During the summer of 2014, Gordon Hayward signed an offer sheet with the Charlotte Hornets. Hayward was a restricted free agent and the Utah Jazz exercised their right to match that offer sheet. It was the first, and last, time Kemba Walker would be denied the chance to play with Hayward.
As Walker approached his own unrestricted free agency for the first time, the Bronx native was focused on going home to play for the New York Knicks. In his own words, Walker said, “I thought the Knicks were going to sign another big-time free agent and I’d go there.”
Whoever that other free agent was changed his mind and Walker looked a little further north and at the chance to finally play with Hayward. Only, this time, playing with Hayward was only part of the equation. The real draw was to be the leader for Boston’s young core and to finally make multiple, sustained playoff runs.
After Kyrie Irving made it clear he was leaving the Celtics, Danny Ainge pivoted very quickly to Walker. Free agency opened on Sunday, June 30th, but as early as Friday, June 28th, there were reports Walker-to-Boston was a done deal.
From there, Ainge tried to arrange a series of sign-and-trade transactions, which would have allowed the Celtics to stay over the cap. That would have allowed Boston to keep Al Horford. However, Horford was ready to move on and agreed to a deal with the Philadelphia 76ers. As the old saying goes: sometimes the best deals are ones you don’t make.
Had Horford agreed to stay, it would have involved Irving approving a sign-and-trade to the Brooklyn Nets. It’s unclear if that would have happened, or what the cost would have been for Boston to pay Brooklyn for the assist.
It’s also unclear if Irving would ever agree to help a team he had come to resent.
When Kyrie Irving was traded to the Celtics, he spoke glowingly of the team’s history. He talked about the chance to win. And he talked about how he was looking forward to leading the team.
In retrospect, none of that seems off. The Celtics do have a storied history. They were well-positioned to win. And, as a point guard, Irving should be a team leader.
When Kemba Walker chose to sign with Boston, he said a lot of the same things. He also talked about history and the chance to win. And Walker talked about his desire to be a leader. But it was what Walker added that should have gotten more notice.
Walker talked about how the Celtics were already good. He talked about how Boston would only go as far as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown would take them. Walker made it clear he was there to lead, but that his version of leadership didn’t mean being the man. It meant enabling others to be the man/men.
And throughout his entire introductory press conference, Walker’s smile lit up the room.
In January of 2019, Boston lost a game in Orlando. Gordon Hayward made a pass to Jayson Tatum, who missed a potential game-tying jumper. Irving angrily went at Hayward and walked off the court shaking his head.
Later that night, a sullen Irving would call out his teammates for not knowing what it takes to win at the highest levels. “The young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship level team. What it takes every day,” Irving barked. “And if they think it is hard now, what do they think it will be like when we’re trying to get to The Finals?”
“There were no expectations last year. Everyone played free and easy. Everyone surpassed whatever they expected for themselves. This year? We all have high expectations. The players, the coaches, everyone. And that’s good, but we aren’t doing it yet.”
The “last year” was when Boston made a shocking run to Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals. That Celtics team did so without Irving and Hayward, after the former had to have knee surgery in mid-March and after the latter broke his leg on Opening Night of the season.
The 2018-19 season was a rollercoaster for Boston. At their best, the Celtics looked like a title contender. At their worst, they looked destined for an early out in the playoffs. The 2019 Celtics won six less games than the banged-up, youthful 2018 team did. After a now-famous flight to a West Coast trip, it seemed like Boston sorted out all of their issues. That trip was successful and, in part, led to a first round sweep of the Indiana Pacers.
The Celtics then crushed the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the second round and visions of Banner 18 were dancing in everyone’s head. A deep, versatile team was bringing both Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward off the bench, while Jayson Tatum was blossoming into a second scoring star alongside Kyrie Irving.
Then the wheels fell off. The Bucks blasted the Celtics in Game 2. Game 3 was a close loss in Boston and Milwaukee won by 12 in Game 4. But Game 5 in Milwaukee is where Irving’s future, or lack thereof, in Boston was sealed.
As the Celtics fell further and further behind, Irving became more and more determined to win the game on his own. To be the leader by being the man. Irving shot just 6-of-21 for the game, while demanding to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo on several plays throughout the second half.
To some it appeared Irving was going down swinging. But just like a boxer, Irving was all alone. And he was throwing no-chance haymakers.
During the seeding games leading up to the playoffs, Boston was locked in a battle with the Orlando Magic. Late in the game, with the Celtics behind by two points, Jayson Tatum kicked the ball out to Kemba Walker. Walker immediately threw the ball back to Tatum and told him, “you got this.” Tatum tied the game and the Celtics went on to win in overtime.
At 2019 Summer League in Vegas, ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla was asked about Boston signing Walker. Fraschilla’s comments were pointed and proved to be on the nose. Fraschilla said, “Kemba wants to be in Boston. To have a guy who will show up at the facility every day with a smile on his face and to be ready to work is huge. It’s going to make a huge difference for the Celtics compared to last season.”
Every time Kemba Walker has done an interview after a Celtics win, he’ll answer questions about his role in the game with some reticence. Sometimes it involves how a team is guarding him, or his own defensive assignment. Then, Walker will go on to praise his teammates. After Boston’s Game 2 win over Philadelphia, Walker talked up Brad Wanamaker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown.
Every time Walker has done an interview after a Celtics loss, he talks about what he has to do better. He’ll also talk about what he has to do to help more. Occasionally, Walker will talk about team concepts. What he never does is mention a teammate’s name, unless to say he has to do a better job of getting that teammate involved.
Walker also answers every question with an honest, easy-to-understand answer. He doesn’t speak in riddles and codes about things that have nothing to do with basketball. Walker doesn’t shut up and dribble, but when he has something to say, he says it. Clearly and evidently. You’re never left more confused than you were when you started.
One thing that is ever-present with Walker? His smile. Win or lose, Walker knows it’s a long season. Don’t mistake his good nature for a lack of competitiveness. Walker will kill you. He’s just going to grin at you while doing it.
When talking about Tatum and Brown, Walker that grin turns into a beaming smile. After years of being the man for Charlotte Hornets teams that never progressed past average, Walker is relishing this season. As he said when he signed with Boston, Walker continues to emphasize the Celtics will only go as far as Tatum and Brown take them.
Walker said after Boston’s Game 2 victory, “I love being around those two guys. They’re superstars. I love being around them. Just two really special dudes.”
Tatum repaid the compliment saying about Walker’s leadership, “it’s huge. He just wants to win. He doesn’t care if he plays good or bad. He just wants to win. You can see that night in and night out. When we win, he’s the happiest guy on the team.”
In between Game 2 and Game 3, Brad Stevens talked about this play from Walker and said “The best play of the night got lost in Jaylen’s 360 dunk. When Kemba got blocked by (Joel) Embiid and then ran back to get the strip that led to the steal and Jaylen’s dunk. That was the best play of the night. That was everything we want to be about, that play.”
Saying a player made a play that is everything the Celtics want to be about the highest of compliments Stevens can pay.
Kemba Walker understands that being a leader doesn’t mean you have to be the man. He understands his role is to be alongside others while working to a common goal, not out in front of them. His job is to help lift others into starring roles, while keeping things moving when they struggle.
Marcus Smart is the Celtics heart and soul. Smart wears his emotions on his sleeve and the city of Boston would take a bullet for him. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the emerging stars of the franchise. Beloved because Danny Ainge drafted them, Brad Stevens developed them and Tatum and Brown’s natural talents and work ethic have taken them to All-Star levels.
Kemba Walker is too new to have gained that sort of love from Celtics fans...yet. But Walker is getting there. He’s doing it his way, by keeping the focus on his teammates, while killing opponents softly. And Walker’s doing it all with that smile on his face.