News that Kemba Walker is out of the rotation with the New York Knicks is understandably reverberating in Boston.
In most cases like this, there’d be a bit of schadenfreude and a celebration that, in his first move as general manager, Brad Stevens was able to maximize a diminishing asset. But this is Walker, a player who provided a much-needed palate cleanser from the Kyrie Irving experience when he arrived in the summer of 2019 and endeared himself to a fan base despite a injury-induced decline in play.
Not only did Walker embrace nurturing Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but he was an All-Star in his first season in green. Then he got sick in January 2020, battled a knee condition that would essentially alter his entire basketball future, and was never the same.
Walker flashed his trademark smile through it all, even as he endured a knee-strengthening program that routinely pulled him off the court with hopes of allowing him to find his old form when it mattered most. But he never did.
Celtics fans had lived a story like this before with Isaiah Thomas. An undersized All-Star guard beset by an injury that wouldn’t allow the All-Star to play to their lofty standard. In the case of Walker, it became obvious last season that as Tatum and Brown elevated to the faces of the franchise, a high-usage, shoot-first point guard was not the ideal complement to Boston’s star tandem. What’s more, Walker’s defensive deficiencies because of his size were only accentuated amid his offensive decline and no amount of charge takes could stop the gnawing feeling that the Celtics had to move on.
Boston ultimately moved Walker to Oklahoma City, along with the 16th pick in last year’s draft (that became Alperen Sengun), in exchange for Al Horford, Moses Brown, and a 2023 second-round draft pick.
That 35-year-old Horford has reclaimed his starting role and was one of Boston’s best players at the start of the 2021-22 season makes the trade look especially good for Boston. Horford has had a few reminders lately that age has eroded his defensive abilities and his shot has defied him throughout the season, but there’s still nights like Sunday in Toronto where he finishes with 17 points and 11 rebounds in 26 minutes of floor time. Horford is good for the locker room and we’ll find out if he’s able to maintain a decent level of play deep into an 82-game season.
Having to give up a first-round pick wasn’t ideal for a Boston team that needs young talent -- both to complement the core of this team with low-cost production but also as potential trade assets in the pursuit of a new third star.
Maybe Walker will find motivation in being pulled from the Knicks’ rotation. In a limited role with the right defenders alongside, he could potentially be an offensive spark plug off the Knicks bench. But the numbers this season confirm that he has hindered New York on both ends of the floor.
Ultimately, Boston’s decision to pursue Walker after Irving’s departure might have been a bit too ambitious. It’s easy to look back and say the team should have simply re-signed Terry Rozier -- that wasn’t happening after the cluster-bleep that was the 2018-19 season, and Rozier needed to spread his wings with a team like Charlotte. Walker was exactly the right temperament for the Celtics in the moment and it’s easy to forget just how good he was those first three months.
The knee injury changed everything.
The Knicks will most certainly regret giving Walker a two-year, $18 million guaranteed deal in the aftermath of his Oklahoma City buyout. Walker’s struggles will make it hard to move on without eating dead money. They are unlikely to find a swap as valuable as Boston did.
The Celtics made the right choice to move on, even if it pained Stevens to move a player that had tried so hard to get back to his old self. The swap will look even better if Stevens is able to parlay the team’s increased financial flexibility into the next star to slot next to Tatum and Brown.
There’s a world where Walker stayed healthy and could have been part of something bigger in Boston. Instead, he’ll likely just be a bit of a footnote in whatever Boston’s next Big Three looks like.
But there is no joy in watching him struggle to be the player he once was. Walker endeared himself here in a short time and his body simply won’t allow him to be what he once was.