Kemba Walker began his first season in Boston as a carnivore, chewing up defenses and preying on off-balanced defenders. By the end of the bubble, he finished a vegan. No, we’re not talking about his dietary habits, but rather his style of play.
Walker has a proven track record of beating defenses with whirlwind speed, a tight handle, and deadeye accuracy from deep. All of those attributes were on display during his pre-All-Star season, and then the knee troubles began to surface.
Missing six of the subsequent ten games before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the season, Walker looked a shadow of his former self. Despite the long hiatus of the NBA season, Walker entered the NBA bubble, still hampered by those same issues.
At 6’0”, Walker heavily relies on his change of pace to be a significant force when peeling off screens. Yet during the playoffs, that burst of speed was consigned to memory. Instead, Walker played tentative, unable to utilize his greatest assets to break down zone defenses and punish Toronto’s box-and-one.
Despite the UConn alum’s veteran status within the league, Walker’s inexperience in the playoffs became apparent, his performances littered with inconsistencies. That patchy level of play poses the question: were Walker’s struggles caused by a new level of intensity or because his knee was buckling under the physical toll of the playoffs?
Danny Ainge provided his thoughts following the team’s conference finals exit.
“I could tell he wasn’t the same, physically, as he was in October, November, and December.”
Danny Ainge on Kemba Walker's health: "We will have a full plan for Kemba in the offseason in the next week or two weeks, regardless of what the medical tests come back with. There is no surgery needed, as far as I know. I could see he was definitely not himself."— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) October 1, 2020
Should alarm bells be ringing?
Walker will be entering his age-31 season once the league resume’s play this winter. Having carried an enormous workload during his time with the Charlotte Hornets, perhaps his body is beginning to show signs of wear and tear.
Concerns over Walker’s long-term health become elevated further when factoring in his cap hit for the next three years. Occupying a max salary slot, the Bronx native’s presence on the roster is only valuable if he channels his inner “Kardiac Kemba.” Otherwise, he’s a very costly under-sized point guard.
A reasonable assumption is that Walker’s minutes will be closely managed during the regular season to ensure he’s fit and healthy when the playoffs roll around. But what if, in the ensuing seasons, Walker’s knees can’t sustain playing a game every two days? Is he still worth his contract at that point? Can he be the lead point guard on potentially multiple championships runs to keep Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown happy in Boston?
It begins with obtaining an upgrade at the back-up point-guard position, allowing the team to navigate Walker’s almost unavoidable strategic absences during the regular season. What follows is allowing Walker further opportunities to work off-ball, which will alleviate some of his knees’ pressure.
Both of these adjustments will increase Walker’s longevity and viability once the post-season gets underway. The issue is, it takes a considerable amount of maneuvering to keep an aging guard on a max deal fresh.
For now, Walker still fits the bill as the Celtics starting point guard, but his long-term fit on this roster is becoming increasingly murky. With so many talented young guards now making their presence felt around the league and more inevitably to enter the fray via the draft in the coming seasons, Walker’s residence on this roster will ultimately need to be re-assessed.
While this may seem unfathomable at the moment, Walker’s contract places certain expectations on his performance levels, and with the Celtics cap situation a significant point of discussion over the next couple of seasons, Walker may be the piece that gets sacrificed at some point.
On a more positive note, Walker may put his knee concerns behind him, and with new experiences of the playoffs under his belt, raise his game to new heights. Yet, at almost 31-years-old, this notion feels like a pipe dream.
Regardless of the length of his tenure in Boston, Walker’s impact off the court has been a resounding success. He brought back the feel good factor to the Celtics and apparently helped the young core move past the turbulent 2018-19 season that was rife with locker room issues.
However, Walker’s contract places certain expectations on his performance levels, and with the Celtics cap situation a significant point of discussion over the next couple of seasons, Walker may be the piece that gets sacrificed. We will know more once the new season is underway, and we can see firsthand how Walker bounces back from an uninspiring postseason.