Sometimes a losing performance is so searingly good that even the cheeseball who sunk the game-winner has to immediately pay his dues. “I will say, Kemba gave me 60 tonight. I will have to say that one,” said Jimmy Butler, who was tasked with shutting down Walker for much of Saturday night, minutes after hitting the shot that pushed the Sixers past the Hornets in overtime. Walker’s 60 points, the best individual scoring performance of the season to date, came off just 34 shots from wherever he liked. Neither proud lockdown artist Butler nor a big wall of Joel Embiid created too much friction or concern for the Hornets’ point guard. With his tight handle and alarming spurts of speed, Walker looks comfortable flitting all over the court—around screens, past help‚ through a clogged lane—until he arrives at a pocket of space perfectly to his liking.
The 7-8 Hornets still kind of suck. But have you heard the sound of Walker in a contract year? Second in the league in scoring at 27.8, just a tick below LeBron, along with career bests in assists (6.1) and rebounds (4.5). And all that volume scoring has come off a respectable 60 percent true shooting—another career-best—with only the likes of Jeremy Lamb and Nic Batum to keep the help honest. His ability to generate good looks, despite being the sole focus of any sane defense, remains miraculous, and lots of squads in need of perimeter creation and spacing—like, say, the Sixers themselves, pre-Butler—would have been lucky to have it.
For all this, Charlotte is paying a ludicrous $12 million, some of the best value to be found anywhere in the NBA. That they couldn’t manage to do anything with Walker beyond sporadically flirting with the seven-seed is exactly the kind of muddle-headed tragedy that inspired the Process in the first place. Really it’s a multifaceted tragedy: that the Hornets couldn’t capitalize on that incredible value; that fans may be deprived of seeing Walker as part of a competent team in his prime; that Walker himself hasn’t gotten to taste much of the postseason despite being one of the league’s most technically pristine point guards. He’s 28, and some day not so far off those gorgeous slashing drives are going to lose their juice.
Don’t hold your breath for Charlotte to assemble anything pretty around Walker. With free agency approaching this summer, his best reason to stick around town is ... bouncy 20-year-old Miles Bridges’s upside? It’s unlikely that Walker has invested much faith in Charlotte’s last two lottery picks: Malik Monk, who is in this league to shoot the ball, is currently doing it at a dire 35 percent clip, and Frank Kaminsky has sunk so deep into the bench they might never retrieve him. A 36-year-old Tony Parker is here, for some reason, and frankly helping them quite a bit. Fresh front office or no, this team is not overflowing with hope.
Imagine Walker as a contender’s second option, maddening defenders off the ball. It’s tempting to idly fantasize about destinations where Walker could be immediately plugged in—he and LeBron would form a filthy pick-and-roll, he and Victor Oladipo would carve up any backcourt—but, unsurprisingly, Michael Jordan sounds loathe to let Kemba walk. And Walker, for his part, may understandably be lured back by the supermax. That’s incredible money for a 6-foot-1 speedster to lock up through his age-34 season. But no one deserves an escape, a little glimpse of the light at the end of bleak seven-year tunnel, more than this apparently patient and frequently astonishing little dude.