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CelticsBlog exit interview: Kemba Walker and the woes of the on-paper fit

When he joined the Celtics, Walker was viewed as an ideal pairing with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. After just two years in Boston, is it best for the team to move on?

Phoenix Suns v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Targeted internet ads are and forever will be the bane of my existence. Especially those for a particular product: hoodies. I am of the undeniable and firm belief that no human being can own too many hoodies, and therefore, my search history is dominated by past visits to American Eagle, Pacsun, J. Crew, Old Navy, a website called Soft Serve Clothing, others.

I read articles called “The 20 Best Hoodies for Men,” hunt for discounts, and almost-too-eagerly bite when ads for “20% OFF THIS HOODIE TODAY ONLY CLICK NOW TO RECEIVE YOUR CODE AT CHECKOUT” suddenly appear on my Instagram page. I feed the wishes of the algorithm gods while in the same breath damn their existence, and by the end of the afternoon, I’m the proud owner of a $53 gray hoodie that I probably could have bought at Wal-Mart for $4.99 plus a pack of Twizzlers. But hey, I got 20% off.

This one time, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed and I came across a hoodie that came in only three colors and looked dynamite on the model this company’s graphic design department absolutely airbrushed to look perfect in this hoodie. I, notably, am not a model, nor have I been airbrushed in an effort to swindle consumers into buying a given product. But this ad got me. I wanted the hoodie that made this Taylor Lautner circa 2011-looking model perfect, and I figured it would fit perfectly.

I think it was around my birthday, and I had a good bit of cash lying around, untouched, waiting to be deposited in a savings account but begging to spent on another damn hoodie. I spent $120 on that hoodie, which was absolutely not made from rainbow shards nor White Walker skin. Just a light blue blend of cotton and polyester, for just north of a Benjamin. Another fulfilling purchase. Mom will be proud, no doubt.

So, the hoodie comes in the mail a few weeks later. Its receipt says, “returns will no longer be processed 30 days after purchase,” a note I discard because this, dear reader, was my perfect hoodie. It was beautiful, set to be the perfect fit, sewn and stitched by angels, just for me.

But when I actually tried it on, I woke up from the dream. It looked, felt, and fit like the bear carcass Leonardo DiCaprio slept in so that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would finally give him a damn Oscar. It was baggy. Its stitches seemed ragged, like they were pieced together with a pair of nail clippers. It was high-quality material, no doubt, but the model in that Instagram ad had some serious explaining to do. I didn’t look like he does in this hoodie. How could that be? It must be too big, I told myself. In a rush, I threw it in the wash on hot, then subsequently the dryer, hoping it might come out smaller. It only worsened the already disheartening product. It wasn’t returnable. This hoodie, perfection on a screen, then a forever-altered muddle in my arms, would forever be mine, whatever that means.

I may be $120 poorer, but I try to hold on to the time we shared. I even still have this lingering pipe dream that someday, it may fit like nothing ever went wrong. Like it was brand new.

Do the Boston Celtics wish they could return Kemba Walker? That is a question worth asking, at least in some form, but it’s not exactly of the yes or no variety. It’s probably more of a “well, that depends on about 16 or so variants and indeterminate factors, and after I consider those variants I’ll require a few therapy sessions and a deep tissue massage” question, which is to say: a complicated one.

But say it was a yes or no question. The knee jerk response would likely be a no. In his two seasons as a Celtic (so far), Walker has made one All-Star team — a solid ratio — played in 97 games, averaged 19.9 points per game, and been to one Eastern Conference Finals. That’s more ECFs than he reached in the eight years he spent playing for the Charlotte Hornets, but also the fewest points he’s averaged since 2015. He also recorded his worst overall box plus-minus rating (1.8) since 2014. Regardless of not wishing to return him, the drop-off feels drastic. Just remember that it comes with a litany of caveats before you throw him to the wolves.

Walker didn’t see the floor this season until January 17 due to a left knee injury that he began rehabbing in October of last year. In that knee, he received a stem cell injection, and with it, the hope was that he’d find a new burst. Instead, the injury nagged, and lingered, and persisted, and ultimately, wasn’t exactly what ended his season but was so absurdly prevalent that you’d be forgiven if you misremembered it as doing so.

That season-ending injury, unofficially, was a bruised left knee, different than what initially required the stem cell treatment. Nevertheless, it all exhausted Walker; he came to Boston in July of 2019 because of the competitiveness of the organization, the banners, the winning. He wants to win and felt Boston was the best place for him to reach that ultimate goal. Now, the ultimate goal, in his own words, is getting right.

If Kemba Walker is right, then he’s the Walker that Boston signed to a max contract two years ago, and ideally, the one the Celtics hoped could be a third star to accompany the two transcendent players already under their employ. Those stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, have improved each year they’ve been in the league; when healthy, they’re dynamic two-way threats with unfathomable IQ’s and skillsets for players of their ilk and age. When injured or ill, they’re missed rather terribly, to the point where their team reaches the point of no return. (Please turn your textbooks to page 125, where we will begin studying the first-round series of the 2021 NBA Playoffs).

Walker, meanwhile, was the perfect on-paper fit for the Celtics: a jump-shooting juggernaut with endless offensive gifts and room to grow as a playmaker, if only because he’d never been surrounded by a proper supporting cast in Charlotte. There’s a significant difference between Jeremy Lamb and Marcus Smart, even Cody Zeller and Daniel Theis, so a shift in his ability to move the ball — and to have it go through the rim via someone else’s shot — felt inevitable.

And yet, Walker’s assist numbers dropped to the second and third-lowest averages of his career in 2019-20 and 2020-21. His usage rate dipped to 27.6 this season after being at a career-high 33.3 during his last season in Charlotte. But consider his assist-to-usage rate: it’s one of the lowest (read: worst, for what Boston wants) in the league amongst point guards. He failed to find Tatum and Brown, or any teammate for that matter, at a rapid rate, or at least the dream rate that the team had in mind upon forking over north of $140 million in 2019.

But then again, is it possible that the front office, oh, I don’t know, made a clerical error when assessing what Kemba might bring to the team’s offense? And thus, they came to a conclusion based on general promise, as opposed to how he might fit from the jump? Let’s say they did: then there’s a silver lining of sorts, that being the fact that both of Walker’s first two seasons in Boston have been disrupted in some form or fashion. But even in an uninterrupted season, is Walker willing (or able) to adapt into a point guard less keen on creating his own shot and more of a distributing mind, finding teammates as opposed to step backs? The overall question remains: Can he fit if given more time than it probably makes sense to give?

Kemba Walker is a $120 hoodie that looked incredible on a model, ordered hastily in an effort to bolster a closet filled with more adaptable hoodies of better quality. When the fit wasn’t just right at first, improper adjustments were made, and thus, the product looked... off. Not bad, per se. But not what you want. While the hoodie can be donated to Goodwill — in this case, the New York Knicks? — or sold on eBay for the low, low price of one Goran Dragic and other lesser assets, is that really what Brad Stevens would view as breaking even, or even making out like bandits?

Either way, Boston has options; it’s just that none of them make everyone happy. For one, reports indicate that Walker wants out, having been “hurt” by his being dangled in an offseason trade for Jrue Holiday. The Athletic’s David Aldridge recently posed Miami and Toronto as fitting destinations, but even he acknowledged that the price would be high.

Then again, Aldridge also acknowledged the fact that Kemba “is pretty good,” an indisputable notion that, despite his struggles, is far from a ridiculous takeaway from Walker’s 2020-21 campaign. Somewhere, deep down, he’s still Kemba Walker, and removing a scorer of his caliber from a team in dire need of bucket-getters exacerbates the problem that secondarily derailed Boston’s season. He might be worth hanging onto, or at least wearing around the house in an attempt to match value with use.

The moral of the story, I guess, is this: just because a hoodie looks good on a model doesn’t mean it’ll look good on you. Nor is it probably worth $120. But if it doesn’t fit initially, don’t chuck it in the dryer and hope its identity exits anew. Give it some time to settle in and for your expectations to adapt. Maybe it can serve a purpose in some way after all.

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