Key to unlocking Ben Simmons? Follow the Giannis model

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NBC Sports

Key to unlocking Ben Simmons? Follow the Giannis model

Ben Simmons looked like a future MVP in Game 2 against the Brooklyn Nets. A blur in transition. A wall on defense. A magician in space. Heck, he looked like Giannis Antetokounmpo out there. Simmons whirled his way to 18 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in just 30 minutes of action. So why can’t he do that all the time?

It’s a question we have all thought when watching the 22-year-old. The key to unlocking that Simmons isn’t necessarily about him or his mindset. More likely, it’s about who’s around him. The Game 2 supernova is what you get when you surround Simmons with guys who can shoot. 

It’s the Giannis model.

With Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick struggling in Game 1, coach Brett Brown could have moved away from floor-spacers and given T.J. McConnell more minutes to help set up teammates. Instead, Brown doubled down on shooting and dropped McConnell from the rotation, handing Jimmy Butler the backup point guard duties. The result: the Sixers set a franchise record for scoring in a playoff game (145) and tied the NBA record for scoring in any quarter (51 in the third, tying the 1962 Lakers). With spacing prioritized, Simmons thrived.

That gamble is more or less what the Milwaukee Bucks have done this season with Antetokounmpo, who might win MVP without having a reliable 3-point shot, and their stretch five, Brook Lopez. The Bucks have proved you can win the regular season playing that way, with their older, longer version of Simmons. But the larger question lingers: 

Can you build a champion in today’s NBA with a non-shooting superstar?  It’s a riddle the Oklahoma City Thunder are still trying to solve with Russell Westbrook and it will follow both Simmons and Antetokounmpo throughout this year’s playoffs.

* * *

Elon Musk may be the only person with a larger obsession with space than Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. About a month ago, the frontrunner for Coach of the Year award joined The Habershow podcast (subscribe!) and humored me with my half-sarcastic question. 

Is your offense simply to give Giannis the ball and get out of the way?

“I do believe there is something to be said for simplicity,” Budenholzer said with a laugh. “Sometimes, things that are the simplest tend to be the best. I know it’s a little bit of humor, but there is certainly a kernel of truth in that. We wanted to give him as much space [as possible] and get out of the way.”

Budenholzer happily lets his 7-foot center, Lopez, stand 35 feet away from the hoop and launch it. Same goes for forwards Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova (a former teammate of Simmons). The Bucks literally took a thousand more 3-pointers than last season -- or 1,110 to be exact. They also won more games than any other team during the regular season.

On Monday, Brown took a page out of Budenholzer’s book and evened the series at one by putting a premium on space. Brown dropping McConnell from the rotation is telling. McConnell is many things; the most tenured Sixer, a talented tablesetter, the team’s “heart and soul” according to Jimmy Butler. But he is not a 3-point shooter.

Because of that weakness, defenses could sag off both McConnell and Simmons in the halfcourt, loading up on precious real estate in the paint. This season, Simmons’ field-goal percentage dropped from 57.8 percent to 50.5 percent with McConnell saddled up next to him, per NBA.com data and the Sixers were minus-72 with the duo playing together. Conversely, when Simmons was on the floor without McConnell, the Sixers outscored opponents by 188 points. There’s a reason Simmons’ most-efficient lineups are when he’s paired with an effective 3-point shooter. Spoiler alert: Markelle Fultz and Simmons did not work.

Neither did the Lakers. 

Prioritizing space is a lesson former Lakers president Magic Johnson didn’t seem to take into account when building around LeBron James. In fact, Johnson went the other way, loading up on non-shooting playmakers -- on purpose. During a July conference call with reporters, Johnson said added ball-handlers like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson so that James “doesn’t have to make every play.” He later went on an ESPN broadcast during Summer League and explained that he and his staff did their homework and “we saw all the teams in the playoffs that had shooting, they got beat.”

As I detailed on the BIG Number recently, Rondo turned out to be LeBron’s kryptonite. Like McConnell and Simmons in Philly, the healthiest offenses in LakerLand were units that didn’t feature James alongside a ball-dominant non-shooter. Though Rondo had taken more 3s this season, his defender rarely got a hand up, if he guarded Rondo at all. That crippled the LeBron-led Lakers as much as the injury bug. One wonders what the Lakers would look like if they kept Lopez instead of signing Rondo for nearly three times his salary.

Take a look at what’s happening with Oklahoma City, which is 0-8 in road playoff games since Kevin Durant left in 2016. Like James, Simmons and Antetokounmpo, a Westbrook-led offense needs sharpshooters to unclog the paint in a slowed-down playoff setting. Unfortunately for the Thunder, those players are in short supply. Alex Abrines, a solid wing shooter the last three seasons, was waived in February with undisclosed personal issues and Patrick Patterson has had trouble cracking the rotation, often leaving Paul George as their only respected 3-point shooter. 

While Milwaukee exclusively plays 3-point shooters -- Lopez, Mirotic and Ilyasova -- at the center position next to Antetokounmpo, the Thunder have chosen the polar opposite approach with Westbrook. Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel are two paint-dwellers who haven’t even attempted a shot outside 20 feet this season.

Respect is key. By the percentages, OKC’s stretch-four, Jerami Grant, has developed into a pretty strong 3-point shooter with a conversion rate of 39.2 percent this season, but defenses still don’t respect him. According to NBA.com data, a whopping 89 percent of Grant’s 3-pointers this season were termed “wide-open,” which is right up there with Draymond Green’s league-leading 93 percent. In this series, the Blazers have been parking Grant’s defender near Westbrook, George and Adams, choosing to live with the results. Grant, with little gravitational pull to begin with, has missed all eight of his 3-point attempts. 

Without effective spacers, the Thunder are on the verge of their third straight first-round exit. Outside of George, the Thunder are shooting 4-of-39 from deep and Westbrook is shooting 6-of-27 in the halfcourt, with zero of his signature Earth-shaking dunks. It’s no wonder why Philadelphia targeted bigs who can shoot -- Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic -- at the trade deadline.

* * *

Yes, I said Boban Marjanovic, the 7-foot-3 center who can practically dunk without jumping. 

One of the great revelations of the Philadelphia-Brooklyn series is Marjanovic’s jumper. The Nets are ignoring Marjanovic on the perimeter in this series to a comical degree, his defender often standing under the rim while the Serbian tower stands at the top of the key. Marjanovic has made six of his nine jumpers this series, each bucket sending the Wells Fargo Center into a gleeful frenzy. Marjanovic has sneaky range, making nine of his nineteen 19 long 2s this season and four of his 10 3-pointers in the regular season. Bobi can shoot. Respect may soon follow.

Marjanovic’s emergence reminds me of what Aron Baynes did during Boston’s surprising playoff run last season and what Lopez has done over the last couple years. We’re not used to seeing 7-footers launch from deep. Four seasons ago, 7-footers took 1,966 three-pointers, per Basketball Reference data. This season, 7-footers fired up more than twice that amount, taking 4,425 3-pointers as a whole, the most in NBA history. What’s more, those giants made 34.7 percent, a few ticks below Kevin Durant’s 35.3 percent mark. It’s not a gimmick anymore. It’s a weapon.

For Philly, the implications are clear: If Marjanovic can reliably knock down jumpers and pull his defender out of the paint, it’s one less big man that Simmons has to hurdle en route to the rim. 

* * *

It’s obvious that Simmons would be much better with a reliable jumper. There’s still plenty of time. He’s only 22 years old but is already facing criticism as if he’s deep into his career. Magic Johnson didn’t win his first MVP until he was 27. When he started regularly taking 3-pointers in his age-29 season, he won his second MVP and then his third. It’s not hard to see Simmons following a similar path. 

It’s also why Joel Embiid’s 3-point stroke is so intriguing. Embiid is a career 31.5-percent 3-point shooter -- not sharp enough to demand a hard close-out every time he stands back there. He’s the most efficient post-up big man in the game, per Synergy tracking, but pulling his defender out to the 3-point line can have its advantages. In the impressive 130-125 win over the Bucks back in March, Embiid took 13 three-pointers, making four. In that game, all of Simmons’ basket attacks came in transition with either Embiid trailing or on the perimeter. Simmons’ lone jumper in that game came when Embiid was parked under the basket (he missed).

Embiid and Marjanovic may have the potential to be spacers for Simmons, joining the East’s superpowers who are already loading up on stretch 5s. The Raptors snatched up Marc Gasol, who has made over 300 3-pointers in his last three seasons. The Celtics have stretched Baynes to join Al Horford as as a shooting big. The Bucks have Lopez spacing for Antetokounmpo and that formation might seal Antetokounmpo’s MVP. It could also win them a title.

Simmons and Embiid aren’t a perfect fit in the halfcourt. Hardly any star pairings are. But we can see what Lopez has done for Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee and the distinct limitations of the Thunder’s approach around Westbrook. If Embiid or Marjanovic can pull their defender away from Simmons’ path a few more times a game, it may be the difference between a great team and a champion.

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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