The Charlotte Hornets enter Wednesday’s matchup with the Orlando Magic at 17-14, the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference, and point guard Kemba Walker deserves a lot of credit for their success so far. The 26-year-old Bronx native and UConn product is following up last year’s career year with another one, posting career-best scoring, shooting and efficiency numbers while taking on an even larger creative role for head coach Steve Clifford.
On statistical merit, Walker’s got an awfully good case for a slot on the 2017 Eastern Conference All-Star team, but — despite the NBA’s best efforts — securing an All-Star berth remains a popularity contest. As such, the Hornets have chosen to try to bolster their main man’s visibility with that most glorious of annual traditions: a comedy-focused get-out-the-vote campaign on the Internet. Behold, friends: “Walker, Charlotte Ranger.”
On one hand, hanging your All-Star campaign on a parody of a television show went off the air 15 years ago seems like a risky gambit. On the other, Kemba and “Deputy” Frank Kaminsky are wearing the hell out of those cowboy hats, and I’m inclined to trust the artistic sensibilities of the people who brought us “Big Al’s Paint” to promote Al Jefferson’s All-NBA bona fides in 2014, “MKG Security” to herald Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s All-Defensive résumé in 2015, and the “Win with Walker” political campaign to get Walker Most Improved Player consideration earlier this year. No, they’re not batting 1.000 — Big Al did make the All-NBA Third Team, but MKG came up well short of either of the 2014-15 All-Defensive Teams and Walker finished a distant second to C.J. McCollum in MIP voting last season — but more often than not, they’ve had the right idea. I think we can safely consider “Kemba Walker throwing spinning back kicks and explosive chest passes while evading Bad Guys with step-backs” to be The Right Idea.
Even if the Internet responds to “Walker: Charlotte Ranger” with ballot-stuffing enthusiasm, though, Walker faces the unenviable task of vying for fan, media and player votes in a crowded marketplace among Eastern guards. He’ll do battle with All-Star incumbents like Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors, Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics, and will have to fend off well-known brand names like Dwyane Wade of the Chicago Bulls and Derrick Rose of the New York Knicks. When you’re not playing in a major market for an NBA blueblood or a team that’s taken the league by storm with a stellar record or a slew of memorable early-season moments, setting yourself apart from that pack can be difficult.
Walker’s play, however, should. Among Eastern guards, he ranks second in 3-pointers made — a previously unthinkable outcome for a player who just two years ago was one of the NBA’s least accurate high-volume long-range launchers — third in total points and Value Over Replacement Player, fifth in points per game and Real Plus-Minus, and sixth in Player Efficiency Rating. The Hornets have been nearly eight points per 100 possessions better with Walker on the court than when he’s off it, and their level of offensive efficiency plummets from near-elite with Kemba at the controls (107.4 points-per-100, equivalent to the Portland Trail Blazers’ No. 7-ranked unit) to positively dismal when he sits (99.5 points-per-100, which would rank 29th among 30 teams, ahead of only the woeful Philadelphia 76ers).
All of which is to say: even if the fans, media members and fellow players don’t cast their ballots for Walker, it seems likely that he’ll be one of the top reserve options up for consideration by whichever head coach winds up running the Eastern Conference All-Stars come mid-February in New Orleans. And NBA coaches love them some Chuck Norris Western police procedural goofs.
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