The Case for Kemba Walker on the Celtics

NBA free agency isn't officially here, but the surprises have already arrived. Kemba Walker and the Celtics emerged as a major story, and The Crossover explains why this early conversation needs to become a real connection.
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The beginning of NBA free agency is still a few days away, but on Tuesday afternoon we got our first surprise. It began with a 12 p.m. Marc Stein report that the Celtics are a "stealth suitor" for Hornets guard Kemba Walker. That was followed a few hours later with confirmation from longtime Hornets beat writer Rick Bonnell that, yes, the Celtics are "seriously interested". And finally, by the end of afternoon Stein circled back to joke, "We can scratch 'stealth'" from the initial report. He noted that the Celtics and Mavs will be at the "front of the line" to sign Kemba when free agency opens on Sunday. 

Everyone who wondered what the Celtics might be doing with the cap space they created on draft night now has a semi-plausible answer. And after debating this possibility for 24 hours, I'm into it. Before I explain why, I'll admit that it took me a while to wrap my head around why this makes sense for both sides. 

The reasons to be skeptical are obvious. For Kemba, Boston is a team working with two very young building blocks (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown), one still-recovering star (Gordon Hayward), and zero reliable big men (assuming Al Horford does, indeed, sign elsewhere after opting out of his deal). For the Celtics, Kemba is 29 years old and set to command a four-year deal worth $140 million. That $35 million per year is a lot of money for a point guard who doesn't fit the timeline of the young guys and may never take the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals. Adding a second star would make more sense if Boston were keeping Horford, but that door appears to have closed. Even in the best-case scenario with Kemba in the backcourt, the Celtics look like a team with zero answers for Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo at the top of the conference. 


There's also the worry that the Celtics are over-correcting in the wake of Kyrie Irving. Nine months of post-game Ted Talks on "leadership" and "what it takes to win" would be enough to drive any team to seek out the polar opposite of the player at the center of those press conferences. "I think it just makes life more enjoyable when everybody is humble, hard-working, and will play any role they have to to help the team succeed," Danny Ainge said after this year's draft. "You do have to have a certain amount of talent to win, as we all know, but good people makes coming to work more fun."

Kemba is a very good player and likely a much better leader than Kyrie, but $35 million per year is a lot of money—particularly for a high-usage guard at the end of his prime just as two other potential cornerstones are beginning to enter theirs. And so all of these are good reasons to preach patience in Boston.  

On the other hand, sometimes everyone overthinks these things. Kemba makes sense in Boston because he would be an absolute maniac in Brad Stevens' offense. The same way the Stevens system was able to elevate Isaiah Thomas and even Terry Rozier, Boston could unlock the best possible version of Kemba, who averaged 25.6 ppg on 43% shooting last season. He only shot 35.6% from three last year, but that number was 38.6% in 2018, and 39.9% in 2017. Moreover, per the Ringer and, Walker hit 41.4% of his spot-up threes over the past three seasons. 

The Celtics are already too competent and talented for a full-scale rebuild, and in that case, the team might as well be legitimately good. For fans, Kemba would be 10 times more fun to root for than Kyrie was, and his presence would give Boston a much higher baseline in the East. The puzzle wouldn't be complete with a new point guard in place—the frontcourt will need to be solved just the same—but Kemba could carry the offense when everything else breaks down, he could draw defensive attention that makes life easier for everyone else and he can increase his workload off-ball as young players progress over the next few seasons. 

For Walker, himself, it's harder to gauge free-agent possibilities. His options aren't 100% clear at the moment. The Hornets won't offer him a supermax and are already sounding alarms about the lack of flexibility that would accompany his signing, so returning to Charlotte is probably a non-starter. That outcome is fine and likely healthy for everyone. Hornets fans deserve better than a team perpetually ping-ponging between seventh and ninth place and NBA fans deserve to see what Kemba can do on a team that surrounds him with above-average starters. 


Beyond Charlotte... If the Lakers call, he should listen. Same with the Clippers. Those are the two teams who offer the market size and championship window to trump any other offer Walker might field next week. The Mavs, for their part, might have more championship upside than the Celtics if you're willing to believe in the health of Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic's MVP potential. But the progression of those stars is no sure thing, and even in the best-case scenario, Kemba's fit between two high-usage players seems like it would be trickier than it would be in Boston. With the Celtics, Walker might be able to split the difference between the upside in Dallas and the security he’s enjoyed in Charlotte. He would be the focal point of the offense in Boston, he'd be worshipped in a city that cares too much about sports and he'd stay in the East, free from the annual 10-team death match we see out West every year. 

It's true that the future in Boston should belong to one or both of Tatum and Brown, but the presence of those young stars creates an imperative in free agency, not an impediment. Once a team has real All-Star prospects in place, the best thing it can do to build around them is invest in veterans who raise the floor and give everyone an opportunity to play in high-stakes games and grow. Signing Nikola Vucevic or trading for Steven Adams, both rumored Celtics targets, would be a fine way to channel everything through the wings, win 45 games and exit the first round of the playoffs in six games. Kemba could give Boston a chance to aim higher. The team would retain long-term upside on the wings while making deeper playoff runs over the next few seasons. That kind of experience benefits young players more than a few extra shots. 

Any Celtics moves will be graded against what was once thought possible and the eventual superteam that has been promised throughout the Nets pick era. In that respect, maxing out an undersized 29-year-old point guard isn't a perfect solution. But aside from all the post-game wisdom that Kyrie Irving leaves behind, the lesson of the past six months in Boston is that waiting on a perfect solution is overrated. The last nine months were pure misery and the AD/Kyrie blueprint has gone up in flames. Now it’s time to move forward. Kemba could be the difference between the Celtics becoming last year’s Pacers (good defense, good story, easy to ignore) or last year’s Blazers (not winning a title, very difficult to beat, reliably great to watch). If Boston has a choice, I know which option I’d pick.