Hornets make hard commitment to guard Kemba Walker despite his flaws
With just days to go until the contract extension deadline, the Hornets committed $48 million over four years to Kemba Walker, per ESPN.com. Walker isn't yet the kind of player that should pull a $12 million annual salary. Charlotte, though, clearly has hopes he might be soon and was willing to compensate Walker as if his growth were a foregone conclusion.
This kind of investment can be a dangerous game. It's unlikely lining up around $12 million for Walker in each of the next four years will sink the Hornets at this or any juncture. Franchises can maneuver around contracts of that size and potentially flip them if circumstances permit. Still, putting this much on the line for a guard of Walker's particulars is worrisome at the very least, especially for a franchise lacking in potential stars.
Is Walker intended to be a high-volume scorer? He averaged 17.7 points per game in each of the past two seasons, though in both cases Walker's teams fell in the bottom seven in offensive efficiency. This was not a matter of coincidence. Of all the players in the league to shoot as often as Walker did last season, only one -- Sixers rookie Michael Carter-Williams -- posted a lower effective field goal percentage. Walker neither shoots well from range nor gets to the rim as often as needed, a combination that leaves the 25-year-old to deke his way into mid-range jumpers against taller opponents.
Is his lot, then, to be a star-level playmaker? Walker set up his teammates as often as Kyrie Irving, Mike Conley and Goran Dragic did last season, which in itself is no small thing. Yet Walker is distinct from that lot for everything he cannot do. Most glaring of all: Walker's forays into the paint don't collapse a defense, as any team with a living, breathing scouting department knows full well that Walker has few options after pushing deep into the paint. His horrid shooting percentage around the rim (48.9 percent) is symptomatic of his height. It's in this way that Walker's size becomes a liability, and his otherwise solid passing skills bump up against a ceiling of towering centers and spindly limbs.
Charlotte obligates itself to a player whose strengths are inextricable from his limitations. Everything associated with Walker comes with some caveat, save his new salary: Next season the Hornets will be on the hook to pay their starting point guard well into eight figures while still trying to address significant gaps elsewhere on the roster. It's entirely possible that Walker's game will flourish as the players around him improve or are replaced. Playing so many minutes alongside the range-less wing duo of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson, for example, naturally eats into the space afforded to a scorer like Walker. With better shooters comes more breathing room, and within it more freedom to shake off defenders with wily ball handling.
To what degree the Hornets can upgrade those wing positions (and other holes in the roster) with Walker cashing extension checks remains to be seen. Next year's team already projects to be over the salary cap, supposing that Al Jefferson accepts his player option. The cap sheet in subsequent seasons is more open-ended, particularly as the NBA's new TV deal takes the gap to greater heights. As it stands today, Lance Stephenson is already in the mix to give Charlotte another player capable of turning his possession of the ball into actionable offense. That said, it's not as if Stephenson's three-point shooting will open up the floor for the Hornets in any significant way. Kidd-Gilchrist, to his credit, also trades off in his shooting deficiency with strong perimeter defense, incredible rebounding for his position and intuitive cutting. Finding a player who checks the same boxes while also projecting as a long-range threat might not be feasible on Charlotte's new budget. Opting for a substitute without those skills, on the other hand, could do damage as suggested by the then-Bobcats' sudden defensive drop whenever MKG checked out of the game.
It also shouldn't be ignored that Walker had plenty of schematic help last season from Steve Clifford's offense, flush as it was with simultaneous action and other misdirection. The flaw was not in the design, nor in a lack of first-option help. Walker had the benefit of working alongside an All-Star caliber center who drew all kinds of attention in the post, and yet still the offense that Walker curated could score no more consistently than the muddled Cavs or free-falling Pacers. That is a problem Charlotte just bet $48 million it can solve organically.
There are reasons, still, to favor Walker, beginning with a winning personality. It was in part his influence that enticed Jefferson and bound those in Charlotte's locker room during a playoff-worthy season. He's the kind of individual that NBA franchises love to have around -- positive without sliding into delusion, committed without being overbearing. Perhaps it's those qualities that the Hornets invest in now as much as any. In terms of game alone, though, it's worth wondering if a player as complicated as Walker warrants a lucrative extension as a means of keeping him out of free agency. The market for undersized point guards leans shy in most cases, in part because the position is overpopulated with quality alternatives. A stop-gap is rarely more than a mid-level exception away.
There is always some risk in letting a player of discernible quality fish for offers. Walker would be no different. Yet Charlotte had the luxury of holding out for a better deal without risking some critical blow in the event of Walker's exit. He's a leader of this current team and will be a contributor to its success. He's also, as cold as it sounds, not so effective on the court as to be above replacement. The Hornets clearly see Walker differently -- so much so as to pay their merely starting-caliber guard as if he were something more.