’s hero-ball in the Pacers series, but who wants to point that out during a sweep? Irving made 21 2-pointers in that series; none of them were assisted by teammates. To put that in perspective, Irving was assisted on one of every four 2-pointers during the Cavs’ championship run. Tunnel vision wouldn’t work against Milwaukee’s top-ranked defense. And sure enough, Irving fought through the worst four-game shooting stretch of his playoff career.

If you can point to anything that plagued this year’s Celtics team, it was stagnant ball movement. That was the biggest difference separating last year’s overachieving team and this year’s underachieving version. Last year’s Celtics made their near-Finals run with an egalitarian approach that got everyone touches. Boston averaged 314.9 passes per 100 possessions in the 2018 postseason, third-highest in the field behind Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs and the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Pop-disciple Brett Brown. 

With Irving on the team, the Celtics got bogged down and averaged 272.4 passes per 100 possessions in 2019, or about 42 passes fewer than they did last postseason. Again, if Irving is hitting his shots, that’s something you can live with. Not all great offenses need ball movement to thrive, but it’s not a coincidence that the Celtics were 10-19 (.334) when Irving took more than 22 shots in a game over the last two seasons (but you already knew that). 

The Celtics are at their best when everyone gets involved. With a young core that had already won enormous playoff games without Irving’s services, trust can fray easily and defensive effort can wane. Offense and defense don’t operate in silos. Boston forward Marcus Morris put it bluntly after the Game 4 loss.

“I’m sorry to say it, but our offense is dictating our defense,” Morris told NBC Sports’ Chris Forsberg. “We miss shots, we’re not getting back. I feel like we’ve been pretty soft.”

In the Game 1 win, the Celtics were locked in, giving up just 13 field goals at the rim. Here’s what that total looked like in the next three games: 16, 23 and 29. By then, the Bucks had broken the Celtics’ defense, and in turn, their season.

* * *

Irving’s hero-ball tendencies were supposed to be balanced out by Gordon Hayward’s facilitating. It didn’t work out that way. Injury or not, the Celtics simply needed more from Hayward this season. Instead, he turned into a more expensive Evan Turner, who is a fine role player, but even the best role players don’t get four-year, $128 million contracts.

The plan was for Hayward, coming off a catastrophic ankle injury in the 2017-18 season opener, to step in right away and co-star with Irving. But after a string of uneven performances, Brad Stevens removed him from the starting lineup just one month into the 2019 season. Hayward was relegated to the second unit where the hope was he might regain his confidence and become a starter again. But Hayward finished the season averaging just 11.5 points and shooting a disappointing 33.3 percent from downtown, a far cry from his levels in Utah.

Many hoped that Hayward would improve as the season went on, but his role only diminished as the playoffs arrived. In his final season in Utah, his only All-Star season of his career, Hayward’s usage rate on offense was 27.6 percent. This season, it fell to 19.0 percent in the regular season and dipped again to 17.3 percent in the opening round. Against Milwaukee, it bottomed out at 14.1 percent. 

He just wasn’t able to turn the corner as many expected would happen by now and it showed on the court. Too often Hayward would drive into the teeth of the defense and kick out to shooters rather than attack the rim. Hayward’s passivity became such a problem that he was almost unplayable in this series. The Celtics were 15.1 points worse per 100 possessions with him on the floor against Milwaukee, per NBA.com data

We can chalk some of this up to the traumatic injury to his ankle. Overcoming that isn’t easy. But we’re coming up on 19-month mark since that event. It’s becoming harder to fall back on that rationale. Paul George was averaging 27.2 points per game 16 months after his catastrophic leg injury in Las Vegas. Two separate injuries, two separate bodies and minds, sure. But make no mistake about it: This is a big summer for Hayward.

* * *

It’s also a big summer for the organization as a whole. Everyone from Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens down to Irving and Hayward need to do some soul searching ahead of a potentially franchise-shifting few months.

Irving’s comments throughout the season -- chiding his younger teammates for their inexperience, publicizing his make-up phone call with LeBron James, shifting his free-agency stance back-and-forth (our own Chris Forsberg detailed the roller coaster here) -- raised eyebrows around the league, showing the basketball world that Irving may have some serious room to grow as a leader. But there are still people within the Celtics organization that believe they’re the frontrunners for Anthony Davis (should he be moved this summer) because of Irving and his relationship with Davis. It’s also no secret that former Cavs GM David Griffin, the new head of basketball operations in New Orleans, has a strong working relationship with Ainge, his former boss.

If Irving can’t be a legitimate No. 1, could he be a No. 2 next to Davis? Probably. Would a triumvirate of Irving, Davis and Hayward be the favorites in the East, even after all the red flags this season? Possibly. But that’s assuming Irving wants to be back. Irving has a player option for next season, but he is sure to decline it in order to lock in a long-term contract. The Celtics can offer him an extra year, totaling $190 million over five years. If he decides to take his talents elsewhere, he can sign a four-year, $141 million contract with his new team. Teams with cap space like the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, L.A. Clippers and the New York Knicks figure to be top suitors.

A lot can change. Sixty percent of the starters in the Eastern Conference semifinals can be free agents this summer including Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol. It’s too early to peg Boston’s place in the pecking order amongst the East elite. But this much is true: Irving tried to do too much, Hayward not enough. Their star presence was supposed to bring clarity and stability around a young core. Instead, Boston’s future looks as unpredictable as any in the East.

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.

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