Kemba Walker’s 60-point explosion against the 76ers on Saturday night was a microcosm of his tenure with the Hornets since being drafted out of UConn in 2011. Walker was a one-man band vs. Philadelphia, carrying the offensive load behind a subpar supporting cast. And as the buckets have continued to pour in over the years, the wins have not. The Hornets have made the playoffs just twice with Walker, losing in the first round in 2014 and 2016.
The former No. 9 overall pick carried Charlotte’s offense again on Monday. Walker erupted for 43 points, including 21 in the fourth quarter, bringing the Hornets a 117-112 win over the Celtics. Two nights after falling just short against an Eastern Conference contender, Charlotte was able to withstand the late-game pressure and bring its 2018-19 record to 8-8.
It’s a testament to Walker that the Hornets are sitting at .500. Charlotte’s roster is an amalgam of overpaid complimentary pieces and overmatched youngsters, not conducive to conference finals contention. Walker is the sixth-highest paid player on the team. Nic Batum is owed over $24 million for each of the next three seasons (assuming he picks up his 2020-21 player option). Bismack Biyombo makes $17 million this season and Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller each make more than Walker’s $12 million in 2019. In trying to stay competitive, the Hornets’ brass locked themselves into a future of mediocrity.
It’s been a career year for Walker amid the mismanaged roster. He’s now averaging 29.6 points per game, tops in the league ahead of Steph Curry and LeBron James. Walker has the most clutch points in the league per NBA.com, and is averaging a career-high effective field goal percentage. He’s on pace for his first All-NBA appearance and is on the fringe of MVP discussion.
Charlotte fans may want to cherish Walker while they can. His contract is up after this season, and you can expect him to be a hot commodity on the free-agent market. It’s not hard to imagine him in purple and gold as LeBron’s next super sidekick. Phoenix could offer a bundle of money, as could the Knicks, Nets or any number of teams. Charlotte can offer the most years and dollars, and that could be the determining factor. Nobody would blame Walker for cashing out after signing a (now paltry) four-year, $48 million extension in 2014, but if he wants a new situation, there will be plenty of suitors.
Walker’s potential departure provides a quandary for Charlotte management. Walker is sure to bring back a decent haul in a trade—perhaps a pair of Los Angeles’ young pieces—and losing Walker for nothing in free agency could send the Hornets on a direct path to the top of the lottery. But will Michael Jordan embrace the losing and ship Walker for controllable assets? That feels unlikely before the calendar turns to 2019.
Walker deserves better than the mismanaged roster he’s been saddled with in Charlotte. He should land on a contender either by the trade deadline or this summer, but for now, the Hornets’ faithful should pay their respects before it’s too late.