Though moving Kemba Walker was absolutely going to be a possibility to explore heading into this offseason, it appears that it’s not just the Celtics looking to move on. Per Bleacher Report’s Farbod Esnaashari, sources have indicated that both Walker and the Celtics are likely to move on from one another this offseason “in a mutual agreement between the parties.”
That “mutual agreement” distinction, however, doesn’t exactly do the reported tension justice. According to sources close to the Celtics, Ainge sought to trade Walker in a potential deal for Jrue Holiday — you know, one of those “almost” trades we heard about every September. That, of course, didn’t happen, and while Holiday ended up with the Milwaukee Bucks, Walker ended up feeling slighted.
“A source close to Walker said he was hurt by Boston’s efforts to trade him, which created a rift in the Walker-Ainge relationship,” Esnaashari wrote. Though he has a great relationship with both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — who additional sources indicated wouldn’t be involved in the Celtics’ offseason shakeup — Walker no longer feels wanted by the front office. Thus, he wants out.
One league executive told Esnaashari that Walker isn’t the only player to have had negative feelings toward Ainge, citing mistrust throughout his 18 years in the team’s front office. In the past, players and their reps (or, in some cases, family members) have expressed similar sentiments, pointing in particular to the organization's mishandling of Isaiah Thomas’s hip injury and departure after a deep, unlikely playoff run.
But the stories of Thomas and Walker are different entirely. For one, Thomas’s contract was easily movable at the time of his trade from Boston to Cleveland, and while the team undoubtedly mishandled his injury treatment and diagnosis, any executive would’ve made that trade for Kyrie Irving 100 times out of 100. Walker, meanwhile, has voluntarily worked through injury and is now rumored to have been floated in an offseason trade, which is true of practically 80 percent of the league on a yearly basis.
The biggest caveat that differs these two situations, though, is that Walker’s contract is as undesirable as it gets for a player of his current caliber (and health). According to The Athletic’s Jared Weiss, multiple front-office sources across the NBA view Walker “as having negative trade value... That likely means a trade would cost the Celtics extra picks or assets to offload, even if Walker is universally admired for his relentlessly positive attitude and hard work through injury.” He’ll make $36 million next year, and though his contract expires at the end of the 2022-23 season, he has a player option worth $37.7 million that he could exercise during the season.
If it was just about what Walker wants and not about how realistic it is that Boston can move him, or will want to given the fact that a list of trade partners may not be very long for an aging and hobbled point guard, a source close to his camp said he desires a “winning situation.” Esnaashari’s sources said they expect that teams like the New York Knicks could be a possible suitor should they need to fill a veteran scoring point guard role. But they’ll likely have to sort out what to do with Derrick Rose, who will soon be a free agent, and what their long-term plan with Immanuel Quickley and Frank Ntilikina entails.
The Knicks are an intriguing destination, given that they 1) have the cap space and ability to take on Walker’s contract without missing out on other free agents, and 2) need offensive help and a veteran presence. The Knicks were arguably the hottest team down the stretch of the regular season this year but flamed out once the lights got brighter come playoff time. They were disassembled by Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks, who defeated them in their first-round series, 4-1. Walker might not be the answer on defense to counter an offensive threat like Young, but his presence and experience overall could be of benefit for young pieces like Quickley, RJ Barrett, and even Julius Randle, who was as effective in the playoffs as using butter for sunscreen.
But for other teams to pursue Walker would require them to depart with assets, and for the Celtics to find a trade partner willing to take on a regressing player on a lousy contract might be a fool’s errand. Apparently, Walker hopes they can figure out a way to make it work for his sake, not theirs.