CHARLOTTE — To be zoned to death in the NBA, where the best shooters and tacticians in the world are gainfully employed, is to die slow and painful, and the Hornets are learning this the hard way. It is overtime in Charlotte, where the home team has just blown a 21-point lead to the shorthanded Knicks, whose makeshift 2-3 defense has been an unexpected sort of Kryptonite. As has been the case in the Spectrum Center for years now, hope lingers in the form of Kemba Walker. His team trailing by four, Walker catches six feet behind the top of the arc and sizes up Emmanuel Mudiay, hesitating to his right as the clock ticks down, his side-stepped three-point heave finding back iron. Six rows up, two little boys donning Walker’s jersey are in panic mode. “Jordan’s going to kill him!” one cries, as the other flings himself prostrate over his seatback.
At their feet lie two boxes, each containing tonight’s giveaway: a Muggsy Bogues bobblehead that probably means little to anyone born in this millennium, but might turn a fine profit on eBay. This particular game is one of eight ‘Classic Nights,’ which means a mascot in an aquamarine bodysuit and Concord Jordans windmilling off a trampoline, clearing a much bigger Bogues bobblehead (so large, it’s nearly life-sized) with divebombing slams during timeouts. Since their triumphant return from Bobcats purgatory, the Hornets have leaned into the nostalgia. Bogues, Charlotte’s iconic 5’3” former point guard and franchise assist leader, was honored at halftime. Since then, the Hornets’ offense has sputtered, and the Knicks, despite closing the game with roughly eight healthy players, have looked the hungrier team.
In their 30th anniversary season, the occasional return of Charlotte’s pinstripe jerseys and retro court has made for one of the NBA’s purest aesthetic pleasures. The on-court action remains a work in progress. In the minutes that follow, Walker, Charlotte’s bellwether and heartbeat, fails to find the net, including a breakneck full-court dash to the rim off a missed free throw that nearly forces another overtime. The Hornets fall by two, falling to .500 and a tie for sixth in the conference.
Of course, not all is lost in Charlotte, where the actions of ownership, not the team, have often been the primary national draw (Michael Jordan’s paternal smack of 20-year-old Malik Monk two nights prior went viral; Jeremy Lamb’s game winner did not.) That is primarily due to Walker, who in addition to inspiring a new wave of fans, establishing himself as a beloved teammate and becoming the franchise’s all-time leading scorer before his 30th birthday, has taken his own game to new heights. Generously listed at 6’1”, Walker’s uncanny ability to flutter in and out of the paint, keep his dribble and pull up from anywhere on the floor has made him into one of the league’s most captivating shows. “He put us on the map with his play. This year he’s put himself on the map,” says veteran forward Marvin Williams. Walker’s absurd 60-point effort in a November loss to Philly stands as the NBA’s season-high. His game is all scoops, feints and angles, and frequently a Cheshire grin.
On the heels of two 36-win campaigns, Charlotte didn’t enter the season to any fanfare. They’ve been unable to inch more than a game above .500, and have played only seven games against unforgiving Western Conference opposition. Walker’s inspired on-court case as the best point guard in the East has instilled belief. With veteran executive Mitch Kupchak leading the organization, Popovichian disciple James Borrego taking over the bench and Walker set to be a 29-year-old unrestricted free agent come July, the Hornets are charting a new course. There is no masking how much is at stake. Walker would be eligible for a supermax contract if he makes an All-NBA team. After last season’s trade chatter, the franchise seems publicly intent on keeping him. But the Hornets will have to strike a balance between paying their star player what he’s worth, and maintaining the financial flexibility to still cultivate a winner around him.
With that in mind, the Hornets are in the playoff chase with intent to hang around. Hours before the Knicks loss, they were riding their first three-game win streak of the season. Before the season, Walker emphasized his desire to stay put long-term. He has little interest in playing things up. As outward speculation has mounted, he is focused on setting Charlotte’s tone. “That’s just how it is. I know how it goes,” Walker told the Crossover. “It’s something I try not to think about. There’s nothing I can do about it right now. I don’t know my future at this point.”
“But I just try to play, man,” he added. “We’ve been playing well, we’re just trying to keep trending up. Nobody thought we’d be where we are.” Walker scored 12 fourth-quarter points in Wednesday’s dramatic win over the Pistons, coming up with miraculous stops on Blake Griffin at the end of the game, then assisting on Lamb’s buzzer beater. “I want guys to know I have confidence in them to take and make big shots,” Walker says. But after losing to New York, the Hornets dropped Saturday’s game to the Lakers by 28—their worst margin of the season. Walker shot 1-of-10 in the fourth and overtime on Friday, and 2-of-13 from the field for a meager four points against Los Angeles. Charlotte owns the league’s best assist-to-turnover ratio and lowest turnover average, a team strength that has been a hallmark of Walker’s tenure as starting point guard, but totaled 34 turnovers in the two losses. The Hornets sit at 14–15 entering Wednesday’s game against the Cavaliers.
“I know teams are gameplanning against me, trying to not let me shoot pull-ups, basically trying to take me out of the game as much as they can,” Walker says. He is a marked man, but does not seem to desire the spotlight, no matter how much he thrives within it. “What I’m trying to do is play the game the right way, not force shots up. Whenever I have my opportunities, take ‘em. But for the most part, I’m just trying to create a little bit more for my teammates, impact the game in different ways.”
The Hornets have seen an uptick in offensive efficiency under Borrego, who emphasizes team-wide ball movement and decision making. They entered the week ranked sixth in offensive rating, according to NBA.com data, and their starting five of Walker, Lamb, Nicolas Batum, Williams and Cody Zeller have logged more time together than any other lineup in the league, with a positive net rating of 4.4 through 368 minutes. The roster is not starry, but when Charlotte is playing well the ball zips around the floor, with enough quality passers and shooters on the floor to play Borrego’s preferred style, adopted from his time on the bench in San Antonio.
Still, there was little need to reinvent the wheel from the Steve Clifford era. Borrego has continued feeding Walker a healthy diet of pick-and-roll opportunities, and he remains among the league’s most efficient players in those situations. Last season, Walker trailed only Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard among point guards, averaging 1.03 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. He is up to 1.05 through the first leg of this season. Creative as he is off the bounce, Walker rarely ever turns it over, able to navigate trouble with his airtight handle and consistently make the right read. At the top of every opponent’s defensive checklist has been tailoring their ball screen coverage to slow him down. Few have been able to do it. “He’s the head of the snake,” Lamb says. “We go as he goes.”
Though at his core, Walker remains more scorer than setup man, his game has become delightfully spontaneous. “My teammates trust me, they know I make the right plays,” Walker says. “I’m not a selfish guy.” As he jets from baseline to baseline nightly, firing off leaners and no-look passes, he’s proven himself more than capable of engineering a modern, pace-and-space attack. It’s easy to dream of what Charlotte could accomplish with extra weaponry around him.
To date, the Hornets have enjoyed little margin for error: eight of Charlotte’s 15 losses have come by four points or less, while they’ve won just three times in games that tight. It is a challenge to equate one circumstantial late-game loss to another, but consider how often Walker doubles as bone and marrow for their offense and lack of shot-creating wings on the roster, and it’s easy to understand Borrego’s proclivity for mixing and matching. In attempts to juice the attack, he has frequently paired Walker with a rejuvenated, 36-year-old Tony Parker.
“It gives me a different look, especially because I don’t have to always be in pick-and-roll,” Walker says. “It gives me another guy who creates. And I think it frees others guys up as well, because a lot of people won’t help off of me. I love playing with [Tony]. It takes a lot of pressure off me.” As a two-man pairing, they own a +4.1 net rating overall—but that number dips to -6.0 when isolating their 79 fourth-quarter minutes together. Closing with two smaller guards on the floor is a delicate proposition on the defensive end. At times, Borrego has gone ultra-small, placing 6’2” Malik Monk, next to them for optimal spacing. The experiments underscore the holes in Charlotte’s roster: in order to maximize Walker’s impact on offense, they must surrender something on the other end.
The Hornets’ ceiling for immediate improvement appears tied to the maturation of their last two first-round draft picks: Monk, a talented scorer but ostensible wild card, and Miles Bridges, who can spell Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at the four for a more athletic, offensive-minded look.“ Once those guys start to figure it out, then I think we can make some noise,” Walker says. As it stands, Borrego has yo-yoed their minutes, along with those of reserve bigs Frank Kaminsky and Willy Hernangomez. While the Hornets have gotten production off their bench, there might be something to be said for giving the younger players a chance to establish a consistent rhythm. Barring a trade, Charlotte will have to extract more from their current deck. “I’d rather be the underdog than anything," Walker says. “I’d rather people not talk about us. Hopefully we keep it that way.”
Fair or not, there is a short-term onus on Borrego to figure this out. Walker’s free-agent decision will determine whether Charlotte stays relevant or risks an uncertain fate falling toward the bottom of the conference. As those negotiations approach, a playoff berth can do no harm for either side. Walker will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time, having made a base $48 million off his current deal—a number rendered modest by the stunning, self-made leap he took two seasons ago, through diligent work on his craft. “His game has changed so much, man,” Williams says.
While mutual respect between player and team would point to Charlotte getting a deal done, it’s worth remembering that Walker, too, will face the temptation of changing situations as he approaches 30, an age that can be a scary physical benchmark for guards his size. If he demands a full max, particularly one north of $200 million, it will be hard to totally fault the Hornets for balking. For what it’s worth, there is little doubt that Walker has grown invested, and if there is a middle ground, Charlotte would do well to find it. Walker seems ticketed for a spot in February’s All-Star Game, which the Hornets will host. His leadership and locker-room equity would be hard to replace, and his steady improvement suggests he might prolong his prime long enough to build something better.
“Sometimes I just surprise myself a lot,” Walker says, chuckling. “Like, when I had 60. That was surprising. I would have never thought I would have 60 points in an NBA game. You know, some of the shots I make [now]… at one point I was shooting 33 percent from three. Then I got up to 39 [in 2016-17]. It’s crazy, for me to be top five in three pointers made for the last two or three seasons… I just never in a million years would have thought I would be up there.”
Charlotte hopes the surprises keep coming.