Weight and see: The Boogie Cousins conundrum

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NBC Sports

Weight and see: The Boogie Cousins conundrum

DeMarcus Cousins is an enormous human being. 

He is listed at 270 pounds, making him one of the 10 heaviest players in a league of mountainous men. According to a recent CDC study, the average American male in his twenties checks in at 5-foot-9, 187 pounds -- a 6-foot-2 male is considered to be in the 95th percentile. Cousins is 6-foot-11, and nearly 100 pounds above the norm.

As Cousins returns from a ruptured Achilles on Friday night against the Clippers, the NBA world will be watching closely. How will he look? Will the Warriors play through him? How many minutes will he play? Will he be a liability? Will he be All-NBA again?

Those questions won’t be limited to just basketball people. The medical community will surely be keeping an eye on Cousins’ return simply because he is such a rare case study.

Even in the NBA, where the average height is 6-foot-7 and the average weight is 218 pounds, there aren’t many examples of players as large as Cousins returning to play at a high level. And if they are that large, they aren’t All-NBA players. And even if they were All-NBA players, they aren’t returning to a team looking to win a third straight championship.

What’s at stake isn’t just the Warriors’ chances at a three-peat. Cousins is a free agent this summer. The key to maximizing both may be one simple variable: Cousins’ weight. 

Cousins’ weight and conditioning have been a talking point throughout his basketball career. At Kentucky, he was listed at 292 pounds by DraftExpress. He ballooned to 308 pounds by the end of the 2015-16 season, per Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler, before trimming down to 275 ahead of Team USA camp in the summer of 2016. 

“He’s gotten in unbelievable shape for this,” Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Cousins that summer.

His weight again swelled during the 2016-17 season around the time of the blockbuster trade from Sacramento to New Orleans. That following summer, he wanted to shed some pounds, so he hired a new personal chef and dedicated himself to yoga.

“I kind of let myself go in the second half of the season last year,” Cousins told NOLA.com in August 2017. “I got in a place where I didn’t really want to be.”

Cousins lost a bunch of weight to prepare for the 2017-18 Pelicans’ up-tempo pace, though he didn’t specify how many pounds he lost, telling ESPN: “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I lost a lot of weight.”

The funny thing is, despite the obvious body transformations, Cousins’ weight never wavered in his team’s official media guides over the years. His weight was listed at exactly 270 pounds for every season -- in Sacramento, in New Orleans and now, in Golden State. Hardly anyone around the league believes that to be an accurate figure. Just like his teammate Kevin Durant’s height of 6-foot-9.

But Cousins’ weight will be critical during his return from the Achilles injury. According to proprietary research done by the Sports Medicine Analytics Research Team (SMART) and obtained by NBCSports.com, one factor stood out in NBA players’ ability to return to pre-Achilles-tear levels: Weight loss.

The study looked at 40 Achilles tears in the NBA and tracked each player’s performance after surgery. Some went well. More did not. But of the list of positive outcomes, all but one case was associated with weight loss.

It’s not clear how much weight Cousins lost during his Achilles rehab, if any. While there were a slew of articles detailing his weight loss during the 2017 offseason, that hasn’t been a focal point this time around. The Warriors’ media guide lists him at 270 pounds, the same as it was in Sacramento.

The post-Achilles study found that no players above 285 pounds were able to return to greater than 70 percent of their PER or scoring average after injury. No players above 285 pounds were able to play more than 66 percent of their games or have performance levels within 50 percent of their prior level.

Dr. Richard Ferkel of the Southern California Orthopedic Institute estimates that he’s operated on over a dozen Achilles tears of NBA players in his medical career. Cousins was one of them last January. He agrees that Cousins’ sheer weight makes for a trickier recovery, but he’s been very pleased by the collective effort by Cousins and the Warriors staff. Keeping his weight down has been a top priority.

“It certainly is a factor,” Dr. Ferkel told NBCSports.com. “The stress they’re putting on is a little different than for somebody who is a six-foot point guard. It probably extends the rehab a bit longer in bigger people than in smaller people.”

There’s a litany of cautionary tales for centers dealing with this injury, but former McDonald’s All-American center Stanley Roberts, Shaquille O’Neal’s 7-foot teammate at LSU and former first-round pick, is one of the more infamous examples. In December 1993, Roberts ruptured his right Achilles. Ten months after his surgery, Roberts showed up to Clippers training camp well over 300 pounds. Said then-Clippers GM Elgin Baylor: “He weighs too much, that’s what he weighs. You can quote that.” Three weeks later, Roberts ruptured his left Achilles tendon. He admirably fought his way back to play part of five seasons, but he played his last NBA game before turning 30 years old. 
 
The injury also ended the career of the 300-pound Jerome James, who famously signed a five-year, $30 million contract with the Knicks in 2005 and dealt with weight and health issues throughout his New York tenure before tearing his Achilles in 2008. In 2011, DeSagana Diop, listed at 300 pounds, tore his Achilles at the age of 28 and played just 49 games thereafter. None of these giants were near All-NBA players at the time of injury, but they shared Cousins’ colossal size.
 
Why is weight loss such a strong predictor? It has to do with one devastating side effect of a torn Achilles: Calf atrophy. Because of the post-surgery immobilization, the calf muscle shrinks from the lack of exertion. Simply put, the smaller muscle often times can’t support the same weight as it did before the surgery. That imbalance is super tricky to manage. Studies have shown that even after seven years post-surgery, the calf muscle on the injured side of Achilles tears showed decreased strength compared to the non-injured side.
 
After a recent full-contact practice at Santa Cruz, Cousins was asked whether he was nervous about his Achilles holding up.
 
"No nervousness at all," Cousins told ESPN.  "I'm more worried about pulling a hammy or something like that. It's been a while since I've played and reacted. The Achilles is the least of my worries."

Cousins’ nerves about other things being thrown off is a worthy concern. It’s exactly what happened to a star big man who suffered an Achilles tear about a decade ago.

* * *

Elton Brand is often cited as the closest Cousins comp. You’ve probably heard that Brand’s Achilles tear in 2007 derailed his career. Actually, you might have heard that directly from him, in a podcast interview with ESPN’s Marc Spears and Amin Elhassan. 

“The most frustrating part was the injuries,” Brand said. “That Achilles really changed the trajectory of my career.”

At the time of his injury, the two-time All-Star was 28 years old and listed at 254 pounds, down from his 275-pound rookie weight. In Brand’s post-surgery April debut, he scored 19 points in 26 minutes off the bench, returning in about eight months, three months sooner than Cousins’ timetable. Brand averaged 17.6 points and 8.0 rebounds in the final eight games of the season, down from his pre-injury levels of 20.5 points and 9.3 rebounds. But, surprisingly, after adjusting for playing time, Brand’s per-minute averages in 2007-08 were nearly identical to his pre-surgery norm. After signing with the Philadelphia 76ers, Brand averaged an impressive 17.4 points and 10.3 rebounds in 18 games to kick off his tenure. 

But in early December with the Sixers, Brand suffered a right hamstring injury against the Lakers, and two weeks later, he dislocated his right shoulder, which required season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum. Then, after all those injuries, he was never the same again. 

“That whole kinetic chain: Once you get the calf, it’s the ankle, the knee, the hips, the back,” Brand told ESPN. “No one’s really recovered from that Achilles injury and come back at the same level. I had a few serviceable seasons, but I wasn’t the same guy.”

It’s impossible to know how Brand would fare if he hadn’t busted his hamstring and then wrecked his shoulder. But those are certainly contributing factors to his post-surgery drop off and something to keep in mind while fortune-telling Cousins’ next few months. 

Brand is just one example of a big man who struggled to regain his pre-surgery form. But it’s instructive to look at some possible potholes to avoid with Cousins. In Brand’s first full season after his Achilles tear, he played in both parts of a back-to-back in the second game and third game of the season. In the second night, after flying overnight from Philadelphia to Atlanta, Brand played 45 minutes. Yeah, it was a different league back then.

Sitting out the second half of a back-to-back was once considered taboo but not anymore. Team sources indicate that they haven’t discussed whether Cousins will play in back-to-backs this season, choosing to play it by ear. But it could be wise to sit him in those games. When Brand suffered his pulled hamstring on Dec. 3 against the Lakers, it was his third game in four nights. He played 41 minutes in the first game and 43 minutes in the second. In the third game, also the second night of a back-to-back, Brand came up limp halfway through the third quarter. He pulled his right hamstring, the opposite leg of his Achilles tear.

As good as Brand was, the Duke product was never quite the caliber of Cousins, who already has twice the number of All-Star appearances as Brand. Add the backdrop of a championship quest and this is uncharted territory. 

Cousins is returning to a new team and a new, high-octane league. He will be suiting up for a Warriors team that is averaging 101.7 possessions per game, the 10th-highest pace factor in the league. That’s actually a tad faster than the Pelicans’ pace -- 100.6 possessions per game -- at the time of Cousins’ injury in late January. 

Can Cousins play at that kind of pace? It’s a question that will be on Dr. Ferkel’s mind when he watches Cousins in person on Friday in Los Angeles.

“No. 1, how does he feel and look on the court?” Ferkel says. “How comfortable is he? How comfortable is he to keep up with the pace of the game?”

The Warriors have slowed down lately, perhaps in anticipation of bringing in Cousins. In the month of December, the team ranked second in fastest offensive possessions, pushing the ball at every opportunity, per Inpredictable.com tracking data. But in January, they’ve tapped the brakes down to eighth-fastest, most notably after turnovers, where the offense ranks below-average in speed. The Pelicans were demonstrably faster when Cousins hit the bench last season. The Warriors figure to follow suit.

In some ways, Cousins’ return couldn’t happen at a better time. The Warriors have a preposterous 130.1 offensive rating this month, and that’s before they add a guy who averaged 25.2 points last season before going down with his Achilles injury. 

But Dr. Ferkel emphasized that what we’ll see on Friday isn’t the final product. In some ways, it’s the beginning.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that even if he’s released, we, as part of DeMarcus’ team, feel this current release [to play] is really the final phase of his rehabilitation. We’re not saying he’s 100 percent like he would be if he was uninjured. He’s done everything he can do but be in a game situation with elite players.”

After Cousins passed his conditioning tests, the final barrier to play, he was cleared to play for the champs. The wait is over. But for his long-term health, the weight watch has just begun.

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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