The Kemba Conundrum: What Should the Hornets Do With Their ‘Franchise’ Point Guard?

Happiness and continuity can carry an extra price in the NBA, and the teams most willing to pay it are often those that have known the deepest misery.

Charlotte sunk into depths of misery no one even knew existed, both on the court and in the profit-loss margins, before recovering over the last year behind a stifling defense, a likable roster, the league’s premier old-school post-up force, and the merciful death of the “Bobcats” nickname. And now the team’s point guard, perhaps its defining personality, is eligible for a contract extension ahead of the October 31 deadline for such deals.

“I think everybody at the point guard position knows what the other guys are making,” says Kemba Walker, laughing after a workout in Charlotte, where he spent most of the summer with Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and other teammates. “We’re informed.”

If the two sides can’t agree, Walker will become a restricted free agent next summer.

People on all sides of every negotiation know the salary cap will rise over the next few years, though no one knows exactly when it will jump — or how high. There is a nagging impulse that it might be OK, just for now, to shrug and toss a few million more than you’d like at one of your own free agents. A Walker deal today at $12 million per year won’t look so bad in three years, when the cap, now at $63 million and projected at $66.5 million for 2015-16, might be more than $80 million. The Hornets could splurge on Walker and big man Al Jefferson, and still have something like $15 million in cap room in the summer of 2016. They could continue along their upward trajectory without alienating Walker and scrambling for a sexier replacement in free agency.

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So it will be no surprise when Walker’s agents propose a deal north of $10 million or even $12 million per season — a salary that would put Walker in the same band as Jrue Holiday, Stephen Curry, and the similarly undersize Ty Lawson.

Charlotte is in position to play hardball with Walker, and it should. Walker is a nice player who made strides last season, and it’s frankly amazing he put up even passable numbers playing his first two seasons on historically wretched teams. But he isn’t as accomplished as those aforementioned players were when they inked new deals, and the rising cap doesn’t justify a lazy overpay. The future cap might make today’s bad deals look less bad, but it will also make sweet-spot deals look even better. Those deals are easier to move, and any team striving for greatness — not just pretty-good-ness — has to have flexibility to seize opportunities for an upgrade. Charlotte is in danger of trapping itself in pretty-good-ness, and perhaps of overestimating the upside of its current core. Walker personifies that, as a guy who probably tops out as a league-average starting point guard.

Walker at $8 million or $9 million per season, right where Jeff Teague, Brandon Jennings, Goran Dragic, and Mike Conley sit now, is a movable asset — especially since Walker has the goods to improve within Charlotte’s evolving roster. Walker at $12 million might not be. Every dollar a team spends at one position is a dollar it can’t spend elsewhere, and there are a ton of solid point guards floating around every summer.

The collective bargaining agreement has turned every free-agency period into a drunken orgy. At least half the league’s teams enter with serious cap room, and there are more available dollars than high-level free agents. This is how Jordan Hill gets $9 million and Jodie Meeks gets more than $6 million.

Not every player gets to participate in the orgy, though, and several variables have made it harder to project the free-agency landscape a year out. A player’s position matters; Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe went untouched in part because they play at the league’s two most well-stocked positions. Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward had a different restricted free-agency experience.

As many as 10 teams could have a need at point guard next summer, but most of them have their own potential free agents to consider: Boston (Rajon Rondo); Phoenix (Dragic and Bledsoe, with Isaiah Thomas already under a long-term contract); Milwaukee (Brandon Knight); Minnesota (Ricky Rubio); and Charlotte (Walker).

Some of those teams will take themselves out of the derby. A bad team with a need, perhaps the Lakers, could fill it with projected top-three pick Emmanuel Mudiay. Some teams have an ironclad distaste for small point guards; Thomas settling for $6.75 million per year on a descending deal is proof of how tough it can be for a point guard who is both short and a restricted free agent.

Walker is taller than Thomas, but he’s not his listed 6-foot-1. “That might be a stretch,” head coach Steve Clifford says, laughing. Walker describes himself as “barely 6 feet,” though he suggests he can be “6-1 on a good day.” Other small point guards have thrived, including Lawson, Kyle Lowry, and Conley. But Lawson is a more explosive driver and finisher than Walker, Lowry is bulkier, and Conley is taller with longer arms that have helped him become an elite defender.

Even with all these caveats, Walker could still find himself among four or five starter-level free-agent point guards, including Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley, who are dealing with about as many potential suitors. That’s not a bad situation.

Here’s the catch: Next summer’s market might be deeper across all positions than last summer’s, and some of those potential suitors have needs beyond point guard. This is in part the result of a temporary rise in the number of player options for 2015-16 and 2016-17 — devices that give players flexibility to enter free agency whenever it is most advantageous. Some players might wait until the NBA’s new national TV deal drives a one-year spike in the cap, since a jolt ahead of the 2016-17 season (or later) could create a singular summer of cash. Others might settle for the smaller jump likely in 2015-16, opt out this July, and secure long-term deals.

Fans have been anticipating all the big men1 on next summer’s free-agency market, but at least a half-dozen quality wing players can decline 2015-16 player options and jump into the fray: Monta Ellis, Arron Afflalo, Jeff Green, Luol Deng, Dwyane Wade, Henderson, and a couple of others. Add in Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Alec Burks,2 Wesley Matthews, Rudy Gay and Danny Green, and next summer has the potential to feature a ton of wings.

In other words: The cap might jump only a bit, to a projected $66.5 million, and the free-agency market might be crowded at every position. This could create a one-year blip in which the ratio of available players to free dollars tilts in favor of teams. Possible Walker landing spots could spend their money elsewhere. Dallas could fill its potential space by re-signing Ellis and Tyson Chandler. Detroit has needs almost everywhere. The Lakers might have bigger dreams. Houston has shown a soft spot for small point guards, but it’s all in for a third star and has to take care of Beverley.

Miami Heat v Charlotte Bobcats - Game One

This one-year-blip theory might not play out. Several teams could yank free agents off the market by signing them to extensions, and guys with player options might anticipate this scenario and opt in for 2015-16 — avoiding the crowd and leaping back into free agency when the cap really soars in July 2016. And the cap for 2015-16 might be higher than $66.5 million. We’ll know more after the board of governors meets next month, but some teams are already operating under the assumption the cap will leap north of $70 million in 2015-16, as the league bakes in some of the national TV money early.

Regardless: The Hornets wouldn’t seem to be risking much in negotiating hard now. It takes only one asshole to set the market, as team higher-ups like to say, but it’s unclear which team might become that asshole, and Walker doesn’t seem primed for a mega-breakout. Stephenson should knock Walker down to third-option scoring status, and while that’s healthy for Walker’s game and his assist numbers, it might not be healthy for the counting stats that still drive contract talks.

Charlotte would also have the leverage of its own cap space. Capped-out teams don’t have the flexibility to replace free agents who bolt, and they often end up desperately overpaying their own guys. This is how J.R. Smith squeezed a three-year, $18 million deal out of the Knicks.

The Hornets will have plenty of cap room, and they could let Walker hang in restricted free agency while at the same time searching for an upgrade. Charlotte has a nice core, but it needs a high-variance guy — someone who might morph into a star — to compete at a higher level. Walker does not project to be that guy. It could be Stephenson, and the Hornets were brilliant to take a shot on him. Kidd-Gilchrist won’t be that guy if he never learns to shoot.

Jefferson had a wonderful season in Charlotte, but he’s 29 and coming off foot issues, and he can also enter free agency next summer by declining a player option for 2015-16.3

Dragic emerged as a star last season, Rondo has been one in the past, and Bledsoe has the tools to be a two-way force. The Hornets should at least call Phoenix about a sign-and-trade for Bledsoe, though it would be a long shot. The Suns have shown little interest in any Bledsoe deal, per sources around the league, and unless Phoenix adores Vonleh, the Hornets don’t appear to have the goods.

And that’s the rub: If you aim higher and miss, you have to find a replacement. Charlotte can’t count on snagging Dragic or Bledsoe, and after that, there’s a lull in point guard free agency until the summer of 2017 — when seemingly half the league’s starters will flood the market.4

The Hornets could let Walker go and tread water with a placeholder like Beverley or Lin; Beverley could play an off-ball role similar to his job in Houston if Stephenson evolves into a James Harden–style lead dog. (Imagine the destruction a trio of Beverley, Stephenson, and Kidd-Gilchrist could wreak on defense. Holy hell.) That would free up cash for Charlotte to search the big-man market for another cornerstone veteran big — a missing ingredient now. But Stephenson isn’t on Harden’s level, and any step back is probably unpalatable in Charlotte after a feel-good revival.

Walker is a well-loved locker-room personality, not a small thing for a team that just acquired Stephenson and P.J. Hairston. Walker still has unrealized upside, and it will be interesting to see if playing within a superior roster helps him iron out his flaws on both ends. If that’s the case, he could easily become a $10 million player.

The difference between Walker and Lawson, a fellow mighty mite, is that Walker doesn’t get deep into the paint nearly as often and struggles to finish when he gets there. Walker averaged just 6.2 drives per game last season, a middling number for a starting point guard, and he shot a horrific 48.9 percent in the restricted area, per NBA.com. Among 119 guards who attempted at least 75 such shots, only three — Austin Rivers, Rubio, and Jordan Farmar — hit a lower percentage.

Walker’s size is obviously a killer, and he doesn’t make up for it with a big vertical jump. He often jumps forward rather than up, hoping to accelerate on a horizontal plane toward the rim, reach as far as his little arms can take him, and loft the ball up before a big man can rotate. It’s more scoot than jump, and it can result in some desperate flings as defenders swat at Walker’s floaters:

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The block-fest inside might explain why Walker doesn’t venture there often. He loves the pull-up jumper and jacks a ton of long 2s on the pick-and-roll:

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Only seven players launched more pull-ups than Walker last season, and he hit just 36.7 percent of them — a poor number, per NBA.com. He also has to launch moon balls to get them over defenders, another downside to being short. Walker had the fifth-highest average peak shot height on 3-pointers last season, per SportVU data provided to Grantland, trailing only Dirk Nowitzki, Dion Waiters, Jamal Crawford, and Lin. The effect carries over to his midrange looks.

This is where roster context comes in. Henderson and Kidd-Gilchrist represented perhaps the worst non-Philly shooting duo among all starting wing tandems last season. Defenders sagged off them liberally into the middle of the floor, and with Professor Al holding office hours on the left block, Walker would find the paint walled off upon turning the corner:

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Defenders were not afraid to help off Kidd-Gilchrist in the strong-side corner — a rare thing in the NBA:

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There is hope. Stephenson isn’t a great shooter, but he’s an upgrade over Henderson. Gary Neal remains aboard, and Walker says Henderson joined Kidd-Gilchrist in undergoing a jumper reconstruction this summer.

“I do think I’ll have a lot more space this season,” Walker says.

Splitting the ballhandling duties with Stephenson should give Walker more clean spot-up looks. Walker has hit just 32 percent of his career 3s, a below-average mark, but a lot of those shots have been no-chance heaves late in the shot clock — the kind of awful shots belched up by a bad offense with a limited number of off-the-bounce creators. Opposing guards haven’t been afraid to duck under screens on Walker’s pick-and-rolls, inviting him to shoot. Walker says improving his 3-point shot was his top priority this summer. “I can’t be letting guys go under on me anymore,” he says.

Walker, though, is a goddamn trickster with the ball. He will straight-up embarrass you. He jukes defenders by faking toward a pick, getting them to lean that way, and then crossing over before they realize the humiliation they are facing:

He has a mean in-and-out hesitation dribble similar to Conley’s, and Walker embraces Conley as something of an archetype for small guards. “I like that one,” Walker says of the comparison. “Mike is a really good player, one of the underrated guards in our league.”

Give Walker more space to breathe, and he can get into the lane, manipulate the defense with change-of-pace wizardry, and toss some nice interior passes to profitable spots.5

His passing numbers improved as last season went on, and Charlotte’s offense, 24th overall in points per possession, ranked around the league average over the last 40 games.

Walker’s height will always create issues on defense. He competes his ass off, but if the Hornets ever meet a point guard with post-up skills in the playoffs, they could be toast. “Size does matter,” Clifford concedes, “especially in the playoffs.”

Like most small guards, Walker has trouble fighting over pick after pick on defense. It’s grunt work, and Walker can be caught cheating under picks against shooters too good for such treatment. “Coach gets on me for that all the time,” Walker says. “It’s just hard for someone barely 6 feet and 185 pounds to fight over that huge guy.”

KEMBAUNDER

He knows better, which is why he’ll sometimes start going under, freeze, and try at the last second to slither over the pick. That hesitation leaves him in no-man’s-land, like an anxious driver who summons up the courage for a left turn, panics, and freezes in the middle of traffic.

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Those breakdowns have a trickle-down effect, as teammates scramble to compensate and leave other enemy players open. They are doubly damaging when teams pick on Jefferson, who drops far back against the pick-and-roll in Clifford’s scheme.

Walker’s size is probably his only liability on defense. He’s diligent on and off the ball, he moves on a string, and he’s a multitasker who can monitor the rock without losing track of his guy. He might ball-watch now and then, allowing a back cut, but he’s so damn fast that he makes up any deficit in a blink. Some guys start and stop, but Walker is one of those liquid-y dudes who just kind of bends from one movement into another.

He has quick hands, and he can pressure the ball when he’s not tired. Part of the reason Walker gets slammed by so many picks is that he tries to conserve as much energy as possible, standing upright in a lazy defensive stance until the last possible moment — when he gets into a proper crouch.

Handing some of the offense to Stephenson should help Walker ward off fatigue and maintain something close to peak defense for entire games.

“Defense is where he can take a major step,” Clifford says. “He can potentially be an upper-echelon defender.”

Perhaps Clifford is right; Walker still has upside to realize. Rival executives are fond of saying Walker isn’t a “championship point guard,” but the list of starting point guards on championship teams isn’t a murderer’s row of Hall of Famers.

Most of them had salaries commensurate with their place in the point guard pecking order — salaries that allowed their teams to load up on difference-makers elsewhere. The Hornets should aim for the same, and the landscape might allow them to pull the trick without angering Walker.

Filed Under: NBA, Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets, Lance Stephenson, Al Jefferson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, 2014-15 NBA Preview

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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