Kemba Walker returns to New England. Just 85 miles up the road from Walker’s alma mater at UConn, Boston snags yet another All-NBA point guard in his prime, replacing Kyrie Irving … who replaced Isaiah Thomas in 2017.
Irving and Thomas weren’t able to add another championship banner in Boston. Can Kemba?
It won’t be easy, but it’s worth trying. A whopping 60 percent of the Eastern Conference semifinalists’ starting lineups were up for free agency this summer. If some combination of Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton don’t return to Milwaukee, it’ll be tough for reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to reach the Finals. The same goes for Toronto if Leonard bolts West. Though I think the 76ers will run it back, they certainly have questions about their depth to figure out.
Even if he doesn’t bring another title to the Celtics, I bet Boston falls in love with Walker, especially after a sour breakup with Irving. When Celtics president Danny Ainge spoke to reporters earlier this week, it was hard not to interpret it as a shot at Irving and a message backing Walker.
“I think it just makes life more enjoyable when everybody is humble, hard-working and will play any role they have to, to help the team succeed,” Ainge said. “You do have to have a certain amount of talent to win in our league, as well all know, but good people makes coming to work more fun.”
Walker was beloved in Charlotte, for his work on and off the court. In 2017-18, he won his second NBA Sportsmanship Award in as many years. In 2018, he became Charlotte’s all-time leading scorer, in a game against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Walker was brought to tears after the game and James went over to him and hugged him.
“I just went over there and told him how incredible it was,” James said, “even with the season they’re having.”
That pretty much sums up Walker’s tenure with the Hornets. That record-setting night came in the midst of a trying 36-46 season that cost Steve Clifford his job. Last season, playing host for All-Star weekend, the Hornets finished 39-43 in James Borrego’s debut season as head coach. That and a low-ball offer were enough for Walker to pick up his ball and take his game elsewhere.
It’s a shame that the Hornets couldn’t put together a roster worthy of Walker’s talent. It’s never easy in a small market, but the Hornets have struggled for years in the talent department. There was the ill-fated 7-59 season that resulted in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, not Anthony Davis. To open their purple-and-teal rebrand, the franchise made Lance Stephenson the co-pilot for Walker.
But nothing quite hammers it home quite like this: Over Walker’s eight-year career, there were 314 instances of a player in the NBA averaging over 17 points per game in a full season (not including Walker himself), and only one of those 314 instances occurred in a Hornets (or Bobcats) uniform.
That was Al Jefferson, who did it once, five years ago. (If you want to count Mo Williams averaging 17.2 points in 27 games after he was traded from Minnesota in 2014-15, be my guest. But mostly this: wait, Mo WIlliams played for Charlotte and Minnesota?)
The Hornets’ offer to Walker must have been so unappealing that he took a four-year, $141 million deal from Boston even before the players and teams are even allowed to negotiate. For a guy who said he’d take less than the max to stay, that is a tough pill for Charlotte fans to swallow.
But for Walker, Boston and Charlotte, this is probably for the best for all three parties involved. To illustrate how rotten the situation has become, the Hornets still won’t have cap space even after Walker’s departure. There’s also the Nic Batum contract that will pay him $27.1 million in 2020-21, if (when) he picks up his player option for that season.
For Charlotte, the most prudent plan going forward will be to bottom out in 2019-20 and try to earn the No. 1 overall pick, which they presumably will take a prospect from an SEC or Big Ten school. Seriously, the last seven lottery picks have been from those two conferences: Kentucky, Michigan State, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Indiana, Indiana and Kentucky. This feels like an overcorrection after years of stocking their rosters with UNC and Duke alums to get local fans fired up.
From a scoring perspective, Walker will be able to step in right away and get buckets in Brad Stevens’ offense. But he will have to share the ball. Walker had the ball in his hands for 7.5 minutes per game last season, per NBA.com/stats tracking, which ranked fifth-highest in the NBA, behind James Harden, John Wall, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. Few players are as ball-dominant as Walker. (Irving, for what it’s worth, ranked 22nd at 5.5 minutes per game of ball possession and posted fewer dribbles per touch than Walker as well.)
Walker figures to play more like Thomas in 2016-17 than Irving the last couple seasons. Thomas held the ball for a Walker-like 6.9 minutes per game that season and the Celtics churned out the seventh-ranked offense in the NBA. With Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward sharing ball-handling duties, Walker won’t have to create fire from wet blankets like he did in Charlotte.
How Walker ages is a slight concern, but mitigating that worry is that it’s a four-year deal at an annual $35 million, not the five-year, $221 million one he was eligible for in Charlotte. Undersized point guards don’t typically have long careers or extended primes. Allen Iverson, Kevin Johnson and Isiah Thomas were done even before hitting their mid-30s. This contract takes Walker through his age-32 season. Then again, Chris Paul is 34 and Mike Conley will be 32 in October. They’re doing just fine.
Big picture, I’m a firm believer that the Celtics will be hurt more by Al Horford’s departure than Irving’s. The fall from Irving to Terry Rozier is much shorter than Horford to Robert Williams (Aron Baynes was traded to Phoenix last week.)
With Hayward and Walker each making $32.7 million next season, the Celtics have about $105 million allocated to 11 players, which gives them about $1.4 million in cap space to fill out the roster. They should have the room exception available to them, which they can use to sign a player for two years, starting at $4.6 million.
Who might they target? Nikola Mirotic leaving for Barcelona was a shocker, which doesn’t bode well for Boston’s chances at landing an impact big to fill Horford and Baynes’ spot. DeMarcus Cousins might jump at a starting role for a contender, but he could do that in Golden State for more money than the Celtics can offer. Milwaukee wouldn’t dare let Brook Lopez walk to a competitor for that kind of money.
If I’m Boston, I might see what it’d take to bring in Kevon Looney, or secondarily Frank Kaminsky. If they prefer to go for a veteran with all the youngsters in the frontcourt already, Robin Lopez and Dewayne Dedmon make a lot of sense. The center aisle is not a robust market this year. As a hard screener and team rebounder, Lopez would fit well next to a pick-and-roll maestro like Walker.
One intriguing name to watch: Derrick Favors. The Utah Jazz have a $16.9 million option for Favors next season, which is fully guaranteed beginning July 6. If they decline that option, expect the Celtics to jump all over the opportunity to bring him in. At 27 years old, he represents one of the best defending bigs in the league, but isn’t an ideal fit with Rudy Gobert. If Utah picks up the option, the Celtics could theoretically put together a package centered on Marcus Smart and trade for Favors, but obviously they’d rather not part with Smart. Keep an eye on Favors.
The Celtics did well to pivot and ink Walker to a deal. He’s an incredible player, who can score on and off the ball, and was beloved by fans, teammates and coaches in Charlotte. Maybe the locker-room refresh after the Irving era will pay more dividends than expected. They’ll need all the help they can get to return to Eastern Conference prominence. Now, they try to find a starting power forward and starting center.