Coming out of the 2018-19 season, Kemba Walker and the Boston Celtics needed each other. The Celtics needed a spark of hope after the calamitous 2018-19 season, and Walker needed a chance to play winning basketball after spending his first eight seasons with a Charlotte team mired in neutral. With Kyrie Irving jumping ship, Boston became a natural fit for Walker, and the pair agreed to a max deal on the opening day of free agency. Now, a year and a half later, the deal still appears to be a sensible one, but it is not without complications.
Walker’s inaugural season in Boston started off strong. He blended well with the Boston starting lineup, and spearheaded the team-wide embrace of the pull-up three-pointer. Playing alongside the best supporting cast of his NBA career, Walker was no longer burdened with sole responsibility for carrying his team’s offense, and through the first half of the season, he was on pace for his most efficient season in years.
Just before the All-Star Break, however, Walker suffered a knee injury that would change the course of his season. He missed eight out of 12 games in the month of February, and from his return through the NBA’s shutdown in mid-March, he was not the same player as before. He visibly lacked burst, struggling to create space for the pull-up looks that he typically thrived on. This is where the Kemba Walker conversation becomes complicated.
Kemba Walker, pre-bubble:
Before February 1: 22 ppg, 4 rpg, 5 apg, 44% FG, 39% 3PT, +8.4 NetRtg
After February 1: 16 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.4 apg, 32% FG, 31% 3PT, +2.6 NetRtg
The shutdown seemed to be a small boon for Walker and the Celtics, affording the star guard an opportunity to rest his knee in the event that the NBA was able to return to play. As the NBA bubble plan came together, however, reports emerged that Walker’s knee was still an issue. Brad Stevens and the medical staff took a cautious approach, holding Walker to a gradually loosened minutes restriction throughout their eight seeding games with the intent to ramp him up to full speed in time for the playoffs.
Entering the playoffs, Boston’s cautious approach with Walker’s minutes paid immediate dividends. In the first round, the Philadelphia 76ers stubborn drop coverage simply had no answer for Boston pull-up three-point shooting, and Walker was one of the chief beneficiaries. The Sixers defended Walker like the Joker urging Batman to hit him with the Batcycle, and absolutely fried them in return, posting 24 points per game on 49% shooting from the field. “It’s different. I really haven’t seen that much space in a very long time,” he remarked about Philadelphia’s porous defense.
In Boston’s second round epic against Toronto, facing a significantly more dynamic Raptors defense, the cracks started to show. Walker started the series strongly enough, with a double-double in Game 1 and a 29-point performance in Game 3. As the series wound to its conclusion, though, Raptors coach Nick Nurse keyed his defense to remove Walker from the occasion, deploying the same box-and-one he infamously turned loose on Steph Curry in the 2019 NBA Finals. The Celtics had no riposte for that adjustment, and Walker scuffled through the final two games of the series, shooting just 7-of-27 from the field. He rebounded in the season-ending series against the Heat, averaging close to 20 points per night, but seemed overly passive and out of rhythm more often than not.
This brought an end to an uneven first season in Celtics green for Walker. He’s certainly the player he was advertised to be coming in: a spectacularly skilled scorer and highly respected locker room leader, and a breath of fresh air from the turmoil of last season’s roster. But the knee injury and struggles against stingy playoff defenses have to at least raise some eyebrows about what the coming seasons might look like as we progress into his four-year max deal with the Celtics.
The positive spin is that Walker has otherwise been remarkably durable during his NBA career. He’s appeared in fewer than 73 games in just one season since becoming a full-time starter in the 2012-13 season. The Celtics are also well-equipped to manage his health and workload. His 31 minutes per game was his lowest mark since his rookie season, where he mostly came off the bench, and Jayson Tatum’s leap to superstardom during his injury absence signifies that the Celtics aren’t utterly dependent on Walker to lead their offense. The careful management of his return to play in the bubble went off without a hitch, and paid clear dividends for both Walker and the Celtics.
Still, the glimpses of a diminished Walker that we saw this season have to be slightly concerning. Agility is a crucial aspect of Walker’s game — especially as undersized as he is — and when he was less than 100% this season, we caught a glimpse of how much he struggled without his usual zip. The Celtics have Walker under contract through the tail end of his prime, with a player option in 2022 (his age-32 season) for $37 million that would seem unlikely to be declined. He’s not getting any younger, which causes a level of concern about how long it may be before he starts to lose a step, and what it may mean for his game once that happens.
To Walker’s benefit, one thing the playoffs put on display was his willingness to take a backseat to his younger co-stars. The Raptors may have put a stopper on his scoring in the final games of the semifinals, but he still dished 11 assists across the two games while putting in effort on the defensive end. He made some timely plays in the clutch, as well. Single game plus-minus isn’t a particularly informative stat, but it’s not coincidental that he was a +13 in Game 7 despite shooting 5-of-16 from the field. Walker is a malleable and unselfish star, which is a massive benefit on a team with as many mouths to feed as Boston.
All this adds up to a very important upcoming season for Kemba Walker and the Celtics. It could play out in a few different ways. Everyone involved would undoubtedly like to see him put his knee issues behind him and record a healthy 70+ game season, happily filling his newfound role as the second — and sometimes third or even fourth — scoring option in the Boston offense. Stevens and the Celtics have all the incentive and all the tools to keep Walker fresh through however many regular season games they end up playing, and Walker will likely have better playoff success without the snarling defenses of Toronto and Miami bearing down on him in back-to-back rounds.
That said, if a more pessimistic scenario comes to pass, the Celtics could find themselves in a bind. If Walker’s knee continues to prove troublesome (recall how Al Horford’s recurring history with knee issues affected the previous two Boston teams) or if he simply starts to slow down due to age, his max contract could start to feel onerous for a franchise that will have little financial flexibility in coming seasons once Tatum’s inevitable max extension is officially inked.
Kemba Walker and the Boston Celtics needed each other last offseason. It was an obvious fit for both player and team. The union has certainly been far from a failure, and they still need each other now. But with the Celtics figuring out what steps need to be taken to maximize their chances of returning to the NBA Finals, the complicated nature of Walker’s first season with the team will naturally raise questions about his future in Boston. Next season will go a long way in answering what that future might be.