The future of the Charlotte Hornets lies in the hands of one man. That man is Kemba Walker. There have been highs and (a lot of) lows over the course of this franchise’s existence. Those two extremes have never been so simultaneously imminent like they are right now. If Kemba Walker re-signs with Charlotte this summer, this looks to be a team trending in the right direction, ready to wheel and deal their way to playoff aspirations. If he opts for greener pastures, the Hornets will tumble back into the NBA’s basement.
There are corners of Hornets fandom that think Kemba Walker isn’t a necessity for the team. He’s a replaceable star that has too many flaws to lead the team anywhere of significance. Kemba deserves more credit than that. The team was 6.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than with him on the bench in 2018-19. That’s roughly the difference between a team expected to win 42 games and a team expected to win 25 games. If Walker leaves, that projections seems accurate.
Walker enters free agency coming off the best season of his career. He averaged a career high 25.6 points per game, twelfth in the league. Despite the increased scoring, he upped his assists per game to 5.9, his highest mark since 2013-14. Only six other players averaged at least 25 points and 5.5 assists per game last season- James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Devin Booker. That’s good company. Only James Harden, Stephen Curry, and Paul George made as many 3-pointers as Kemba Walker this season. More good company.
It all resulted in Walker being named an All Star starter for the first time in his career. It was his third All Star game appearance in as many years, which is a massive feat in and of itself. It’s all the more impressive when you consider the early part of Walker’s career arc, when he looked destined to be an undersized scoring guard coming off the bench. Now he’s unarguably the best player to don the purple and teal.
This summer presents a crossroads. Kemba has made his frustrations with the organization known. He’s sick of losing. A player of his caliber deserves to play under the bright lights of the NBA playoffs. He hasn’t gotten that opportunity since 2016.
He hasn’t given up on the franchise, even though he has plenty of reason to. He has said the Hornets can convince him to stay if they prove they’re ready to compete. With a glut of overpaid role players on the roster, General Manager Mitch Kupchak will have to be creative in seeking out avenues to improve the team. They certainly can’t run it back like they have in previous seasons. That formula clearly isn’t working.
The front office has made it abundantly clear that they want Kemba Walker on the team long term, but the decision is out of their hands. The best they can do is sell Walker on the idea that this team is moving in the right direction and hope he buys in. If he does, it’ll further cement his legacy as the greatest Charlotte Hornet of all time.