As DNP-Rests rise, remember: Momentum is a myth

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NBC Sports

As DNP-Rests rise, remember: Momentum is a myth

We hear it so often this time of year that it has become a pre-playoff ritual.

“We just want to play our best ball heading into the postseason.”

The thinking makes sense on the surface. The NBA is an 82-game slog, but as long as you’ve hit your stride or “peak at the right time” just before the playoffs, it feels like that’s all that matters. Fans and coaches alike want to see some wins on the board before getting into the postseason. It breeds confidence, right? Lose a bunch of games before the playoffs, the opposite emotion sets in: Doubt.

It’s soothing to think that momentum is real, that April basketball in the NBA means something significant. But the evidence says otherwise. It doesn’t matter much at all whether you entered the postseason hot or cold.

The reality is that momentum heading into the postseason is largely a myth. Keep that in mind when your favorite star skips a game, or three, in April.

* * * 

There’s a saying that it’s better to be lucky than good. As DNP-Rests begin to pile up this time of year, keep in mind that it’s better to be healthy than hot.

When the DNP-Rest issue reached a boiling point in 2017 -- prompting commissioner Adam Silver to introduce anti-DNP-Rest rules to the board of governors --  Popovich defended his strategy of healthy scratches.

"You want to see this guy in this one game?” Popovich said in 2017. “Or do you want to see him for three more years in his career? And do you want to see him in the playoffs because he didn't get hurt because maybe he got rest and he was playing so much?”

Kyrie Irving recently echoed Popovich’s thoughts. The Celtics’ point guard may not be right about everything --  including the curvature of this planet -- but he’s on to something when he recently talked about the importance of the regular season’s final chapter.

"I’m definitely taking some games off before the playoffs,” Irving told NBC Sports Boston Insider Chris Forsberg. “Makes no sense, the emphasis on these regular games, when you’re gearing up for some battles coming in the playoffs.”

That may be have been an unsavory statement to some who want Irving to play and help straighten out Boston’s season. But he’s speaking truth to the reality, which is this: the NBA’s best players are routinely sitting in the name of injury prevention, placing it above short-term wins and losses.

Irving was a healthy scratch for the March 26 game against the Cavs, joining a host of All-Stars who have taken at least one game off due to rest or “load management” this season. This includes LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, D’Angelo Russell, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin.

Irving’s point is that health and readiness to play are the most important variables heading into the postseason. The former NBA champion knows from experience.

In 2016, the Cavs strategically rested Irving multiple times as the season wound down and gave James a DNP-Rest four times in the final month, including the final game in which all starters took the night off (technically, Tristan Thompson played four seconds to keep his ironman streak alive). Meanwhile, the Warriors gunned for the regular-season win record and started their stars in every game after Mar. 1, earning a record-breaking 73 wins. We know how that went.

* * * 

To drive home Irving’s instincts, how about a little history lesson? Let’s say you took the top two seeds in each conference since 2000 (a rough proxy for championship contenders) and sorted them into two buckets. In one bucket, we have what I’ll call The Hot Pot. These juggernauts are scorching hot, coming into the postseason with a record of 9-1 or 10-0 in their final games of the regular season. Just killing teams “at the right time.”

The other bucket is The Cold Tub. These are the icy juggernauts who have stumbled into the playoffs with a losing record in their final 10, scaring the pants off their fanbases.

If I asked you to pick which bucket would most likely produce a team that reached the NBA Finals, which would you choose, the Hot Pot or the Cold Tub?

Believe it or not, it’s the Cold Tub. The coldest teams reached the Finals more often than the hottest teams.

Since 2000, there have been 10 top seeds (No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the conference) who entered the postseason with a losing record in their final 10 games -- it doesn’t happen often. Of those teams that sputtered into the playoffs, six of them turned things around and reached the Finals. Of the 10 top seeds who entered the postseason scorching hot with at least nine wins in their final 10 games, just five reached the Finals -- one fewer than the Cold Tub.

This doesn’t mean that teams should tank the final month to boost their Finals chances. In fact, there were three title teams in the Cold Tub and four in the Hot Pot. How teams finish the regular season and perform in the postseason is mostly a toss-up. Momentum is little more than a fairy tale.

Still don’t believe it? 

Take last year’s Golden State Warriors. They stumbled into the playoffs, losing six of their final 10 games and 10 of their final 17. In Game No. 82, the Warriors suffered the worst defeat under Steve Kerr, getting trampled by the Utah Jazz by 40 points even with Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green playing. It’s hard to imagine a team more out of sorts on their quest to repeat.

If you hit the panic button and sold all your Warriors stock right then, well … poor move by you.

Golden State proceeded to go 16-5 in the postseason and were so good that they swept the Finals, the first 4-0 championship series since 2007. Meanwhile, the Cavs team the Warriors swept entered the postseason victorious in 11 of their final 14 contests. Hot, cold, lukewarm -- it didn’t seem to matter. (Yes, the Warriors nearly lost to the Rockets, but Andre Iguodala missing Games 4 through 7 impacted the series a lot more than people thought.)

If you think momentum is real, then how do you explain the 2011-12 San Antonio Spurs? They entered the postseason on an 11-game win streak, earning the No. 1 seed out West. They swept the first two rounds and went up 2-0 against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals. A 21-game win streak! It doesn’t get any hotter than that, right?

They promptly lost four straight to OKC and didn’t even get to a Game 7. So much for that hot streak.

If you want more evidence of fickle momentum, peel back the calendar to the 2005-06 Miami Heat. That Shaq-led squad had a brutal start that cost Stan Van Gundy his job and an even more brutal finish under interim coach Pat Riley, going 4-7 in April and dropping their final three games by an average of 11.3 points.

They went on to win the title.

The last 10 games of the season holds so little weight that, in fact, the first 10 games of the season -- way back in October -- correlated more strongly to postseason success. Yes, games that took place six months prior turned out to be more tightly linked to how deep a team went in the playoffs than the stretch of games that took place on the eve of the postseason.

Since 2000, none of the 10 coldest top-seeded teams in the first 10 games of the season won a title; only two even reached the Finals. On the other end of the spectrum, of the 10 hottest early-season teams, three eventually won the championship (2007-08 Celtics, 2008-09 Lakers and 2013-14 Spurs) and a grand total of six reached the Finals.

The above research looks at just the top two seeds, focusing on championship contenders. But the examples of fallacy of momentum pop up elsewhere.

Remember last year’s Philadelphia 76ers? They entered the playoffs on a 16-game win streak, but it was Joel Embiid’s orbital fracture that derailed everything. After missing three weeks with the late-season injury, Embiid returned in Game 3 against the Heat in the first round but shot just 41.7 percent in the series and averaged five turnovers a game. The Boston Celtics dispatched the masked Embiid and Co. in five games, turning Philly’s 16-game win streak into fool’s gold.

The 2003-04 Spurs won 11 straight games to end the regular season, won the next six in the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and then … got swept by the Los Angeles Lakers in Games 3 through 6 to wrap up the Western Conference semifinals. The Spurs know this all to well: The regular season, or at least how you finish it, doesn’t hold as much weight as we’d like.

It’s hardly a coincidence that Gregg Popovich and the Spurs spearheaded the DNP-Rest movement in the NBA.

* * * 

Resting stars at the end of the season doesn’t make an NBA champion. But teams are smart to exercise caution at this time of the year. Even the best medical staffs cannot totally eliminate the risk of giant bodies sprinting, jumping and colliding to the point of catastrophic injury.

As of mid-March, the Blazers were the NBA’s healthiest team, tallying the fewest games lost due to injury this season, according to data provided to NBCSports.com by injury expert Jeff Stotts’ of InstreetClothes.com. And then C.J. McCollum hurt his knee and Jusuf Nurkic broke his fibula and tibia, all but extinguishing their hopes of a deep playoff run.

Graphic injuries like Nurkic’s might scare some teams to be more cautious with their stars and spur more DNP-Rests, which further lightens the power of late-season records. If teams are taking games off, that presents its own issues. The whole fabric of the league relies on the idea that these regular-season games matter and teams shouldn’t rest their stars. If those late-season games don’t hold weight, then the so-called “switch” really exists, and that means that players aren’t competing their hardest every night.

We’d like that not to be the case. In a legalized sports gambling world, it might be maddening to know that the best players can flip their competitive spirit on and off like a faucet. But those that have won at the highest levels know that late-season momentum isn’t worth much.

Last year, after suffering the worst loss of his coaching career and his third loss in four games, Kerr downplayed the significance of that embarrassing defeat and, more pointedly, the entire regular season as a whole:

“Playoffs are a whole different season,” Kerr told reporters. “We’ve won 58 games, which most teams would kill for. For us, with the expectations people have, it’s a disappointment. But none of that matters. In the end, it’s what you do in the playoffs. We’ll see what happens.”

What happened was the struggling Warriors blasted through the playoffs with an average win margin of 10 points, one of the most dominant playoff runs in NBA history. If the Warriors waltz into the playoffs again, don’t bat an eye. They likely won’t either.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

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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