Look, eventually the Mavericks have to sign one of these star free agents, right?
You know, don’t answer that.
For what feels like the bazillionth time, Dallas is once again flushed with cap space and has stars in its eyes. We’ve seen this story before, with the Mavericks pursuing big-time free agents, only to be left holding the bag and scrambling to cobble together a roster. Some summers are more successful (2013) than others (2016).
Perhaps the biggest difference this summer compared to the last is that Dallas has not only one, but two star players under the age of 24-years-old. This never happened during Dirk Nowitzki’s entire two decade plus tenure, so it’s admittedly a little hard to believe. The Mavericks are no longer sell stars on just culture and an aging star — they finally have the goods.
Whether the good players are ready for this type of pitch from Dallas yet remains the question. This summer has plenty of stars but even more teams with money. One of the more intriguing names on the list is Kemba Walker, just named to the All-NBA third team. Dallas needs a point guard, Walker might need a change of scenery after some mediocre seasons in Charlotte. But the Hornets can also offer Walker a boatload of money and we know how this song and dance usually ends.
That doesn’t mean we can’t take a look at Walker’s game, the good and the bad, to see how it would fit if Dallas somehow got him.
Walker can get buckets — that’s by far his biggest strength. He’s turned himself into an all-around offensive guard, able to get his shot off from anywhere and work a pick and roll to his advantage.
Funny enough, despite Walker making his first All-NBA team, this past season was somewhat disappointing for him. The Hornets missed the playoffs in the weak East again and Walker’s shooting percentages dipped, despite his career-high mark in scoring. Walker shot 43.4 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from three, off from his previous seasons where he was around 37 to 39 percent from three.
On the surface it looks like a slight step back, but Walker was still good, he just had little help. He was the alpha and omega of the Hornets offense, the fulcrum of every possession and then some. That led to a lot of difficult and long jumpers when the offense died — Walker actually shot a career-high 49.4 percent from two-point range. He just took a career-high in threes with a lot of them being difficult looks. He shot 47 percent from mid-range and 40 percent in the non-restricted area of the paint. Those are great numbers, which helped off-set his struggles at the rim (55 percent) and his huge amount of unassisted above the break threes (58.8 percent of his above the break makes were unassisted). Walker shot less than 40 threes from the corner last season, which spoiler alert for the final section of this post: the Mavericks can help a lot there!
Walker’s bread and butter is the key play that all elite NBA offenses have to have: pick and roll offense. Walker averaged 1.01 points per possession as the ball handler in a pick and roll, shooting 44.6 percent from the field. That’s good for the 90th percentile. Walker was elite in scoring out of the pick and roll and it’s hard to have a great NBA offense without a guard that can do that.
The other area you need now? Isolation, and Walker was good there, too. Last season Walker scored 1.03 points per possession in isolation plays, which was in the 82nd percentile of the league. He didn’t go solo often (just 8.2 percent of his possessions), but he was effective. That’s what modern star guards all have to do: the ability to score out of the pick and roll and score off mismatches and end of clock situations.
Walker’s a solid if unspectacular passer, which the Mavericks luckily don’t have a desperate need for with Luka Doncic. His defense is OK for a guard his size and while Walker will never be a lockdown guy, he’s smart and gets to his spots when he can. The Hornets have had top-10 defenses with Walker under defensive guru coach Steve Clifford, so it’s not unheard of for a coach to use Walker’s basketball IQ and scheme around potential defensive headaches.
Bottom line: Walker is a scoring machine. But it’s not just his scoring that could be helpful to the Mavericks. Walker has been regarded as a great teammate throughout his career and a fixture in the Charlotte community. He has a presence in the locker room and guys look up to him. He might not have been able to drag last season’s roster to the playoffs, but there’s a reason the Hornets never look washed up with Walker out there. He brings a stability that I’m sure the Mavericks would love to have for their two young stars.
There’s only so much you can do about size. Walker has so much skill with the ball in his hands that he’s able to be a top-tier guard, but that size still rears its head in certain areas.
Walker isn’t the best finisher at the basket. He’s a career 55 percent shooter at the rim, never shooting higher than 59.8 percent back in 2016. Without springy hops or otherworldly wingspan, Walker can’t compensate for his height.
That size comes up in his defense as well, although Walker certainly puts in the effort. At 6’1, 184 pounds, Walker is easy to pick on in the post or on switches. While the Hornets have had great defenses in the past with Walker, it could be argued it was in spite of Walker rather than because of it. Again, the effort is there — there’s only so much you can do at Walker’s size to impact the game on that end of the floor.
On offense, Walker’s biggest weakness might be his inconsistencies with his three pointer. He worked very hard to get it to an elite level back in 2016, but the falloff last season is slightly troubling. Even taking away the difficult off-the-dribble threes, Walker shot only 34.8 percent from deep on catch and shoots and scored just 0.98 points per possession on spot up plays, which was ninth on a weak Hornets roster. Last season he was at 40.3 percent and in the 86th, 96th and 90th percentile for spot up possessions the last three seasons, respectively. For the Mavericks’ sake, hopefully last season was a blip on the radar.
Due to the Hornets roster, Walker almost always had the ball in his hand. Because of that, he just was never in a position to be in possessions that weren’t pick and roll or isolation. Walker doesn’t have the most diverse data set in terms of scoring possessions, and the Mavericks would bet they could improve Walker’s efficiency in dribble handoffs, cuts, transition and off-screens playing next to Doncic and Porzingis.
Fit With the Mavericks
As I wrote last week, offense is the quickest path to success for the Mavericks. Walker could potentially supercharge an offense that desperately needs it, even with the addition of Porzingis.
Doncic was routinely throwing beautiful passes out to shooters who couldn’t shoot after the trade deadline last season and Walker would be a giant upgrade as an outlet. Not only would Walker’s spot-up game hopefully improve with cleaner looks, but his ability to attack closeouts would keep the Mavericks offense moving.
This is the same theory for the Dennis Smith Jr./Doncic pairing, except Walker possesses better skills across the board. With Smith, the idea of the duo meshing was mostly theory and some brief flashes — in reality, the duo struggled as Smith adjusted to more off-ball work and his shot came and went.
There’s some concern that Walker might have the same fate. After all, Walker has always been the lead guard for every team he’s played for at every stop in his career. He had a 30 usage percentage last season. Can Walker adjust to not being the guy with the ball in his hands every possession? That’s a fair question, except the Hornets might have already answered it last season. Or at least, started to answer it.
Charlotte signed Tony Parker to give Walker some ball-handling help off the bench. The two actually played 365 minutes together and when Parker shared the floor with Walker, Walker’s usage dropped from 30 to 27 percent, according to NBA.com. His true shooting percentage jumped up as well and the Hornets had a 5.1 net rating when the duo were together. So this isn’t completely foreign to Walker and Walker has responded well to sharing the floor with another ball handler.
Remember that game Smith and Doncic played really, really well together? Coincidentally, it was in Charlotte against Walker but it’s not hard to drool over the idea of Walker being in these types of plays instead of Smith.
Doncic and Walker should be able to get each other easier shots, following the path the Mavericks went down with Smith but instead of a rookie trying to get up to speed, it’s a veteran, All-NBA caliber guard. If Walker came to Dallas, I’d bet big on all of those wonky Walker shooting numbers from a year ago smoothing out and returning to norm, if not better than that.
Defense will be an issue and if Walker and Doncic are two of your three best players, it’s reasonable to ask if that can ever lead to a good defense. This would be a move about going all offense, which as I’ve written previously, is the way to go. The Mavericks want to get back into the playoffs badly and an offense with Walker, Doncic and Porzingis should get them there and give them a puncher’s chance to win a series right away. That’s just how valuable offense is when games tighten up in the post-season.
Of course, Dallas should be building a team with a title in mind, not just a first round win. Luckily Walker has been part of good defenses before, Porzingis is a great shot-blocker and the Mavericks already have some great defenders as role players they can plug in to fill the gaps, with Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber. Plus, whoever else they add this summer or the next. With Walker, Doncic and Porzingis in place, the Mavs would have a clear idea of what to do with the roster going forward — surround that trio with switchable defenders.
Maybe the most underrated thing that Walker would bring to the Mavericks is his leadership. I’ll never forget what Rick Carlisle said after Dirk’s last home game, talking about the giant hole Dirk was about to leave in the locker room.
“It will never be the same, it just won’t,” Carlisle said. “I know that from experience. When Reggie Miller left Indiana, we had two down years immediately afterward and we had some talented guys. When you remove a guy like this and it’s going to change the landscape.”
I go back and forth on how much that stuff actually matters, but it’s clear that Dirk leaving is going to leave a gap. Dirk set the entire Mavericks culture, setting examples for younger players to try and aspire to and keep the drama (at least in regards to the actual team) to a minimum. No offense to Doncic or Porzingis, but they aren’t ready for that mantle yet. While no one can replace Dirk, Walker would at least help stabilize the locker room. There would be less pressure on Doncic to be the entire franchise at 20 years old and Walker is more than up for that challenge after carrying the Hornets on his back for so many years. Walker could help hold the team accountable during rough patches of the season, with All-Star and All-NBA skins on the wall as backup.
Walker’s size and age are concerns, as a 6’1 point guard making max money at 33-years-old isn’t ideal, but that shouldn’t scare the Mavs away if there’s a legitimate interest from the star guard. Dallas needs talent and they need offense — Walker does both, and he’d likely be the greatest Mavericks free agent signing in franchise history.