With the Charlotte Hornets missing the playoffs, Kemba Walker may very well be looking elsewhere in free agency. If so, the Utah Jazz should absolutely step in and pursue his services.
Although the playoffs are upon us and the Utah Jazz may have a lot to prove about the makeup of the team and what needs they truly have going forward, I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to say that we already know that the Jazz need another piece if they hope to truly compete for a championship. Some would say they need a playmaking four. Others a new point guard. Some still may wish for simply a third scoring option regardless of position or if they’re star level or not.
I think there’s an argument to be had for each of those cases. And once free agency draws nearer, perhaps I’ll dive in to pros and cons of all three. But for now, with the playoffs beginning this weekend, I’ll instead focus on a more pertinent story line having to do solely with a potential upgrade at point guard.
Said story line has nothing to do with a current Utah Jazz player. In fact, you could say it has nothing to do with the team at all, at least not yet. However, it’s still something worth keeping an eye on.
While 16 NBA teams now find themselves in the thrill of qualifying for playoff contention, there are also 14 other squads facing the sting of missing out of postseason action. For some, such as the Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks or Phoenix Suns, this reality set in long ago, meaning the end of the season didn’t really come as that much of a shock.
But for other teams, namely in this instance the Charlotte Hornets, the pain of missing out on postseason action didn’t become a reality until the final day of the regular season. Charlotte’s odds were a long shot throughout the final month of regular season action and the last day was no different. They needed both a win over the Orlando Magic and a Detroit Pistons loss to the New York Knicks to make it in. Unfortunately for them, neither happened. And in all honesty, it was amazing they had kept their chances alive for as long as they did.
That falling short of the playoffs perhaps hurts worse for Hornets star Kemba Walker than it does for any other player in the NBA. In Charlotte’s final game, Walker did everything he could to keep the dream alive. He finished with 43 points on 64 percent shooting from the field and 44.4 percent shooting from deep. It was an absolutely brilliant performance. But ultimately, it wasn’t enough.
It wasn’t enough.
Those three words could perfectly describe Kemba’s 2018-19 season. Despite being an NBA All-Star starter, putting up a career season and doing everything within his capability to give his team a fighting chance at the playoffs, they still fell short.
In that final contest, Charlotte’s two highest paid players, Nicolas Batum and Bismack Biyombo, combined for just six points (Biyombo scored all six). The next two highest paid players, Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller, weren’t in action. The fifth, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist logged one minute and zero points. Next comes Kemba. Kemba did everything. Gave his heart and soul. But again, it wasn’t enough.
That game was a microcosm of the entire season for Charlotte. Sure, guys like Jeremy Lamb, Dwayne Bacon, Malik Monk and Miles Bridges all showed promise at one point or another. There’s a lot to like about some of the young talent on the squad. But pretending like they have a championship in their near future (or even a deep playoff run, to be frank) as currently constructed, is pure foolishness.
And therein lies an enormous dilemma for Kemba. He is one of the most likable guys in the NBA, not just because of his spectacular play on the court or his story of overcoming the odds to become a brilliant player, but because he’s an absolutely solid person off the basketball court. A part of that great personality is his loyalty, and he’s shown nothing but dedication to Charlotte and a determination to elevate that team to the greatest heights he can muster.
That loyalty is a big part of what has made Kemba so great and so loved. But it’s also likely what will make his upcoming free agency decision so hard.
Leading up to this season and throughout the early part of what many figured to be a promising year for the Hornets last fall, Walker showed nothing but love for the city of Charlotte, enthusiasm about the team’s chances and a determination to build something special in Buzz City. He further solidified himself in Hornets lore as arguably the best player to don the purple and teal by becoming the franchise’s all-time leading scorer this season. He’s publicly and verbally expressed that Charlotte is where he wants to stay in the past.
But suddenly, as a part of a team that underperformed and missed the playoffs, it’s hard not to wonder if Kemba is suddenly starting to have second thoughts. Following the Hornets’ elimination from postseason qualification, Walker was full of emotion and shed little light on his future in Charlotte. Per ESPN—
“I have no feeling right now, I don’t know,” Walker said of his impending decision in free agency this summer. “Honestly, I don’t know what to expect. I guess it’s a lot of different emotions bottled up into one. I’m not sure. I don’t know.”
When asked further about what he will consider in the offseason, he also added the following–
“I mean, obviously I do want to be competitive because I want to be able to play in the playoffs,” Walker said. “So I want to think that would have some influence” on my decision.
I have no doubt that in an ideal scenario, Walker would want to stay in his beloved Charlotte. He’s nothing short of a legend there, admired by all. However, given their current situation, it’s hard to see them going anywhere, even by keeping him. Hornets management hasn’t been able to put a winning roster around Kemba, and the way the team’s salaries are currently allocated, if they extend a max contract to Walker, they’ll have nothing left to bolster the roster.
In other words, if Kemba stays, that decision to remain in Charlotte will essentially seal their fate of mediocrity. The contracts of guys I mentioned earlier – Batum, Biyombo, Williams, Zeller and Kidd-Gilchrist – look like absolute albatrosses now. Sure, some are up sooner than others, but the fact remains that the Hornets don’t have much they can do this offseason other than re-sign Walker to a hefty contract.
And while of course a team is always going to want to keep its best player, there’s also an argument to be had that doing so wouldn’t be in the best interest of either party. The Hornets team wouldn’t have the financial flexibility to improve while Walker wouldn’t have the support he needs to reach his winning and playoff aspirations.
So therein lies the crossroads. Had Walker’s squad made the playoffs on his shoulders, he may be feeling more optimistic about returning and continuing to build the Hornets from within. Now that they’ve missed the postseason for the third straight season as well as the 14th time out of the last 17 seasons, and considering that they haven’t been to the second round since 2002, the chance to go to a winner has to be weighing heavily on his mind.
As such, this is exactly where we can see plenty of free agent suitors emerging to make a pitch to Kemba targeted at his desire to win. In other words, here is where we say, enter the Utah Jazz.
It wasn’t long ago that acquiring Kemba in free agency looked like a long-shot, not just for the Jazz, but for any team, as the overwhelming presumption was that Walker would be staying put in Charlotte. Now, though, with his team out of playoff contention after he laid everything on the line for 82 games (and, yes, he remained healthy and started all 82 games this season), it’s becoming entirely believable that he’ll start to look elsewhere for a more promising opportunity.
That doesn’t mean that the Jazz will have the leg-up on the opposition. There are plenty of other suitors that present enticing scenarios, glitzy markets, great chances to win or all of the above. Teams like the LA Clippers, Indiana Pacers, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks or Los Angeles Lakers all could propose interesting cases for Kemba’s services.
But if the Jazz decide that the point guard spot is where they want to bulk up, they would be foolish not to go after Walker. They can pitch him the opportunity to play for a team that’s made the playoffs as many times in the past three years as the Hornets have in a decade and a half, and has made the second round as many times as Charlotte has since 2000.
He’d have the chance to have the most prolific backcourt running-mate he’s ever played with in Donovan Mitchell, and a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Rudy Gobert backing him up at the rim. Meanwhile, Utah’s depth and coaching prowess would serve as further enticements of a wonderful situation for Walker.
Not only that, but the Salt Lake community is one that would embrace Walker in a similar fashion to that of Charlotte, without a lot of the drama and unwanted attention that come in larger markets. From a lifestyle perspective, Kemba could expect a lot of similarities, but with a much better chance to compete and thrive in the postseason.
As I’m sure you can tell, I’d be ecstatic if the Jazz were able to add Kemba. But in all honesty, my heart would also break for the city of Charlotte and Hornets fans. Being a life-long fan of a small market team myself, I obviously know how hard it is to watch players leave and pursue other opportunities.
But in this instance, if basing off social media reaction is any indication, it feels like Hornets fans, though they’d obviously be heartbroken, would understand. They also see the dilemma the team is in regarding re-signing Kemba and staying mediocre or letting him go and starting anew. They also likely understand that after all Walker has done for the franchise and brought to the community, he certainly deserves a shot to win at the highest level.
That’s not to say it wouldn’t be devastating if he left. I know it would be and I’m not downplaying that one bit. No Hornets fan WANTS to see Kemba go, but based on how the situation has been commented on by a wide portion of the fanbase on social media, it seems there would certainly be an understanding if he sought a fresh opportunity.
Calculate all that together and I truly think Utah has a legitimate shot at landing Kemba Walker in free agency. He’s clearly thinking about where he can go to put himself in a winning situation above all else. The Jazz have a compelling argument they can present him. There’s honestly a lot to like about the match.
That said, by no means do I believe Utah is the favorite. They’ve struggled to land big-time free agents in the past, why would Kemba be the one to break the mold? Not only that, but perhaps Dennis Lindsey has other plans in mind that don’t involve extending a max contract to Walker, which would make all of this a moot point anyway.
Nevertheless, for a team in Utah’s situation to get better and become a true title contender, they’re at the point where they have to start taking risks. Going after Kemba Walker would absolutely fit in that category.
But due to recent events, namely Charlotte falling just short of the postseason in disappointing fashion, this may be an opportunity like one they’ve rarely seen before. This may be a chance to land a free agent that takes this Utah team to a whole new level. It may be a chance to put Walker in an ideal situation and thrust the Jazz into championship contention.
It’s a chance that the Utah Jazz absolutely have to pursue and, if possible, take.