Column: If you love Kemba, leave him alone

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Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker looks at the scoreboard as he walks up the court against the Utah Jazz during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, April 1, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Kemba Walker has a big decision this July. The diminutive spark plug point for the Charlotte Hornets will see his four-year, $48 million contract expire this summer. Coming off of a season during which he averaged 25.5 points per game, near singlehandedly keeping the Hornets in the playoff race in the Eastern Conference, he is in line for one quite a bit more lucrative. Should those numbers propel him to be named to an All-NBA team, the stakes will soar much higher.

Walker is a UConn legend, and Husky fans have invested a lot of time and emotion into supporting him. Most just want what’s best for him. Some fans who root for the New York Knicks want him to return home and don blue and orange more selfishly. There are also those who fall in the camp that such a move would be mutually satisfying.

The New York Knicks will have the cap space this summer to sign two “max-level” free agents this summer, meaning they can give two veteran stars 35 percent of the salary cap. The smoke signals of the league, and its media prognosticators, is that one of those spots will be filled by Golden State Warriors superstar Kevin Durant who is seeking the opportunity to excel with his own team in a major market. The other? Who knows. Jimmy Butler? DeMarcus Cousins? Gasp… Kyrie Irving?

All are plausible, but Walker, an NYC native who played at Rice High School in the City, then matriculated just north to what some dub “New York’s College team,” is a popular choice because of his roots as well as his great stagnation in Charlotte.

About that: Since Walker has been a Hornet, they have made the playoffs just twice, and it must be noted the Eastern Conference has been particularly weak. They failed to make it this year because Walker didn’t even have a Robin, let alone a Justice League-level standout to work with. Jeremy Lamb has improved a lot, but he isn’t quite it. Nicholas Batum has fallen off. Miles Bridges is too raw. Malik Monk too volatile. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was a No. 2 pick who became a role player.

So, despite Walker exploding into a phenom, making three straight All-Star games, the franchise has just not matched that trajectory with him. They reset this past summer, ousting general manager Rich Cho and head coach Steve Clifford for Mitch Kupchak and James Borrego, respectively. The great debate is whether or not Walker ought to see them out.

It is a debate that will be greatly exacerbated should he be named All NBA, which he seems right on the cusp of based on media rhetoric. With that on his resume, the Hornets can offer him the Designated Player Exception, which NBA wonks casually refer to as the “Super Max.” Here is NBA analyst and cap guru Danny Leroux’s synopsis from The Athletic:

Using the current $109 million estimate for the 2019-20 salary cap, this difference would be massive for both Walker and the Hornets. Instead of a standard seven-to-nine year max contract starting at $32.7 million with a total value of $189.7 million, qualifying as a Designated Veteran would open up a $38.2 million starting salary and eye-popping five-year, $221.3 million contract. For comparison, the most any other team could offer would be four seasons and $140.6 million.

Any other team could be just that, but it is widely believed to be the Knicks. Should they get Kevin Durant, and a top draft pick to add a future star or flip for a current one, it could become an enticing destination to win. Walker simply has experienced that. Neither have Knicks fans, and as any cliché-spewing observer will tell you, everything is amplified in the Big Apple. Combined with increased visibility and off-the-court opportunities, a “better” situation in New York might just be too alluring to pass up.

But $80 million is an absurd amount of money to reject in leaving. I think it gets lost when discussing professional athletes’ salaries. 80. Million. Dollars. Who the heck is anyone to tell Kemba he ought to turn that down?

All NBA or not, Walker can still get more money staying in Charlotte than if he were to leave. But it isn’t only a money decision. Like UConn fans feel they have a lot of equity in him, he must know he has a lot of equity in Charlotte. He has been “the guy” there for some time now, and in their case that has often meant the lone true bright spot. He has a legacy there, one that probably wouldn’t be tarnished in leaving, but would be cemented by staying. That, along with whatever other community entrenchments he has, are of value that shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed.

Still, the opportunity to win—and to do it in New York—is such a tasty option. You can see why Kemba fans are torn. Everyone has different perceptions of what’s best, and there are even some Charlotte fans who probably want him to jump ship and find success that they can indulge in by proxy. However, some fans are perturbed by this era of increased player movement. They base themselves on the idea of loyalty and team cohesion. I find those to be respectable traits, but I don’t feel they are often applied to the team management and decision-making types. Why do they get all the agency? Kemba should be able to make the best situation for himself just as much as they do.

It is a gray matter, and he will have to conduct himself like the veteran he is in making a decision. Once he makes one, hopefully all the different types of Walker disciples can support and respect it.


Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.barresi@uconn.edu.

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