I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Kemba Walker is younger than Al Horford and at this stage in their careers, he’s a better player ...when healthy. In essence, the Celtics sent out the best player in this deal and had to add a first rounder to get it done. That’s not ideal.
However, it may just have been the right deal to make. In particular since (due to his health and salary) it seemed like some kind of deal was destined to happen. The team needed a shakeup and the Celtics wasted no time doing the shaking.
Kemba Walker’s tenure in Boston was a big disappointment, due mostly to injuries. He was the detox smoothie intended to cleanse us from the 2018-19 debacle. Unfortunately by the end, he just made the payroll look bloated. On paper, he could have and perhaps should have been the perfect fit along with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. But maybe he needed the ball too much to be effective. Maybe he got targeted on defense too much. Maybe they couldn’t establish any good rhythm because he was in and out of the rotation so often. Regardless, the fit wasn’t right and it was time to move on.
There’s a decent enough chance that Kemba will re-establish himself next season and build up enough equity that the Thunder can flip him again, getting yet another draft pick in return. But that wasn’t likely to happen in Boston and the Celtics don’t have the luxury of putting assets in the slow cooker.
Trading for Al Horford frees up money in the present and faster in the future. The immediate savings (and the impact that has on the tax bill) make it much more likely that Evan Fournier will stick around longer. It may even make it more likely that Marcus Smart and Robert Williams could get extensions worked out with the team this summer. In the long term, the Celtics could open up cap room sooner, or they could once again flip Al Horford in a trade bringing back someone with a large salary (speculate all you want).
If it makes you feel any better, you could make a case for combining this deal with the Fournier one. We used part of the Hayward TPE, Kemba, and a few draft picks to bring in Fournier and Al Horford. Again, not ideal (and we still have to sign Evan) but a little more palatable.
But what about the fit on the floor? Al Horford can still play, just as long as you aren’t expecting the same guy that gave Embiid and Giannis fits in the playoffs several years ago. His lateral movement is limited and he’s lost a step, in particular on defense. But the good news is that his game was never all that predicated on his athleticism. He’ll still make smart basketball decisions, move the ball effectively out of the high post, set the right pick, step back for open 3’s above the arc, and generally speaking, get out of the way when the Jays are cooking.
He doesn’t seem like he can play the 4 at this point, but he’s a great option as a stretch 5. He’ll also be a solid locker room guy and will have an immediate rapport with several of the core players. We’ve already heard enough stories to think of him as the Robert Williams whisperer. Maybe he can have a positive influence on Moses Brown as well.
Of course there’s also another big man still on the roster. Does the team really think they’ll need four centers? Or does it seem like Tristan Thompson might be the next one on the move? His expiring $9.7 million salary might be used to bring back another piece that the team could use.
Count me as one that actually likes the idea of Marcus Smart moving permanently into the starting lineup as our point guard. If he’s focused on playmaking and locking down the other team’s ball handlers, then he might have fewer heat-check opportunities. That will be an interesting dynamic with whomever is the next head coach. Payton Pritchard can serve as the backup and I have to imagine that they can find another bench option to fill out the rotation behind them and provide added injury insurance.
Perhaps they can work on finding some better power forward options as well. With all due respect to Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams, I’m hoping they can find someone with a little more length and athleticism that can defend 3 through 5 better. Bonus points if they can stretch the floor as well.
There’s certainly still plenty of work to do for Brad Stevens. But the Kemba trade freed up some cash and added a piece that should fit in better on the court in the near term. It is a good start, but there’s still a lot of work to do yet.