This inconsistent season for the Boston Celtics has reinforced a trend familiar to Kemba Walker’s entire career: when he plays well, so does the team. During the second quarter of last week’s matchup with the Toronto Raptors, Brian Scalabrine was a bit more direct: “when Kemba Walker plays well, the Celtics win,” he said.
This is where the unfamiliar comes into play: no one is used to Kemba playing poorly. Even as it becomes more and more of a possibility — as it has this season, a shaky one for the point guard — it hasn’t gotten any easier. Not for fans, not for Kemba, and not for the Celtics. It’s almost as if the team doesn’t know how to respond when he has an off night. They just self-combust, start jacking up long two’s, and wonder why the scoreboard isn’t changing.
In wins for the Celtics, Kemba scores the third-most points, a respectable and efficient 22.3. He does so on 45-percent shooting from both the field and from three. He also leads the team in box plus-minus with a 10.1 mark. That’s better than Jaylen Brown (9.6) and Jayson Tatum (9.3), both of whom lead the team in scoring and field goal percentage in wins, and only trail off noticeably in their shooting beyond the arc when the team loses.
Yet in losses, Kemba turns in flop after flop — performances, not drawn fouls. He suddenly shoots just 33 percent from the field and 27 percent from three. His box plus-minus drops by 19.2 from his performance during wins, all the way down to - 9.1. It’s natural for plus-minus differentials to be stark between wins and losses. Just not particularly this stark, and certainly on a team that isn’t losing in blowouts.
The same goes for Kemba’s scoring differential: he scores a meager 14.3 points per loss, a difference of eight points from his average in wins. That’s the third-highest differential in the league, behind only Trae Young (11.3) and Collin Sexton (8.2), both of whom play for teams far-less primed for contention than the Celtics. The class Kemba should share with that duo is one including the most dynamic point guards in the league. For him to rank amongst them in a group of the most inconsistent and erratic players feels as irregular as visible supernovae.
It gets even worse when you look beyond just the traditional counting numbers. Per Second Spectrum, he’s one of the most efficient pull-up and/or catch-and-shoot marksmen on the roster… when victorious. He makes 44.9 percent of his pull-up attempts in wins, and 46.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot opportunities (not to mention 48.1 percent from three). In losses, those numbers plummet; he shoots just 27.4 percent on pull-ups and 23.8 percent on catch-and-shoot chances.
His returns are shocking. While his teammates aren’t immune to these decreases in production, their struggles are negligible when compared to the inconsistency in Walker’s play. The aforementioned tracking stats might even be indicators as to why and how the Celtics begin to fall apart late. Take Thursday night’s loss to the Nets for example In the first quarter, he scored nine points on four-of-five shooting. For the rest of the game, six of his seven shot attempts were misses. All six misses were jumpers; two were on step backs; three were pull-up jumpers; the other was a fall-away three with the shot clock expiring. Each miss was shot an average of 24-feet from the basket; two were brutal air balls.
It’s not just the distance; it’s how the shots look coming off his hands, and the situations in which they come. On March 3rd, CelticsBlog’s Jack Noonan wrote that “the biggest tell that Kemba Walker is feeling himself is the attitude and swagger he has to his game again. That confidence is back, and he knows he can score at will.”
While all true, the last thing the Celtics currently need – during a season in which they’ve turned in middling defensive results – is for offensive trips to be fleeting due to Kemba feeling himself so much that he must score at will, even if it’s not the best option. Kemba often launches his deepest attempts early in the shot clock, before making any pass or effort to reset the offense, which likely kills the possession. His confidence, regularly and blatantly oozing, materializes in the form of heat checks, no matter how ice-cold he’s been.
These heaves give me Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Along Came Polly vibes. Kemba’s form and athleticism are far superior; his results, though?
If there’s a silver lining to be taken from these alarming numbers, it’s that Kemba’s struggles this season could all just be one big anomaly. He hasn’t experienced such drastic discrepancies before last season. In his fourth All-Star season, he led the team in scoring with 19.9 points per game when they lost, just 0.8 points less than what he poured in during wins.
This season, he’s been riddled by nagging injuries after starting the year on the injury report, and lately, his deficient play has certainly tapered off. Nothing if not a personification of poise, Kemba’s lack of consistent production through much of this season’s first half had him out of rhythm. But a stretch of recent games in which he scored 20-plus points seemed to bring him back to life. He was back to smiling that patented smile, as close to a walking Crest commercial as you can get. He looked to be Kemba again, like the kid they nicknamed “Cardiac” a decade ago.
And though he may just be having off nights – you know, as human beings tend to do, especially those coming off knee procedures during a pandemic – his uneven performances are a defining variable in a season over-populated with them. Scalabrine said it: “When Kemba Walker plays well, the Celtics win.” If recent history is any indication, neither party can afford to play that game. This isn’t a “can’t live with him, can’t live without him” situation. But it is on the verge of becoming a dire one.