Hor­net for life?

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY RICK BONNELL rbon­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Char­lotte Hor­nets point guard Kemba Walker re­turns to New York on Sun­day to play against his home­town Knicks. Walker, who be­comes a free agent in July, says his heart is in Char­lotte.

Will Kemba Walker be a Char­lotte Hor­net a year from now?

I think so. I’d be sur­prised if not. But it’s no lock, and can’t be be­fore he ac­tu­ally reaches un­re­stricted free agency come July.

The Hor­nets play the Knicks Sun­day, which is their first game this sea­son in New York. I sus­pect it’s go­ing to get a bit weird. Walker is the best New York City na­tive play­ing in the NBA right now, the Knicks are bad, and the New York tabloids need some­thing to fill columns.

He’ll be pep­pered with ques­tions about free agency and whether he’s re­cep­tive to mov­ing back to the city where his bas­ket­ball ca­reer be­gan.

If Walker sticks to the plan he an­nounced in late Septem­ber, he’ll tell re­porters that he ad­dressed free agency be­fore train­ing camp and he’s done talk­ing. So here was Walker’s stated po­si­tion the day be­fore camp:

●He wants to re­main a Hor­net.

●He be­lieves the Hor­nets will make the same sort of com­mit­ment to him.

●He trusts owner Michael Jor­dan and gen­eral man­ager Mitch Kupchak to as­sem­ble the parts around him to build a win­ner.

Sounds like a plan. I know he’s sin­cere in his de­sire to stay. But again, that’s no lock.

THE ME­CHAN­ICS

The com­pli­ca­tion in this is there’s no prac­ti­cal way un­der NBA rules for the Hor­nets to

take Walker off the mar­ket be­fore July. Since the Hor­nets are above the salary cap (so far above that they are in vicin­ity of the lux­ury-tax thresh­old), the only con­tract the Hor­nets can of­fer Walker right now is a per­cent­age raise over his cur­rent $12 mil­lion salary. That wouldn’t come close to match­ing his value on the open mar­ket in the sum­mer.

Walker is com­fort­able with that, as is Hor­nets man­age­ment.

“I think I’ll be here.,” Walker said, adding “they’ll do the right thing.”

Later in that in­ter­view, Walker was asked why he seems so con­fi­dent of the out­come.

“I’ve just got the feel­ing,” Walker replied. “I’ve been say­ing this is where I want to be, the place I love.”

Kupchak said in Oc­to­ber that he and Jor­dan feel the same about Walker as Walker does about the Hor­nets:

“Our hope is that Kemba ends his ca­reer in a Hor­nets uni­form, and that’s the end of it,” Kupchak said.

THE NEW YORK DRAW

There has al­ways been a ro­man­tic link be­tween Walker and New York. He was born in the Bronx, lived there un­til he went to Con­necti­cut for col­lege and has had some of his great­est games at Madi­son Square Gar­den. He scored 130 points in five games of the Big East tour­na­ment there in what be­came a launch­ing pad for the Huskies’ run to the na­tional cham­pi­onship in 2011.

“What kid doesn’t want to play in MSG?” Walker said Fri­day. “I’ve been for­tu­nate enough to play there many, many times dur­ing my bas­ket­ball ca­reer. Ev­ery chance I get to play there, I try to em­brace it. I just love play­ing there.” As he still loves his na­tive city.

“I will al­ways have an at­tach­ment to and a love of that city,” Walker said. “That city made me who I am to­day.”

THE RISK/RE­WARD

On the one hand, it seems a no-brainer for the Hor­nets to do what­ever it would take to re­tain Walker. He is the fran­chise’s all-time lead­ing scorer (10,553 points). He re­set his own fran­chise record this sea­son with an as­ton­ish­ing 60-point game in a loss to the Philadel­phia 76ers, then scored 43 two nights later in a vic­tory over the Bos­ton Celtics.

At 6-foot-1, he is the most dy­namic scorer of his size in the NBA since Allen Iver­son. But in his seven pre­vi­ous NBA sea­sons, the Hor­nets have reached the play­offs only twice and have not ad­vanced past the first round.

As­sum­ing Walker is worth a max­i­mum­salary type of con­tract, the Hor­nets would be com­mit­ting to pay Walker about $190 mil­lion over the next five sea­sons, as much as $221 mil­lion if he qual­i­fies for a su­per-max deal by be­ing named All-NBA.

No mat­ter how well Walker plays this sea­son, Jor­dan and Kupchak will have to weigh many fac­tors be­fore July: What is the longevity of 28-year-oldWalker’s prime? Is that prime af­fected by his size? How can the Hor­nets build a bet­ter ros­ter around him to max­i­mize his tal­ent? Would re-sign­ing Walker limit their abil­ity to do that?

Kupchak spent about 20 sea­sons run­ning the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers, so these cal­cu­la­tions are noth­ing new. He had a stoic way of siz­ing all this up at the sea­son’s out­set.

“If we play well and we’re fun to watch and we win games, ev­ery­thing will take care of it­self,” Kupchak said.

“That’s re­ally the bot­tom line in this busi­ness.”

DAVID T. FOS­TER III dt­fos­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Kemba Walker, the Hor­nets’ all-time lead­ing scorer, broke his own fran­chise record this sea­son, scor­ing 60 points against the Philadel­phia 76ers, then 43 two nights later against the Bos­ton Celtics.

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