Patience is not the suggestion that Boston Celtics fans want to hear after a maddening 2020-21 season in which the team fell woefully short of expectations and bowed early in the postseason. But patience, especially in regards to Kemba Walker, might simply be the most prudent path forward.
When the Celtics signed Walker during the summer of 2019, it was done, in part, to ease the sting after the departures of Al Horford and Kyrie Irving. At that juncture, the team still needed a veteran All-Star who could nurture the development of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
But the Jays blossomed even quicker than Boston likely anticipated. When Walker first started battling knee woes in January 2020, Tatum accelerated from All-Star straight to All-NBA with a dazzling couple of months before the 2019-2020 season paused. Brown was spectacular when play resumed in the bubble and started his own march to All-Star status.
The Jays need the ball in their hands more now to maximize their talents and that conflicts with a score-first point guard. Walker willingly downshifted his role this season, his usage rate dropping to 27.6 after being at a career-high 33.3 during his final season in Charlotte. But his assist-to-usage rate is among the lowest in the NBA at the point guard position and he’s surely not the ideal type of point guard to accentuate the All-Star Jays.
During the 2020-21 regular season, the Brown/Tatum combo had a plus-3.9 net rating in the 678 minutes they shared the floor without Walker. That number dipped to plus-1.0 in their 586 minutes with Walker. In 158 minutes with just Walker on the court without either of the Jays, Boston’s net rating was a ghastly minus-5.6.
Here’s the $73.7 million question (that’s what Walker is owed over the next two seasons; he has a final-year player option): Was Walker’s inability to aid the Jays just an outlier in a season marred by injury and illness, or a neon sign advertising the poor fit?
Rewind to the 2019-20 season and Tatum/Brown/Walker lineups had a plus-9.0 net rating in 724 minutes together. The Tatum/Brown duo bumped up a tiny bit to plus-10.5 net rating in 543 minutes without Walker. But it should be noted that, on Boston’s trek to the East finals, the Tatum/Brown duo struggled mightily in non-Walker minutes during the bubble postseason, which seemed to suggest that Walker was vital to keeping the offense humming.
Which is why we’re left wondering if the Celtics, in the absence of a move that definitively improves the team without sacrificing prime assets, are better off giving this core a bit more time to determine if bigger changes are indeed necessary, all while maintaining flexibility to add a different third star further down the road.
There is a world where a healthier Walker further modifies his game and helps the Celtics find a consistency that escaped them last season. If that happens, Walker’s contract doesn’t seem so onerous, especially after the 2021-22 season when he’d be entering the final year of his deal and would hold high value as a bulky expiring contract for teams looking to shed cap space for the summer of 2023.
The Celtics are walking their own tight rope, however. The clock is ticking on the Jays. Brown, who will be coming off wrist surgery that ended his 2020-21 season, is entering Year 2 of his four-year extension; Tatum’s new deal starts this summer and includes a fifth-year option. Every minute must be maximized, especially after the disappointment of the past season.
While things can change in a hurry as we get into the offseason, there’s not an obvious deal available that definitively mitigates the risk of proceeding forward with 31-year-old Walker. The Celtics could flip him to Dallas for disgruntled Kristaps Porzingis, but the big man has an additional year and a total of $101.5 million remaining on his current contract. Plus, his injury history might be even more concerning than Walker’s.
The Celtics could send Walker to Oklahoma City with draft capital and bring back Al Horford, who has only a partially guaranteed 2022-23 salary (and is at a more digestible number overall). While you can certainly make the case that Boston needs to be more aggressive in maneuvering with its picks, there’s not the treasure trove that once existed and this team desperately needs young, cost-controlled talent to supplement the high-priced core, especially if the Celtics yearn to add a different third star next to the Jays further down the road.
You can ignore much of the noise from last week about Walker’s future. Both sides are acutely aware of the predicament here and Boston has tough decisions ahead. The Celtics should not rush into a bad deal just because they’ve put themselves in a tough spot with an aging player.
Boston has only $61.7 million in guaranteed salary on the books for the 2023-24 season. If the Celtics operate with a focus on short-term deals the next two seasons, they can be players to add another impact talent next to the Jays. Some of that hinges on young role players continuing to emerge, and maybe the team splurges to lock up Robert Williams on a digestible number this offseason, too. Knowing the cap will surge with new TV money down the road could help as well.
Could the Celtics get Evan Fournier back this summer on a two-year deal and overspend a bit to make that enticing for him? That could maximize the talent around the current core, allow new president of basketball operations Brad Stevens to overhaul the back end of a bench that desperately needs a veteran talent infusion, and keep the team on track to transition out of the Walker era whenever the cost is most reasonable.
There’s no guarantee that makes the Celtics legitimate contenders next season and it won’t be easy for ownership to digest a hefty tax bill if they are not. But there’s no guarantee that moving Walker leaves the team in any better position and the savings could be minimal while muddying the path forward. Remember, in-season changes are always possible, too.
In a more normally-paced season, can the Celtics count on Walker to be healthy for 65 or 70 games? That would make sticking it out a lot easier to embrace. But Walker needs to help the process, too, by continuing to evolve his game on the back 9 of his basketball career.
Walker needs to more consistently be a playmaker that can get the Jays quality looks. He’s always been a low-turnover player but he has to get that assist percentage back up to Charlotte levels despite having the ball in his hands far less often now. He needs to embrace being more of a spot-up shooter and be willing to more often sneak into the corner where Tatum and Brown can get their teammates quality looks by kicking when they draw multiple defenders.
There are always going to be some defensive issues given Walker’s size and the new coach must find ways to comprise lineups that don’t allow teams to exploit that. Walker does try hard on that end, though, and his charge-taking remains elite.
Walker has to be patient while embracing an evolving role. The Celtics have to be patient with the long-term picture even while yearning to compete immediately given the clock ticking on the Jays.
Maybe a better deal materializes for Walker moving forward as dominoes start to fall across the league. Yet again, it seems patience is the key.
Editor's Note: Beginning today, we'll spotlight a different Celtics player every day by breaking down their 2020-21 campaign and what may lie ahead next season. Next up: Evan Fournier.