Underdog Warriors regain respect in Game 6 victory

USA Today

Underdog Warriors regain respect in Game 6 victory

HOUSTON -- Steve Kerr benched his two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, in the biggest game of the Warriors’ three-peat quest, a Game 6 on the road against a Houston Rockets team starving for redemption.

Curry was not the least bit happy about Kerr’s decision and didn’t hide it during a timeout at the 7:12 mark in the first quarter after picking up his second foul.

Curry stormed into the coaches’ huddle and got in his coach’s face, pleading for him to reverse his decision to put backup Quinn Cook into the game.

“Come on, Coach,” Curry said. “It’s Game 6. I gotta be out there.”

Kerr looked him in the eye and didn’t hold back.

“Steph,” Kerr told him, as he relayed to NBCSports.com after the game. “You just fouled James Harden on a jump shot. You’re going to do it again. And you’re going to get your third foul, so you’re not going to play the rest of the quarter.”

It might have been hard to understand then, but this was all about respect -- for Curry and for his teammates. Since Kerr took over as head coach in 2014, the franchise’s motto became “Strength In Numbers” -- a rallying cry emphasizing the team above the individual. It’s a message that Kerr had come back to repeatedly after Durant got injured at the end of Game 5. Everyone on the roster had to stay ready.

But Kerr had seen the numbers, too, and kept thinking about this statistical fact: Since the start of the 2016-17 season, the Warriors were 30-4 in games in which Durant sat but Curry played. He reminded himself of those numbers in that timeout. As long as they kept Curry available for the second half, they’d have a chance. Thirty and four.

“How can I trust you,” Curry recalled Kerr telling him, “to not get your third foul, when you know how big this game is right now and you put yourself in this predicament?”

Curry stood down and reluctantly took his seat on the bench. He respected it.

“He keeps it real,” Curry said after the game. “Obviously, I didn’t like [his decision]. But we have a strong relationship where I’m not going to lose confidence in that moment. That’s built over time.”

Respect is earned in this league, not given. The Warriors earned it across the league by winning the 2015 NBA Finals with homegrown talent, defeating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers at the peak of his powers.

But that respect turned into something else over the last few years: Some parts jealousy, some parts bitterness, some parts contempt. In an April 2016 profile by New York Magazine, Warriors principal owner Joe Lacob declared, “We’re light years ahead of everybody.” When they lost the 2016 Finals, any sort of glee around the league was short-lived once Durant came to the rescue. They won back-to-back championships, and that was before DeMarcus Cousins hopped aboard. It’s not a stretch to say that the Warriors lost their initial identity and some respect along the way.

But when Curry sat in the first quarter Friday night, there was no Durant to step in. It was Quinn Cook, an undrafted free agent who was waived by four teams before he got to the Warriors in 2017.

Later in the quarter, when Andrew Bogut hit the bench, Cousins didn’t replace him. It was Kevon Looney, a player that every team passed on in the 2015 draft before the Warriors picked him 30th overall.

When 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala left the game at the 3:16 mark, another undrafted free agent stepped onto the floor in Alonzo McKinnie. Jordan Bell, a second-round pick in 2017, would later replace Draymond Green.

At the end of the first quarter, Klay Thompson wasn’t surrounded by four All-NBA players like he was at the start of the playoffs. Instead, it was two undrafted free agents, a second-rounder and the last pick of the first round—every one of them signed for the veteran’s minimum. This wasn’t the Warriors team that Cousins called the most hated team in all of sports. Suddenly, these were underdogs, heavy underdogs. Before the game, betting markets favored the Rockets over the Warriors by seven points.

To make matters worse, Curry had probably his worst half of playoff basketball. He had never gone scoreless for an entire half in a playoff game. But Kerr’s respect for Curry, his confidence in his point guard, never wavered.

“Every time something like this happens, we all look at each other and say, ‘He’s still going to get 30 and hit the biggest shot and win the game,’” Kerr said. “Like, that’s who he is. He makes some plays that you just can’t even believe … good and bad.”

Oh, yes, there was bad Steph in this game. The foul on Harden to pick up his second of the game was entirely avoidable, but Curry impeded Harden’s landing zone on a 3-point shot and got himself in foul trouble in a game he absolutely couldn’t get himself into foul trouble. Then, he carelessly bulldozed through P.J. Tucker in the lane and picked up his third foul with 5:44 left in the second quarter.

Curry hit the bench again, finishing the first half with 0-for-5 from the floor and more fouls (three) than combined points and assists (two).

“I was pretty, pretty terrible,” Curry said. “The only thing I did well was not turn the ball over in the 12 minutes I was out there.”

(He actually did. The charge.)

Instead of folding underneath the weight of Durant and Cousins’ injuries and early foul trouble that burdened Curry and Green, the Warriors’ unheralded supporting cast hung with the Rockets, earning a 57-57 tie at halftime. Kerr sat his stars longer than they wished and trusted the bench more than he had in weeks.

Once the second half started, the Warriors were unleashed. Curry made his first shot -- a 27-foot 3-pointer assisted by Green -- at the 9:49 mark of the third quarter. That started a Splash Brothers waterfall that seemed almost inevitable. Curry dazzled his way to 33 points after the break, while he and Thompson finished off the Rockets by scoring the Warriors’ final 19 points.

After the game, LeBron James tweeted “NEVER underestimate the heart of a champion.” Dwyane Wade, a three-time champion himself, typed out these words to Twitter: “Y’all better stop disrespecting @StephenCurry30 just because he’s a team first guy and is willing to sacrifice in moments doesn’t mean he’s not still a beast.”

Underestimated. Disrespected. Did Curry feel that way coming into Game 6 without Durant?

“I’ve heard a lot of noise in this series for sure; I’ll leave it at that,” Curry said. “Obviously I appreciate those words (from James and Wade). Champions recognize champions and what it takes to win games like tonight and do what we’ve been able to do these last five years. Hopefully more of that to come.”

There’s still plenty of work to do. The Warriors didn’t win the title on Friday night, but there was no shortage of celebration after the game. When the buzzer sounded, Thompson ran around in a frenzy hugging everyone in sight. Some team executives, some random bystanders.

Lacob sprinted toward Kerr, grabbed his shoulders and screamed “Brilliant! Brilliant!” in his ear and then hugged him. Curry found his father Dell and hugged him. Then, Steph found his mother Sonya and noticeably hugged her for a few beats longer. Sunday was Mother’s Day, and he’d now have the opportunity to spend it with her and his wife rather than playing in a Game 7 on the same day as his brother Seth, who will face the Denver Nuggets.

There was something else in the air on Friday night. Relief, sure. But it felt more like respect had been refilled, like the Warriors had regained something they lost. One rival general manager who watched the game described the Warriors’ performance over text as “so, so good. Fun to watch them rely on movement when Durant is out.”

There’s no loss of respect for Durant in the Warriors’ locker room. After the game, Thompson called Durant “one of the greatest players to ever play, the best scorer in the world.” He went on, “If we want this three-peat, we desperately need him back. He’s our best player. We dearly miss him. We’ll hold it down without him. It’s not the same without him.” Curry, later on SportsCenter, echoed that sentiment, calling Durant “the best player in the league” unprompted.

While the Warriors wait for Durant to rejoin their three-peat quest, the Rockets, and their stars, search for answers yet again. Harden, for the fourth time in five years, exits the playoffs at the hands of the Warriors despite a potential second straight regular-season MVP season. Chris Paul, who so desperately sought validation after last year’s ill-timed hamstring injury, remained healthy for the entire postseason and finished Friday with his best game of the postseason: 27 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.

He wanted this one badly. This is a guy who, before Game 6 last year at Oracle Arena, needed to leave the court because he was hyperventilating -- a revelation he made on a recent episode of The JJ Redick Podcast.

“I was close to throwing up or damn-near pass out,” Paul said. “I was so nervous and so anxious. And I never feel that when I play, but it was the simple fact that I had no control over what was about to happen.”

There were opportunities for Paul and the rest of the Rockets to take control of Friday’s game and turn the series. It’s hard to imagine them getting dealt a stronger set of cards. Curry sat for long stretches with foul trouble. So did Green. But Harden uncharacteristically missed five of his 12 free throws, the first time he missed that many at the line in a playoff game since 2013. Eric Gordon only took two 3-pointers and never got to the free-throw line.

Internally, there were some in the Rockets organization that felt that this was a better opportunity to take down the Warriors than last year, even though they were the No. 1 seed in 2018. This year’s Warriors team seemed disjointed after a first-round series with the L.A. Clippers and belabored with the cumulative fatigue that comes after four straight Finals runs. But still, the Rockets squandered that opportunity in Game 6.

Maybe Durant leaves the Warriors this summer and levels out the playing field out West a bit. But how can the Rockets feel any better about taking down the Warriors after losing to this Durant-less team in a must-win at home? Paul will be 35 years old this time next year, and Clint Capela didn’t take the step forward many expected this postseason. With a bloated payroll, it seems the Rockets have no choice but to run it back next season and hope they break through like the 2011 Dallas Mavericks.

Meanwhile, the Warriors’ swagger of old returned on Friday night. For the first time in a long time, it seemed respect was earned around the league again, a reminder of what this team is capable of -- with Durant and Cousins or without them. But to get respect from others, the Warriors first had to trust each other -- the coaching staff and players.

“It’s just a great vibe,” Curry said. “They bring the best out of us. That’s why we are who we are.”

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

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

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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