The Celtics roster would’ve had to change in a significant way this summer, or the team would inevitably pay significant luxury tax in the 2021-22 season for what amounted to a seventh-place finish in 2021. Ownership stomaching that seemed unlikely even before Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge’s tenures ended last week. It’s now a foregone conclusion there’ll be real change in Boston, so Kemba Walker’s time here may be over.
Moving Walker is a difficult yet forward-thinking decision that could also bolster Boston’s depth with multiple role players. The Celtics have first-round picks to burn, and while improving the roster would be a more ideal use of them than a salary dump, Boston already has a core of stars and young players that makes several picks expendable in the short term.
If Walker agrees to move on from the Celtics, it’ll become the first major decision for Brad Stevens’ front office. Walker’s contract, load management program and another injury in the Nets series could all prohibit any trade idea we’ll discuss. The cost could become higher than Boston can agree to, and at that point it may be worth waiting until Walker exercises his player option in 2022 and his contract becomes a more enticing $37 million expiring deal. Walker’s sporadic availability and production played into the Celtics’ 2021 inconsistency, so it’s probably better to pay more now to begin to chart the franchise’s future path.
Boston can also expand this into a larger deal that addresses their needs and the futures of Marcus Smart and Tristan Thompson in one stroke. I’ll leave the three and four-team deals to the dreamers. They do happen and this is a likely situation for a multi-team trade, but they’re next to impossible to predict as they occur in real life.
The cost for the Celtics will involve future picks and acquiring other players on large contracts in return. The New York Knicks are the only possible outlet for a straight salary dump. That’s among the less likely scenarios though. Here are more realistic options, followed by some popular trades that won’t happen. Keep in mind that Walker is signed for one more season at $36-million, before a $37.7-million player option for 2022-23.
Kristaps Porzingis (25 years old)
Porzingis is the most realistic return the Celtics can count on being available for Walker. The Mavericks blew a 3-2 lead in the first round of the playoffs and reports of tension between star Luka Doncic and Porzingis surrounded the team. Worse for Dallas, Porzingis struggled to stay healthy and consistently productive throughout the season. He’s signed for two more seasons at $31.7-million and $33.8-million, before a $36-million player option in 2023-24 at age 28.
He played 43-of-72 games with separate knee, ankle, wrist and back ailments. Walker played 43 too, but unlike Porzingis missed two playoff games. While Walker’s 6’0″, 184-pound stature hasn’t been conducive to staying on the floor, Porzingis can’t seem to move how he wants to at the other side of the size spectrum (7’3″, 240 pounds). Like the Russell Westbrook-John Wall swap last offseason, this deal is two teams hoping the other’s banged-up stars get right in new situations. Dallas saves a year on Porzingis’ contract, while Boston saves several million now. Porzingis is more efficient offensively. He is also not a ball-handler or playmaker, and would essentially be a stretch four.
Three things nix this deal. If Porzingis isn’t happy with his ball time on the Mavericks, he’ll get even less next to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. His foot movement hasn’t been conducive to defending the perimeter, like he’ll have to do in Boston, and he’s never boasted enough muscle to post-up on offense or defend centers. Beyond that, if the trade fails, Porzingis takes the Celtics out of free agency in 2023. Porzingis could see a Westbrook-style resurgence in Boston. The risk isn’t worth the reward.
Al Horford (35)
A Horford return is my favorite of the Walker trade possibilities. The Thunder sent Horford home after he helped lead them to a competitive 11-16 record in 27 games, before the team lost 16-of-17 after he left. He fit better than he did in Philadelphia, scoring 14.2 points per game, his most since 2016-17 with a 36.8% clip from three on 5.4 attempts. His dip in overall efficiency continued, with a two-point split several percentage points below his career average and an average of less than one FTA/G. More importantly for Boston, he continued to rebound (8.7 per 36), pass (4.3 assists per 36) and remained an effective defender.
Horford would not bring what he did last with the Celtics. He still potentially fits better than Thompson as a shooter and versatile defender. If Robert Williams III gets hurt, he can fill in at center, and play the four to give Boston bigger lineups that can still space the floor. A team with Horford at the four and Smart playing the one would be leaps defensively ahead of the 2021 C’s. His passing focus would help open up the offense.
The hangup in this deal would be picks. Oklahoma City already has 34 future draft picks, limiting the need to accumulate more to take on future salary. Horford is owed $27-million in 2022, with only $14.5-million guaranteed in 2023 due to the championship incentive the 76ers originally included in his contract. That could potentially save Boston and cost Oklahoma over $20-million in two seasons. The C’s will have to compensate the Thunder somehow for that difference.
Horford would also need to sign off on this deal, since Sam Presti will likely work with him on his next destination after Horford took a seat in favor of younger players late last season. Getting a player who left Boston in free agency to return could boost the Celtics’ reputation after a rough few weeks of public perception.
John Wall (30 years old)
The Rockets acquired Wall after he missed over one year with an achilles tear in hopes he’d be rejuvenated, fit better next to James Harden and knowing it would be the only trade to dump Westbrook in. They shared identical contracts, with Wall making $44.3-million next season before a $47.4-million player option in 2022-23.
Wall’s salary successfully matches Walker’s straight-up in a trade too. Houston would save significant money annually, and possibly command a pick due to Walker’s uncertain health. Wall posted similar efficiency to Walker and is one of the league’s better passers. Boston is one of the few destinations where the Rockets can send him as they begin a rebuild.
Wall injured his hamstring in April and played 40 games, steadily scoring 20 points per night on poor efficiency for a bad team, struggling to shoot from three (31.7%) and posting his lowest assist percentage (36.2%) since his rookie season. His scoring burden increased and the team stunk, so Boston would hope he would return to his former passing greatness alongside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Still, his efficiency lagged behind Walker’s, as did his defensive box plus-minus, and the lasting impact of an achilles tear at least rivals that of Walker’s knee cartilage decay.
Gary Harris (26), Terrence Ross (30)
The Magic are the most definitive rebuilding team in the NBA. They are starting over, seeking assets and just traded Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic for future draft capital. It would not preclude them to take on more, as they both have veterans to move on from and would enjoy having a player like Walker for their youth and to attract fans. He’ll do a better job of that than Gary Harris and Terrence Ross.
Harris and Ross won’t help Boston much, but this is one of the easier ways for the Celtics to move on from Walker. It’d be a simple exchange of a draft pick or two. Ross is signed for $12.5-million in 2022 and $11.5-million in 2023. Harris, who came over from Denver in the Gordon deal, has a one-year deal at $20.5-million.
Ross could help leverage the Celtics against losing Fournier, who is an unrestricted free agent. He averaged 15.6 PPG last season on 41.2 FG%, so he’d be a more trigger-happy, less efficient version of Fournier. Harris struggled immensely at 40% from the field between his two teams in 39 games. This would mark a definitive step back for Boston to slash the team’s salary by over $20-million in 2022-23.
Eric Gordon (32), DJ Augustin (33), Avery Bradley (30) or Danuel House (28)
This Wall alternative isn’t a slam dunk, since it requires Avery Bradley opting in to his final year. If not, Boston may need to dump a pick to replace Bradley in the deal with Danuel House. Houston is still in the market for picks despite their James Harden haul of seven potential firsts from Brooklyn, and getting to dump Eric Gordon’s contract for Walker’s is enticing. Despite finishing last in the NBA, the Rockets still have about a 50% chance of losing their 2021 pick to Oklahoma City under the new lottery odds due to the Westbrook trade (top-4 protected).
Gordon has struggled with injuries throughout his career and played 27 games last year due to nagging lower body ailments. Augustin and Bradley are aging and declining too, but Boston could use some veterans and three medium sized contracts provides more trade flexibility than Walker’s hefty deal. Houston can talk itself into a sporadically available Walker being a good fit in the locker room for its young guys going forward.
Gordon is signed at $18.2-million in 2022 and $19.6-million in 2023 before a fully non-guaranteed third year could be waived. Augustin checks in at $7-million next year before a minimally guaranteed $7.3-million in 2023. Bradley’s player option is $5.9-million. House has one year left at $3.9-million. The deal effectively slashes money in year two similarly to the Orlando deal.
Cory Joseph (29), Mason Plumlee (31), Rodney McGruder (29), Jahlil Okafor (25)
The theme here is that rebuilding teams will be more likely to take on Walker’s contract in exchange for future draft picks. Boston, as mentioned earlier, can use this opportunity to acquire players in other areas of need and shake up their front court depth. This trade in particular could lead to a Thompson deal in favor of Plumlee, with Okafor available for tertiary depth behind Williams. Plumlee averaged close to a double-double last year, is taller than Thompson and would fit better as a roller and rim protector. He’s owed $8.1-million in 2022 and $8.5-million in 2023.
Joseph went from Sacramento to Detroit midway through last year and averaged 12 PPG on 50.6% shooting. He averaged 7.5 assists and 1.6 steals per 36 minutes with the Pistons, who won his minutes per 100 possessions. His one-year contract is a partially guaranteed $12.6-million for 2022.
McGruder is on an expiring $5-million deal, as is Okafor at $2.1-million.
Patrick Beverley (32), Marcus Morris (31), Luke Kennard (24)
I wrote about this deal in April and it’s still relevant now. Kawhi Leonard could become a free agent, the Clippers are down 0-2 to the Jazz and traded almost all of their draft capital for the foreseeable future for Paul George. Boston’s draft picks would be more valuable to LA than they would be for other teams, and they could probably use Walker to pad their guard depth whether they’re shaking up the roster or trying to add to their contending roster.
Los Angeles also has contracts they can dump to the Celtics in return. Beverley is signed for one more season at $14.3-million. Morris signed an extension that locks him in at just over $15-million next season, $16-million in 2023, then $17-million in 2024. Kennard, Tatum’s college teammate, begins a four-year extension starting at $12.7-million next season and finishing with a team option just under $15-million in 2024-25.
If the Clippers continue to contend, they’ll probably prefer to trade Yogi Ferrell (as Ryan Bernadoni suggested) instead of Morris, who thrived this season with space to shoot open threes (47.3%). He would draw the Clippers a better return than a salary dump. Taking Beverley, Kennard and Ferrell, three players only loosely part of LA’s rotation this year, would probably only cost Boston one future first-round pick. It’d give Boston an array of new depth options and flexibility when Beverley’s contract expires.
What isn’t happening…
Eric Bledsoe (31), Steven Adams (27) and a future second
This is the least likely of the potential Walker trades, since the Pelicans are looking to improve on defense and this deal swaps two strong players on that end for downgrades at the same positions.
Just for fun. Bledsoe is owed $18.1-million in 2022 before only $3.1-million of his deal is guaranteed in 2023. Adams’ extension begins with $17-million next season and $17.9-million in 2023. Don’t count on this happening, especially with New Orleans needing to address Lonzo Ball’s restricted free agency.
Lonzo Ball, Lauri Markkanen, John Collins or Dennis Schroder
Sign-and-trade scenarios with Walker are unlikely unless they receive a free agent like Lonzo Ball, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Schroder or John Collins at a significant discount. A sign-and-trade activates the hard cap, which the Celtics are already right up against ($136-million, ~$141-million hard cap) before making any moves, which would make it difficult to build a team and have flexibility throughout the year.
The dream scenario for Boston would be the Knicks deciding they want Walker. They have close to $60-million in potential cap space this summer, and teams that have enough cap space to accept a contract don’t have to follow typical trade matching rules. That means the Celtics could dump Walker’s contract in full and take no money back, creating, wait for it: a $36-million TPE.
It would take a substantial pick haul to sweeten the deal for New York, along with a series of unlikely events that include the Knicks striking out in free agency, losing Derrick Rose and being willing to assume Walker’s injury risk. Boston could open up close to $13-million in cap space in such a deal, free tons of flexibility below the luxury tax and open the door to actively participating in 2022 free agency. If the Knicks plan to sign Demar DeRozan or anyone else, this is off the table.