With Kemba Walker available, should the Pacers make a deal?

Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker has been made available in trades according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

The Hornets would be looking to unload one of their bad contracts (they have a lot of them) in any potential deal that included Walker, who is averaging 21.7 points and 5.8 assists, according to Wojnarowski.

Any time an All-Star caliber player (Walker was selected as an All Star last season), every team, including the Indiana Pacers, has to consider whether or not they should pursue that player. Kevin Pritchard and company will have to do their due diligence and weigh the pros and the cons of any possible Walker deal.

The types of contracts that the Pacers gave to Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic this off-season were tailor-made for this exact type of scenario. Collison and Bogdanovic both have low partial guarantees on the last year of their contracts and could be easily waived by a team looking to clear salary cap space for this summer. The Pacers also have Al Jefferson with a partial guarantee on the final year of his contract and Thaddeus Young and Cory Joseph both have player options next year. For taking on a contract a team wants to get rid of and helping them create cap space or avoid the luxury tax, the Pacers would look to get assets in return like picks or in this case Walker.

The Hornets are looking to hit the reset button by unloading at least one of their large contracts: Nicolas Batum (four years, $100 million), Dwight Howard (two years, $47 million), Marvin Williams (three years, $42 million), Cody Zeller (four years, $56 million) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (three years, $39 million), so those short-term contracts would likely be something that would appeal to Charlotte in a return package.

The questions that Pritchard and his front office team have to consider before pursuing are the following: Does Walker fit with the core pieces of the roster? How will a possible trade affect this team’s phenomenal chemistry? What are they willing to give up for Walker? Is taking on one of these large contracts worth the risk of Walker leaving in free agency once his contract is up in two years?

Would Walker fit with the core pieces of the Pacers roster?

Let’s assume the Pacers won’t trade any of the following in any possible deal for the point guard: Victor Oladipo (which duh), Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis. Those three players are widely viewed as the core pieces for the team’s future. The Pacers would be extremely unlikely to give up any of them in a deal for anyone that could leave in free agency after next season.

How well would Walker work in a lineup with Oladipo? Both players are high-usage players that require the ball in their hands a lot to make plays. Whenever you have two ball-dominant players on the same offense, it’s an adjustment period for both guys and sometimes it never quite works for either player. Walker’s never played with another player that needs the ball as much as Oladipo and Oladipo’s time with the most ball dominant player ever in Russell Westbrook resulted in Oladipo’s worst season of his career.

The stats would seem to suggest that they could work it out over time, however.

Oladipo and Walker have both vastly improved as shooters since the start of their careers. Walker, who is shooting 35% from deep this season, shot 39.9% in his All-Star season, and the Pacers burgeoning superstar is shooting 40.6% this season, so spacing for the offense shouldn’t be an issue. Both players should be able to adequately serve as floor spacers while the other is handling the ball. Both shoot too well to ignore off the ball.

Oladipo, who averages 4.0 assists per contest, doesn’t always initiate the offense with the Pacers as the Pacers current point guard Darren Collison, 5.3 assists per game, often brings the ball up and starts the action, so he’s used to sharing playmaking/ball handling duties.

Kemba, who has averaged at least 20 points per game in each of the last three seasons, doesn’t score many of his points as the second or third option on a play or as a spot up shooter, but the Hornets do use him as an option of off screens at times, including this play below that the Hornets like the run where he passes off to Batum at the top of the key to start the possession then runs just far enough past Zeller or Howard before abruptly stopping and reversing direction as the big sets a pick on his man and gets Walker an open 3-pointer.

This shows some potential for using him in ways without the ball. He ranks in the 60th percentile in coming off screen play types with 1.06 points per possession per the NBA’s tracking data. This isn’t something the Pacers currently do at all with Collison, who has only 0.2 of his possessions per game coming off screens, so it’d require changes to the offense to utilize.

But any new addition to the roster would require adjustments. While you can expect both players usage rates (and probably point and assist totals) to go down if they were to play together, there’s enough shooting to think that it could work.

Walker isn’t the type of player to bog down an offense with isolation plays as he uses only 1.5 possessions per game in this play type, but while he averages 5.8 assists that’s more of a nature of how much he has the ball (27th percentile among point guards in Assist to Usage ratio per Cleaning the Glass) rather than actively looking to set others up. He’s a scorer first. (These could be warning signs of it not working as well as hoped.)

Walker’s most frequent play type is the Pacers offense’s bread and butter: the pick and roll. Walker scores 1.00 points per possession on 10.8 possessions per game on these type of plays and ranks in the 89th percentile as a pick and roll ball handler.

Having an All-Star point guard could make life easier for both Turner and Sabonis as the bigs setting screens for Walker, and they already both rank in the top four in the NBA in points per game as a roll man in the pick and roll.

When Turner sets the screen, teams don’t want to leave him open from mid-range as he ranks among the league leaders in shooting percentage from that distance, those defenders sticking to Turner for an extra bit would give Walker more room to drive to the rim. And the more the defense starts the worry about Walker, the easier it gets to find shots for Turner.

If the defense ever resorted to switching, Walker would be much more likely to punish a switching big by driving around him rather than settle for a mid-range attempt as Collison is prone to do.

Walker is also much better at making post entry passes so in a switch scenario if Turner gets good position, he’d be more likely to receive the pass down low. It’s been well chronicled that he needs to find ways to score with smaller players guarding him in the post other than the fadeaway, but Collison being unable to make that pass on the switch has also enabled teams to switch larger players back on to Turner before the ball could make it his way at times.

You can see the Mavericks switch for the second time on this play as the Pacers have resorted to having Turner go to the opposite side after setting the screen because Collison can’t make that pass with a larger player guarding him. Instead of having Yogi Ferrell on Turner, Harrison Barnes is able to switch onto him. It’s still a match-up Turner should take advantage of but much more of a challenge than an under 6-foot point guard that the Pacers had on the original switch. Collison ends up taking the mid-range attempt anyway on this example, but the same thing happened in this game where Turner ended up taking two fadeaways against Barnes.

Opponents would be much more reluctant to even consider a straight switch with a pick and roll between Kemba and Myles.

With Sabonis, his terrific screen setting and rolling would likely be rewarded even more with easier looks at the rim after the catch with defenses focused on stopping Walker. While Sabonis ranks 4th in the NBA in points per game as a roll man, efficiency-wise he only ranks in the 35th percentile currently. This could rise with more attention from the defense diverted elsewhere, making his looks cleaner going to the rim.

With Walker’s attacking style and Sabonis consistent ability to attack the glass, Domas would likely be there to clean up plenty of Kemba’s misses at the rim as he draws the helping big trying to block his shot.

Conclusion: While it will take some adjustments for Oladipo and Walker to play well together, they both shoot well enough that spacing shouldn’t be an issue. Their individual numbers may go down, but it seems like there’s enough potential for it to work out. For the Pacers two young centers, Walker should result in easier, cleaner looks for both players and he should benefit himself from the increased spacing from Turner and the great screens set by Sabonis. If it doesn’t work out, it’s not a long-term commitment for either party. If the Pacers aren’t giving up too much in the trade, it’s probably worth the risk.

What should the Pacers be willing to give up for Walker? How will a possible trade affect this team’s phenomenal chemistry?

More than just the players in the deal, the Pacers have to consider whether or not they want to break up this team that loves playing with each other, is incredibly fun to watch and has chemistry that typically takes teams years to build. The Pacers currently sit in the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference with Oladipo missing five games and Turner missing 13 games and counting.

This team wasn’t built to last forever. Most of the team’s contracts will run out after this year or next year. While it may be hard to break up this fun team so soon, this is the type of trade that Pritchard likely had in mind when he offered the partial guaranteed deals over the summer and the team may look very different next season anyway.

Pritchard should certainly weigh how the chemistry could react with the addition of Walker and the subtraction of Collison, who is known to text and contact teammates after tough games like Bogdanovic after the Celtics debacle and Turner when he stayed at the practice facility for hours after a tough game, or any other players that may be included in a deal.

Collison’s leadership is an important part of the team’s chemistry and the Pacers should know all too well how a couple of changes to a roster can change a chemistry for a team in a bad way. The 2013-14 Pacers team chemistry was never the same after trading away Danny Granger and adding Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner.

The difference being that in 2014 Indiana was the top team in the conference and this year the Pacers will just be fighting to make the playoffs. Walker is a former All Star that could push the Pacers into the 4th seed and looking at home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs if the group meshes well.

If the Pacers don’t believe that any possible deal will result in too much disruption for the chemistry of the team, here’s some possibilities of what they can look to do. Since the Hornets will be looking to get rid of at least one bad contract in the deal, here’s a possibility for each bad contract the Pacers would be more likely to be willing to take.

Dwight Howard and Cody Zeller’s both play center. With the Pacers already having Turner and Sabonis, it’s hard to see the Pacers wanting to take either of their deals on when the other players the Hornets are looking to move would be more useful to them.

Option 1:
Indiana Pacers receive: Kemba Walker, Marvin Williams

Charlotte Hornets receive: T.J. Leaf, Darren Collison, Al Jefferson, 2018 lottery protected first-round pick

This particular deal was offered as a possible option for the Hornets to pursue by Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post a couple weeks before Woj’s report.

The Pacers thought highly of Leaf at the draft. Pritchard said the team saw him as a top-10 pick, so it’s unlikely they’d be anxious to cut the cord so early on the young forward, but Leaf has struggled mightily whenever he’s on the defensive end. It’s not a whole lot to give up for the Pacers for the chance to add Walker. Marvin Williams has one of the least terrible contracts of the ones the Hornets are looking to package and he’s shooting 46% from deep this year, would do everything that the Pacers are currently looking for Leaf to do as the backup four.

Option 2: 
Pacers receive: Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum
Hornets receive: Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, Al Jefferson, 2018 lottery protected first-round pick 

Batum’s contract is the hardest to swallow, especially with how he’s currently playing. He’s currently in the second year of a 5 year, $120 million contract and playing probably the worst season of his career. If the Pacers think there’s any chance Batum can find his form again, he’s only 29 years old and has always be a stat sheet stuffer while averaging a good amount of rebounds and assists from the small forward spot. Pritchard and Nate McMillan both have a history with Batum with the Blazers as well and probably have some level of comfort with him.

With the Pacers taking on this large contract, all three of the Pacers deals with unguaranteed money for next season would need to be included to make the trade legal, they likely wouldn’t have to include both Leaf and a draft pick in this scenario as they’d be taking a very large contract from the Hornets. They might even be able to figure out a way to make that first so heavily protected that it likely never ends up with the Blazers. The issue with taking on Batum’s long deal is that if Walker leaves after next season, the Pacers still will owe $40 million plus to Batum over the two seasons after that. The Hornets would end up clearing over $30 million in salary off their books for next season if they waived all three acquired players during the off-season and over $20 million in each of the two seasons after that.

This would also make money very tight when trying to re-sign Turner, Walker and Domas all in consecutive years while having that Batum contract on the books. This could be what prevents the Pacers from even considering taking Batum.

Option 3:
Pacers receive: Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

Hornets receive: Any 2 of the following (Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, Al Jefferson) and T.J. Leaf and a 2018 lottery protected first-round pick

MKG is a defensive wing that basically ignores the 3-point line completely. He’s taken a total of 36 3-pointers in his five and a half seasons in the league. The Pacers are missing a wing defender on the roster with only injured Glenn Robinson III and at times Lance Stephenson as adequate defenders at the small forward position as Oladipo is much better as a roamer that can play the passing lanes and help for spectacular blocked shots and Bogdanovic just tries his best to stay in front of people.

On offense, the Pacers would have to surround him with shooting, fortunately with Myles Turner having more shooting ability than most centers, the spacing shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Walker seems to get to the paint just fine currently even while sharing the court with both Howard and Kidd-Gilchrist.

The Pacers could give up any two of their team-friendly contracts to make this deal work within the cap rules, so they could try to keep Collison around if they thought it would be good for team chemistry. Though moving a guy to a bench can change a player’s attitude and outlook as well, Collison dealt with it during his first stint in Indiana when George Hill took over his starting spot. Giving up Bogdanovic would make sense here with MKG playing the same position, but if you wanted to hang onto to Bojan, he could play as the backup four and in situations where more shooting was needed at the 3 when his defense wouldn’t be as much of a negative.

Option 4: 
Pacers receive: Kemba Walker, Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Hornets receive: Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, Al Jefferson

The thought process here was that if the Pacers were willing to take on two bad contracts they might be able to get away with not giving up either Leaf or a first-round pick, but this trade actually doesn’t work with the cap as the Pacers take on $230,000 too much in salary. So the Pacers would have to add one more player like Joe Young or Ike Anigbogu to the deal to make it work.

Is it worth it to add one of these long-term bad deals with the possibility of Walker leaving in two years?

I’ve mentioned some of this in the blurbs about the trades so I’ll keep this brief. If Walker does leave after two years (he’s a New York native and could be interested in going to play back home with the Knicks), the Pacers will still have at least one guy on their roster that may be getting at least a little overpaid that they took onto the team in order to acquire a guy that is no longer with them. That would suck, but the Pacers aren’t often seen as a free agent destination for All Star players. Maybe that will change if players want to come and team up with Oladipo, but acquiring players through trade and then convincing them to stick around in Indiana is the Pacers best chance at getting that level of talent without growing it themselves through good draft picks.

If the Pacers think Walker would fit well with the team (chemistry and skillset), this is the best type of trade that they could hope to make with those contracts of Collison and Bogdanovic. Netting them a high quality player still fairly young while not giving up too much. Taking on one bad contract isn’t that much of a price to pay to make your backcourt possibly one of the best in the Eastern Conference. Even if it didn’t work, the Pacers could pull the plug before next season’s trade deadline and try to salvage a pick out of it to a contender in need of a point guard. Remember all of these guys in the proposed trade ideas above except for Leaf and the draft pick will very likely no longer be Pacers past next season anyway and may not even be on the team next year.

The other thing that may make the Pacers pause with adding Walker is that at 27, his timeline doesn’t necessary match with the rest of the Pacers core players. Walker’s already a couple years into his prime, Oladipo is just now entering his, and Sabonis and Turner likely still have a three to four years before they begin their peak years.

But even if that’s a concern, if Bontemps’s idea of giving the Hornets waive-able contracts and luxury-tax relief, Leaf and a first-round pick would be enough to get the deal done, it’d be hard for the Pacers to turn it down.

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