The NBA shocked many by accepting television partner pressure to begin before Christmas this year. Kemba Walker and the Celtics were among them, beginning a stem cell treatment for Walker’s right knee that he returned from during Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend — the originally assumed NBA start date.
Walker arrived at December’s training camp intent to approach the 2020-21 season patiently, unlike in the playoffs where he appeared visibly frustrated when Brad Stevens sat him. Walker missed camp and 11 games that followed, while Boston’s medical staff decided to avoid playing him in back-to-backs during a condensed schedule.
Shooting efficiency proved a challenge for Walker upon reactivation, along with fitting next to the surging tandem of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. It’s become the most difficult season of his career. When he’s out the C’s have struggled to win. The team’s ceiling rose when he reaches his best level of play.
These Celtics undoubtedly need Walker to win now, but what about in the future?
“I think we’ve got to do a better job of helping Kemba and I’ve said that several times this year,” Stevens said in March. “I think that’s it’s really important to put him in position to have success and play to his strengths.”
Walker commands defensive attention no other guard on the roster does, due to his pick-and-roll playmaking, penetrative dribbling and scoring. He chases rebounds, plays sound positional defense and draws charges. That costs Boston more than $30 million annually for two more seasons.
Boston could have sustained Walker’s uncertain health and future better if Gordon Hayward stayed, and it’s not worth rehashing a summer, 2019 decision that allowed the Celtics to make a real push for the NBA Finals in the Bubble. Trading Walker did not make sense this season either. That’s clear, whether Boston tried and received no acceptable offers or offers period. He’s not performing poorly enough to consider paying a heavy price to dump.
Walker thus had to fit on this roster without significant practice or ramp-up time. In fact, he went through one walkthrough before suiting up for his 3-of-13 debut against the Knicks. He then battled turnovers, brutal shooting stretches and getting swallowed up at the rim as Boston got outscored by 11 points per 100 possessions in his first six games.
February saw Walker’s best scoring month, averaging over 20 points per game as the Celtics fed him 17 shots per night to get going, per Stevens’ mantra. His efficiency lagged, but he began hitting threes at a 38.2% clip. Walker’s best games, 25 points at Washington, 28 against the Hawks and 32 in a late win over the Pacers, came after his back-to-back rest nights. He ended February with three straight 20-point performances.
“I’m feeling good,” Walker said then. “I was just missing early.”
A new role
That proved to be the height of his scoring. In 16 games since, Walker has averaged 40.9% from the field with only one game reaching the 50% threshold. His three-point stroke fell to 30.7%.
It is also the best he’s looked within the flow of the offense all year. In six April games, Walker is shooting only 29.2% from three, while dishing 7.0 assists per game, his most in a month since April in the 2013-14 season. The Celtics are outscoring teams by six points per 100 possessions in his minutes and he’s limited himself to 1.5 turnovers per game in a year where he’s averaged 2.05. His shots per game are down to just over 13.
That’s not the Walker we know, but it may be the one Boston needs. He reached the paint repeatedly in Boston’s win over Portland to finish 3-of-5 at the rim. He’s finishing 66% of his shots inside this month, reducing his pull-up jumper attempts by 6.4 percentage points.
The Celtics gave Walker movement looks around screens too on Tuesday. Those plays provide the base and space he needs to get those shots off, without the full attention of the opposing team’s pick-and-roll defense on him.
Enes Kanter barely gets involved on this play, a luxury for offense and a major reason Walker reached 21 points on Tuesday. Drop coverages still allow him good pull-up looks, but he’s only shooting 34% on them from three. That needs to improve.
Walker is also getting used to his pairing with Robert Williams III. Daniel Theis and Walker combined to outscore opponents by six points per 100 possessions in their time on the floor, with Walker finding Theis for 34 assists on 208 passes (0.16). Walker now has to look high, rather than low, and did so for one assist on eight passes to Williams on Tuesday.
Despite ranking first in ball time, four Celtics found Williams more often than Walker this season. Since Williams became a starter, Walker is now the third-leading passer to Williams on the roster with a 0.17 assist rate on 41 passes.
Fixating on passing may not be what everyone thought of previously as Walker’s best, but it’s uncertain if that best still exists. Yet Payton Pritchard does not have 30 points in him, and Boston would prefer not to funnel 13-17 shots per night to Marcus Smart. This role can work for this year. Walker is getting better as one of Boston’s five ball movers in the starting lineup. It’s less clear what will happen beyond that.
One future solution for Walker is a bench role that, with a deeper roster and a mid-level point guard option, could allow Walker to more aggressively seek his shot without worrying about deferring. Walker rarely leads bench units without either Brown or Tatum also staggered in, due in large part to a supporting cast that was built around Javonte Green, Jeff Teague and Semi Ojeleye earlier this season.
One such lineup succeeded to the point of a +100 net rating in nine minutes. A different one sunk to -33 in 11 minutes. The sample size isn’t great and those depth pieces are gone, and come playoff time Brown and Tatum will play nearly entire games anyway.
Staggering Walker’s minutes alone won’t be possible or preferable anytime soon. He needs staggered rest more than them and the middle class and lower young talent on the roster isn’t good enough to bring out Walker’s best or score off his playmaking.
That could change next season if Evan Fournier returns and additional upgrades emerge into the final year of Walker’s contract in 2022-23. That doesn’t help a Celtics team trying to win now.
A trade is another possibility, though with as many caveats. The big one is $73.6 million, the amount owed to Walker through 2023. There are few, if any teams, willing or able to absorb that kind of cap commitment, particularly for a player with health concerns amid COVID-19 financial constraints. If Walker is done playing back-to-backs forever, every team may say no outright.
Even if some do consider taking Walker, Danny Ainge would have to take back less than he would hope to and possibly pass along draft capital. The Rockets, for example, moved Victor Oladipo for Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley this season. Oladipo, also struggling to return from injuries, proved valuable to a Heat team over the cap and in contention. He is an expiring contract, unlike Walker.
Boston would have to find a team that desperately needs point guard help, is already over the cap with no hope of coming down, doesn’t have draft capital to pursue better options and is facing win-now expectations. Deep pockets help too. Only one team comes to mind.
The LA Clippers might see Kawhi Leonard become a free agent this season, or opt-in to put pressure on the team for one more run. Los Angeles is relying on the offensively-limited Patrick Beverley and aging Rajon Rondo for point guard duties and committed to taxpaying to win a championship. The team’s draft capital went toward acquiring Paul George and Marcus Morris, while other additions like Luke Kennard fizzled. Steve Ballmer is super rich and a new Inglewood arena looms.
Boston owns all its own future first round picks. If Leonard stunningly leaves the Clippers, they can offer Walker as a salary dump to bring LA back into the first round in the years they missed in exchange for role players like Morris, Beverley, Kennard and Rondo. Boston, with Moe Wagner, Luke Kornet and Semi Ojeleye on one-year deals, can bring back four players for one.
Another scenario where Leonard stays in LA and desires to add Walker as a teammate could see Morris stay and others go, such as Kennard, Beverley and Ivica Zubac in exchange for Walker and Tristan Thompson. That deal gives Boston more flexibility, but probably makes the Celtics momentarily worse. Kennard begins a four-year extension next season, while Zubac has two years left and Beverley would become an expiring contract.
Smart and he would be the most interesting Celtics teammates in recent memory. There’s a deal here between similarly-challenged teams, but not an easy one. Walker’s salary complicates both the effort to move him and get anything worthwhile back.
That lands Boston in the same place, hoping he still has great days ahead. Short of a John Wall-Russell Westbrook style swap, unheard of in NBA history before that, Walker is a Celtic until 2023 and needs to find his place in that dynamic.
Fournier’s free agency complicates that further as the team becomes a taxpayer with slim championship hopes in the short term, but the Celtics have shown flashes this month that it can come together.
“When things aren’t going well you have to find a way to do other things,” Walker said after the Nuggets win on Sunday. “Try to be good defensively, pick a teammate up, something. At the end of the third, I was able to get a big and-one and I though that energized our team.”