NBA front offices worry more about the human aspect of personnel management than most suspect they do. For every “it’s a cold-blooded business” trade, there’s a series of moves that a team didn’t do for human reasons. Those reasons go out the window when you have a chance to seriously upgrade your team.
It’s not just how hard a player works or how talented he is. Unless he’s a megastar, it’s what he does to and for the locker room. Does he represent the organization well? Is he someone they want to work with? Again, a chance for major gains in basketball will trump those factors, but it’s at least part of the equation.
Given that, teams would do well to stay as far away as possible from a Kemba Walker trade with the Charlotte Hornets.
Walker is an All-Star caliber talent, a fierce competitor, a great passer, a brilliant scorer, a tireless worker, and a tremendous leader. The Hornets are a stunning 17.2 points per 100 possessions better in net rating with him on court vs. off. Everything I’ve ever heard about the guy is that he’s outstanding as a person and a player.
But this isn’t about Walker’s character or performance. It’s about the fact that it doesn’t often work out when players are removed from situations they want to be in and inserted into ones where they don’t want to be.
ESPN surfaced word this week that the Hornets had “made Walker available” in trade talks. Let me translate that for you. Teams had called the Hornets about trades, as everyone is doing right now with the deadline weeks away. At some point in there, the Hornets were willing to listen to offers for Walker. Then those teams’ sources spoke on background because 1) it weakens the Hornets’ position and 2) it doesn’t hurt them at all. That’s why the report was gauged in terms like “appear eager” vs. “are eager.” The Hornets aren’t leaking this, because why would they?
That’s why immediately in the aftermath, the Charlotte Observer cited team sources indicating the talks were “exploratory.”
Unfortunately the damage was done. The Observer quoted him as saying:
“This is the first time I’ve been in this kind of situation,” Walker said of the trade chatter. “I’ve been here for the last seven years, and I’m going to do what I can do to help my team win games. That’s all I can do.”
And if the Hornets sent him packing?
“I’d be pretty upset,” said Walker, who is about 800 points away from supplanting Dell Curry as the all-time career scorer in Charlotte NBA history. “I have put my heart and soul into this city.”
Charlotte may be poisoning the well with Walker to the point where he may want out because of hurt feelings. But for teams looking at acquiring him, the fact that he’d be “pretty upset” should be a warning sign.
Take the cautionary tale of Eric Gordon, who was happy in Los Angeles with the Clippers before getting dealt to New Orleans. At the time of the trade, he was considered one of the five best shooting guards in the league. In New Orleans, he was less than enthused and struggled with injuries. In restricted free agency, he opted to sign a max offer sheet with the Suns and made it clear he didn’t want to be with the then-Hornets/future Pelicans. The Pelicans, though, couldn’t just lose him, so they matched.
Gordon signed with the Rockets as soon as he could in free agency, where he won Sixth Man of the Year last season and is a big component of the second-best team in the NBA this season.
Andre Iguodala was an All-Star in Philadelphia. His situation wasn’t ideal there and he was frustrated with the fans’ perception of him. But he was a city guy. He was never comfortable in Denver and after a year, took off for the Bay. A lesser player like Ed Davis looked promising in Toronto, but was so bummed to have been traded to Memphis, he never took in the way the front office believed he could.
Walker is a star, so that changes the dynamic a little bit. But that elevated status should also be reason for caution. With Walker hitting free agency in 2019, an acquiring team would get a year and a half to sell him on sticking around. If you’re a team like Denver (an unlikely destination for a lot of reasons, but just an example), you have a good team that would be better with Walker. If he leaves in free agency, you gave up assets (like the first-rounder they gave up for Iguodala) for a year-and-a-half rental.
If you trade for Walker, you have to be sure he’s on board with the deal and on a team that can make the most of his talents, not to mention win. The minute guys get traded they understand it’s a business, but that sentiment is much more likely to go both ways when it’s time for them to look out for themselves down the road.
This isn’t about whether Walker is worth it; he is. But trading for Walker comes with a very human-element risk and teams need to be extremely cautious of that. The Kemba Walker you trade for isn’t promised to be the Kemba Walker you’ll get.
Photo Credit: Kyle Terada – USA TODAY Sports