On Jan. 5, 2017, the Charlotte Hornets faced the Detroit Pistons, kicking off a tough two-week road trip to begin the new year. It was the second night of a back-to-back for the team, with the first game being a physically and emotionally taxing home win against the Oklahoma City Thunder and their one-man-cartoon-fight-cloud of a point guard, Russell Westbrook.
The attrition from that battle was apparent; Charlotte looked listless and fatigued, lacking urgency on both sides of the ball. For the fourth game in a row they were missing the crucial low-post toughness normally provided by starting center Cody Zeller, who was sidelined by the NBA’s concussion protocol. With Zeller looking on in street clothes, the depleted Hornets front line was hopelessly overwhelmed by the Pistons combination of center Andre Drummond and his backup, the 7’3”, 300 lb, Lovecraftian nightmare-monster known as Boban Marjanovic.
As Detroit attacked relentlessly and their lead swelled minutes into the 4th quarter, the Hornet’s collective body language was clear: we’re taking the L on this one.
I watched the game as I do most matchups between these two teams — with my buddy Nate, a Detroit native and Pistons homer of the most fanatical order. Nate grew up on the Bad Boy-era Pistons, a team whose championship dynasty window was emphatically slammed shut by the rise of a certain mythological number 23. To this day Nate hilariously continues to hate Michael Jordan, and while on occasion he will begrudgingly concede that MJ is objectively the greatest of all time, he will tell you with straight-faced conviction that he never enjoyed watching the man play.
One time, a friend of ours somehow got us into the premiere of the Christian Laettner 30 for 30 documentary, and at the after-party that we definitely did not belong at, Nate found himself face to face with his childhood hero, Grant Hill. I watched in mild horror as some unseen chemical reaction bubbled just below the surface, uncontrollably manifesting itself into a facial expression that I could only describe as, “super embarrassing.” Needless to say, the dude loves his team. So as the Pistons blew the game open to a 15-point lead early in the 4th quarter, I braced for the ensuing tsunami of shit-talk that I knew was coming my way.
“Congrats, man. You guys destroyed us, that's a good win.” I said, trying to get out in front of the imminent dragging.
Nate was silent for several seconds. “Nah, there's a lot of game left,” he replied cautiously. “The Pistons can absolutely blow this lead.”
It was delivered with the sincerity of a fan whose team had consistently let them down. I knew that tone. I lived through the Bobcats era of professional basketball in Charlotte.
Still, this was some bullshit. Some sort of psychological power move; a cowardly attempt to ply me with hope only to twist the knife later. I wasn't having it.
“There’s no way in hell you lose this game,” I said.
We watched for a few more possessions as the Pistons lead grew to 19.
“Yeah but you could still come back, even if we don't collapse...” he said, shaking his head.
“You have Kemba.”
Kemba Walker could be characterized in any number of ways: Crunch-time warlock, Captain, Human-Blur, Insatiable Scoring Machine, Floor General, Scrambler of Defenses, Charlotte Ranger. All of those are accurate, but as Charlotte Hornets fans have long known, more than anything else, Kemba Walker is, well, just a damn beast.
After showing steady, incremental improvements over the first several seasons of his career, Walker has finally made the leap. He’s turned the corner from good player to bonafide star. Yet, as of this writing, there’s still one label that has eluded the Hornet’s leader — NBA All-Star.
Perhaps that's about to change.
Around this time every year, All-Star selection talk heats up, and Walker’s name is charitably tossed into the mix of deserving candidates, only to end up weeks later at the top of every talking head’s snub list.
The competition is fierce. The NBA is in a golden era of elite point guard talent right now, and the crowded surplus of superstars at the position has made it easy to overlook the rarely-televised Hornet’s Captain. While A-list talents like Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul and Damian Lillard bask in the megawatt glow of the national spotlight, Kemba toils away in the relative obscurity that has always come part and parcel to those playing professional basketball in Charlotte.
To this point, Kemba has existed as sort of a “Mike Conley East”. Both players lead their small market teams with well rounded efficiency, and their intrinsic value to their respective franchises are far greater than the box score would sometimes suggest.
To their credit, the collective NBA cognoscenti have been properly shouting out Kemba a decent amount already this year, targeting him as a heavy favorite to become a first time All-Star for the East squad. This by itself doesn't mean a whole lot; the “who will make their first appearance” storyline is an annual stand-by for the sports gossip industry.
For all its grandeur and luster, the All-Star Game roster selection remains a fairly predictable exercise from year to year. One or two guys fall off, a legend retires, and a few spots open up for some new faces. For the most part though, guys hold these spots down like presidential terms.
That's the bad news for Kemba. Of the twelve roster spots on the team, four are designated for backcourt players (guards), six for frontcourt (forwards and centers), with the last two spots acting as “wild cards” for whatever position. Let's just assume that those last two spots go to guards (which is certainly not a given.) By most estimations there are seven guards who can lay reasonable claim to an All-Star bid. That leaves one of them on the outside looking in. Of those players, only Walker has yet to make a team: Kyrie Irving (3 times), John Wall (3 times) Kyle Lowry (2 times) DeMar DeRozan (2 times) Isaiah Thomas (1 time), and Dwyane Wade (Tweleventhousandandfuuuuuuuuuuu).
Obviously, the most important factor in getting All-Star nods is how great of a season a player is having. But nearly as important is where your team is positioned in the standings. This is how Kyle Korver can make an All-Star team as a completely one dimensional player averaging less than 13 points per game.
The record matters. Lowry, DeRozan and Thomas would all make the roster based off of their stats and play alone, but factor in that their teams have been cemented in the top three of the Eastern Conference all year, and they are mortal locks.
Irving is on the reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers, who are either the best or second best team in the league when operating at full strength, especially after acquiring the aforementioned Korver for a conditional future half-pack of Starbursts (Pinks and Reds protected). Kyrie is a flashy highlight machine with a signature Nike shoe playing next to the most famous player in the world. Naturally, he’s a lock to start at guard.
That leaves Walker, Wall, and Wade vying for the last two spots. Ostensibly, Wade is the odd man out. Despite their not-as-bad-as-it-probably-should-be record, the Chicago Bulls have been a straight up garbage fire this season. Wade is unquestionably in the twilight of his career and, if we’re being honest, hasn't been an All-Star caliber player for several years. Doesn't matter. His legacy and profile precede him; for better or worse, Dwyane Wade is still one of the “faces” of the league, and a fixture in the annual exhibition game.
For its part, the NBA has mercifully made some long overdue tweaks to this process, almost exclusively due to one man: Zaza “Nothing Easy” Pachulia. Zaza narrowly missed making the team as a starter through fan votes last year, and this year through two rounds of voting he has maintained the second highest amount of votes for a Western Conference frontcourt player. Why? Because
he is an unstoppable low post mix of Shaq and Wilt Chamberlain with an unquenchable thirst for buckets, boards and the souls of his opponents he’s from the country of Georgia. And the country of Georgia loves Zaza Pachulia more than the state of Georgia loves Outkast. Actually, the country of Georgia loves Zaza Pachulia more than anybody loves anything.
Here’s how the process now works: Starters are determined by fan votes (50 percent), player votes (25 percent), and coach votes (25 percent). This is huge for Kemba’s chances, as under the old system (fan votes accounted for 100 percent), Wade would surely get in, leaving the last spot as basically a coin flip between Walker and Wall. This doesn't mean Wade can't still make it though. Its anybody’s guess as to how the players and coaches will vote. If I had to speculate, I would think they’d favor meritocracy, but who knows?
One point of reference that may or may not be relevant is the players MVP vote from 2015, in which they elected James Harden the one true king, not-at-all coincidentally shading actual MVP Steph Curry with a degree of subtlety that would’ve given J. Cole pause. If that's any indication, the players will vote for guys they feel have “earned it” the most i.e. not-Wade.
Ignoring their bodies of work and looking at performance in this year alone, it feels like you would have to put it in a four-way tie between Lowry/DeRozan/Thomas/Walker, then Kyrie, then Wall, then a whole mess of other dudes, and then Wade, somewhere back there spinning slowly off into the vast emptiness of space.
But again, winning matters, and the Hornets recent streak of putrid performances has slid them down to .500, evaporating Kemba’s advantage in that category.
Still, his production may be too hard to ignore. Last season Kemba made a leap, showing strong improvements in shooting and efficiency from the 2014-15. But this year he improved again at almost the same pace; the two year splits are dramatic. Kemba is posting career bests in Points (23.0), field goal percentage (47 percent), and 3-point percentage (42 percent). Those numbers two years ago? 17.3 points, 38 percent from the field, and 30 percent from deep.
Mother of God.
So what’s different? Well for one, the organization finally put the keys to the team firmly in Kemba’s hands. The summer leading into the 2013-14 season, the Hornets signed free agent center Al Jefferson, something of a coup for an organization that had historically been unable to attract free agents of his caliber. Jefferson immediately became the focal point of the offense, with everything running through his plodding-yet-effective style of low-post wizardry. While this was successful, it often left you wondering if you weren't seeing a neutered version of Walker’s potential.
The Hornets let Big Al walk this summer, and with his departure the offense was handed over to Kemba completely. And I do mean completely.
Jefferson’s antiquated, slow tempo game certainly had its limitations, but if you needed a bucket... buddy, he could get you a bucket. With Jefferson gone, Kemba was left as pretty much the only guy on the roster that could consistently carry and initiate the offense. Nicolas Batum is capable, and when asked to can bring the ball up and and make things happen while doing a decent impression of a poor-man’s Scottie Pippen, but he lacks the crucial, “pure scorer” gene. Marco Belinelli, in turn, does a great job of moonlighting as this type of player for the bench unit, but it's not a natural fit. That leaves a lot of pressure on Kemba to be responsible for the lion’s share of the Hornets offense.
And that, my friends... is a Kemba Walker-ass role.
That may seem hard for to believe for basketball fans who don't watch many Hornets games. Kemba’s stats, while impressive, don't necessarily jump off the page at you . At 23 points a game, he currently ranks 17th in the league in that category, and an unremarkable 8th amongst point guards. Similarly, his 5.5 assists per game don't really move the needle for a “star” point guard or the primary distributor on a playoff team.
While Walker may not yet have the professional validation and attention that comes with being named an All-Star, what he does provide the Hornets with may be ultimately more valuable — respect. Kemba is the only player on Charlotte’s roster you would realistically categorize as a “scorer”. Teams know this of course, so the obvious game plan when playing the Hornets is simply to stop Kemba.
If he isn't going to beat you, who is?
The short answer is everyone. The Hornets have one of the most even team point distributions in the NBA, with eight players in their rotation averaging at least nine points per game this year. In addition to Walker, there’s Nic Batum (15.1 points per game), Cody Zeller (10.7), Marco Belinelli (10.5), Marvin Williams (10.5), Frank Kaminsky (10.0), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (9.2), and Jeremy Lamb (9.1). That... is hard to gameplan against.
The Hornets truly attack with a “hive mentality”. On any given night, the points could come from anywhere and everywhere. So how do you turn a ragtag crew of non-threatening offensive role players into a guerrilla-style scoring unit? Focus all of the defensive attention on one weapon.
This is where Walker deserves a lot of the credit, because he’s begun to figure out that the “idea” of Kemba can sometimes be greater than the physical manifestation of it. Defenses know he’s the caliber of scorer that can absolutely win a game by himself, and with no other obvious threats on the court they have no choice but to key in on him with frequent traps and double teams. That leaves two options:
- Go into Serial-Killer-Berserker-Mode and try to win 1-on-5
This is the “Kobe Mentality.” The erstwhile Mr. Bryant was a Neo-fighting-1,000-Agent-Smiths basketball fever dream, the Patron Saint of “I GOT THIS”.
Opponents LOVE when someone Kobes a game. It takes the rest of that guys teammates out of their rhythm and generally involves a ton of high volume/low percentage shooting. If you’re facing the Thunder, the last thing you want is Russell Westbrook consistently attacking the rim. If you can feed into the “I gotta get all these points myself” side of his ego and get him to start chucking low percentage threes, he might just shoot the team out of the game.
“Yeah but, couldn't you potentially lose, like, a LOT of games playing this way?”
Hell yes, you could. But it will look awesome. The Kobe system is like smoking cigarettes: it might look cool and dangerous, but in the end it will probably kill you. Also, Vlade Divac will at some point be involved.
(Side note: Did you know that in addition to the signature line of Kobe’s, Nike makes a cheaper, stripped down low-top version of his shoe that is unironically described as “gets the job done with the absolute minimal amount of support”? It's called — I’m not making this up — The Kobe Mentality.)
In my opinion, the single biggest factor in Kemba’s leap has been his spike in efficiency. He’s shooting 42 percent on seven 3-point attempts per game, amongst all point guards only Kyle Lowry (44 percent) is better. He’s fifth amongst all point guards in field goal percentage at 47 percent. Now, factor in that Kemba is the main offensive threat for his team. Walker has the highest field goal percentage of all point guards that serve as their team’s primary scorer, and ranks first in the league amongst all primary team scoring options in 3-point percentage. The “primary scorer” qualifier shouldn't be easily dismissed. It goes without saying but, wide open shots are generally easier to hit. Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving, and Steph Curry get a lot less defensive attention than they would if DeMar DeRozan, Lebron James, and Kevin Durant weren't on the court.
Simply put, by increasing his overall shooting by nearly 12 percent, teams can't just let Walker “Kobe” a game. This year if you let him shoot it, he’ll make you pay. So teams try their best not to give him that option. That naturally leads to...
- Exploit the extra defensive attention by facilitating and hitting open teammates.
The best example of the second option may be the current iteration of LeBron James. LeBron spent the first half of his career single-handedly dragging several crappy-to-very-crappy teams deep into the playoffs, but could never scale the mountain all the way by himself. Even playing with superstars (as we saw in his first Miami season) didn't fully unlock his potential. It wasn't until he realized that he could exploit the extra attention defenses were giving him (and in turn leaving teammates open for much higher percentage shots) that his game became fully realized. Of course he couldn't have gotten that extra defensive attention without first proving that he was a dominant, world beating singular force.
Those two players are paradigms; Kemba lacks the natural physical gifts necessary to withstand the demands of playing either style over the course of 82 games (put Kemba’s heart/skill-set/confidence in say, Andrew Wiggins’ body and you get Kobe). But he has wisely learned how to utilize some sort of synthesis of the two.
Of course neither is possible to achieve without one, crucial component: the ability to make the other team shit their pants.
Walker entered the league with a reputation as a world conqueror, having come off one of the most exciting and memorable NCAA tournament runs of all time. His 2011 UConn post-season stands as perhaps the preeminent example of a singular talent carrying a team to a championship, and an affirmation of the well-worn hoops adage, “the best player on the court usually wins the game.” Many scouts questioned whether his devastating combination of crafty ball handling and brassy shot-making would hold up against the vastly superior length, athleticism, and defensive schemes of the professional game.
I was a Kemba Stan from day one, and it's fair to say that he had at least exceeded the low expectations that many analysts had set for him upon entering the NBA. But by his fourth season (and third consecutive averaging 17 points per game), his stats and efficiency actually took a dip. He seemed to have plateaued, if not begun to regress, and I started to wonder if it was time to move on.
I was wrong.
2016-17 Kemba looks a lot like the guy we all watched burn the NCAA tournament to the ground. The one elite skill he’s had every step of the way is the ability to consistently hit shots in huge moments. He’s always been that guy.
Last season he made 14 game winners. Every NBA team has guys that are capable of bringing them back from a huge deficit and hitting a game winning shot. The difference is with Kemba, you expect him to.
That’s the fear.
Flash back to the 4th quarter of that Pistons game. The Hornets were absolutely dejected, waiving the white flag. But with the lead at 19 points and about nine minutes left in the game, Walker checked back in, and just as Nate had predicted, he took the fuck over. Eight minutes and 59 seconds later, Kemba had scored 20 points in the quarter, jumped passing lanes, grabbed rebounds, made brilliant assists and pretty much single-handedly brought the Hornets back from the brink of death to make it a 114-115 game with .05 seconds left and the ball to inbounds. Not enough time to get a great shot off. Kemba couldn't shake free, and Belinelli made a split second decision to inbound the ball off of a defenders back it, collected the ball and banked home what would've been the most amazing buzzer beater in Hornets history.
I congratulated Nate. He looked exhausted.
“At least you guys have Kemba,” he said. “We don't have anybody like that.”
Every year there are at least 24 All-Stars. But how many guys are there in the league that give their team that? Gerald Wallace was an All-Star for Charlotte and believe me, no one worried about that guy single handedly dismantling their team.
That's the thing.
With Kemba, you're never completely out of a game. If there’s any justice to this year’s All-Star selections, he won't be out of that game, either.