From Pipe Dream to Reality, the Chances of Kemba Walker Wearing Green Next Year Have Never Seemed Better
Just a couple of weeks ago, the idea of Kemba Walker as a replacement for Kyrie Irving in Boston seemed next to impossible. Aside from the fact that Kemba was telling reporters he would be willing to stay in Charlotte for less money if it helped them build a contender, it didn't seem at all likely that Boston would be able to clear the space necessary to sign him. Well, after moving Aron Baynes on draft night, the Celtics can indeed clear up enough space for Kemba if they renounce the rights to just about all of their free agents including Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris and one of Daniel Theis or Brad Wanamaker. As for whether there is interest on Kemba's end, in a completely unexpected turn of events, Boston seems to be the current favorite to land him.
With the likelihood of Kemba ending up in Boston growing by the day, theres a few natural questions to be answered. What is drawing Kemba to Boston? Is he the right fit for this young roster? How will they fill out the roster around him if they spend so much on him?
On the Appeal of Boston to Kemba: This is obviously all my own speculation, but there are several explanations I could come up with for why Kemba would want to come to Boston despite the overblown narrative that's been going around about free agents not wanting to play there.
First, he has spent the entirety of his eight-year career in Charlotte where the lack of excitement around the team and the small market have done him no favors in terms of his star status. Despite being one of the most popular college players of his generation, averaging over 21 points and 5 assists for four straight years, making the last three All-Star games, and making an All-NBA team this past year, he hasn't gotten the same attention as other stars of his level across the league.
Additionally, the team simply hasn't been competitive in his time there and has lacked a long term plan or sense of direction for years. They won 7 games in his first year and maxed out as a 48-win 6 seed back in 2015-2016, losing in the first round of the playoffs just as they did the one other time they made it there with Kemba. Since that last playoff appearance, they have finished with win totals of 36, 36, and 39, leaving them stranded in a back-of-the-lottery "no man's land" with a front office that has routinely missed on draft picks to begin with.
To make matters worse, the front office has mortgaged their future cap flexibility with bad deal after bad deal as Guy Boston's own KJ Doyle pointed out:
Not only does Boston provide Kemba with a bigger market and thus, more attention, but they also provide him with an extremely competent front office that he can trust has a sense of direction and multiple plans for how to continue contending in the East throughout his time there.
Additionally, Boston provides him with a fanbase that will likely embrace him as though he has been there his entire career. While the fanbases of any of the other interested teams (Dallas, LAL, New York) would certainly embrace him as well, they haven't quite had the year that the Celtics have had. After a season full of turmoil and with Kyrie Irving almost certain to go back on his word about staying in Boston, Kemba would be welcomed as a hero. He would be given the chance to live up to all of the promises that Kyrie was supposed to make good on, and the hatred that many Boston fans will feel for Kyrie would only make their love for Kemba stronger. In a time where Boston fans likely feel betrayed, Kemba choosing to come here would heal a lot of those emotional wounds.
Lastly, Boston has been a fantastic place for guards to prosper in recent years. Isaiah Thomas became an All-NBA player and MVP-vote getter in Brad Stevens' system, Kyrie had the two best years of his career, and Terry Rozier has even looked like a competent NBA starter at times when given opportunities to do so. Even though he is already in the midst of his prime at 29 years old, there may be another level to Kemba's game that can be unlocked by playing under Stevens.
So How Does He Fit?
This is an interesting question to me because there are multiple ways to look at it. I'll start with age. Kemba turned 29 on May 8th, the same day as the Celtics got eliminated from the playoffs this year. That means that he would be just 32 years old in the last year of his four-year deal which would be the 2022-2023 season. For perspective, Mike Conley is still one of the better guards in the league at 31 years old and the Jazz were just hailed as free agency winners for getting him from Memphis. Chris Paul, when healthy, has still maintained solid production at 32 and 33 years old the last two years, and Kemba is far more durable, having played in at least 79 games in each of the last 4 seasons and never having missed more than 20 games in a season thus far in his career. There is no real reason to be worried about Kemba's age or the timelines of Kemba and the young guys not aligning.
As far as being an off-the-court fit, there may not be anybody better than Kemba out there for the Celtics. He spent 8 years being loyal to Charlotte with no good reason to, never complaining about coaching, his teammates or the front office's routine incompetency or lack of direction. He has never made headlines for any sort of negative reason and has been hailed as a high character guy and great leader repeatedly ever since leading his UConn team to a national championship. Here are a couple of anecdotes from a piece that Mike Anthony from "The Hartford Courant" wrote about Kemba that highlight just how well-respected he is as a competitor and high-character guy:
It seems unquestionable that Kemba would live up to all of the characteristics and values that fans associate with "being a Celtic" that, in most people's eyes, Kyrie never embodied.
As far as on-court fit, that would remain to be seen. One thing that Celtics fans were excited about when Kyrie's departure became inevitable was the start of the Jayson Tatum era. They were ready to see Jaylen and Jayson get the keys to the offense with Jayson finally getting his shot to blossom as a number one option. It was assumed that whatever cheaper point guard the Celtics brought in this summer, whether it was Ricky Rubio, Patrick Beverley, Malcolm Brogdon or someone far cheaper like Cory Joseph or Darren Collison, would be a pass-first type of player and would not take shots away from the Jays. Kemba definitely isn't that, as he shot 21.2 FGA per 36 minutes --- one more shot per-36 than Kyrie took last year. Granted, Kemba was on a team where that sort of offensive load was required of him, so it is impossible to know how he would adjust his play in a more talented and well-balanced lineup. Defensively, Kemba is just as big of a liability as the Celtics' last two point guards, Thomas and Irving, but having Marcus Smart and/or Jaylen Brown alongside a defensively weak point guard has proven to work in both of those prior instances as the Celtics' defensive rankings managed to remain pretty impressive over the last 3-4 years.
How Would The Celtics Fill Out the Roster Around Him?
This is the biggest question that will need to be answered if Boston does land Kemba, and it's one that worries some fans like me. If Boston signs Kemba, renouncing all of their free agents except for maybe Daniel Theis in the process, they will be left with a few roster spots and specific needs to fill and VERY little money to do so. Signing Kemba will take about $32M, leaving the Celtics with just a couple million in cap space and a roster that looks something like:
PG: Walker, Edwards, Waters
SG: Brown, Smart
SF: Tatum, Langford
PF: Hayward, G Williams
C: R Williams, Theis, Fall
From there, unless they made further trades like offloading Hayward's contract, they would need to scrape the bottom of the barrel for cheap free agents -- likely big men or veterans -- such as: Enes Kanter, Robin Lopez, Kenneth Faried, Ed Davis, Khem Birch, Christian Wood, Taj Gibson, and Jared Dudley.
It's hard to predict how much some of those guys will command in free agency -- especially Enes Kanter who did a solid job filling in for the injured Jusuf Nurkic for the Blazers in the playoffs -- but that is the tier of players that they would be looking at. Looking at that list is a little scary, and it certainly raises questions about how ready Robert Williams is to contribute at the center position, along with whether the team should even be considering spending so much money on one position like they would be by signing Kemba. With multiple needs this summer, if the Celtics want to spend big money on a point guard, it may be a better strategy for them to go with a slightly cheaper option like Malcolm Brogdon or Ricky Rubio in order to have more money to spend on other positions. Then again, players like Kemba aren't always available and willing to sign with Boston, and the front office has been criticized for missing out on so many big name players that they might not want to let another one slip away.
We are approaching the final 72 hours until Free Agency officially opens, and things are bound to get even crazier with each hour that passes. One thing is for sure though, and that is that Wyc Grousbeck and the Celtics' front office weren't messing around when he said they would be aggressive and not settle for mediocrity. Things are looking a lot brighter in Boston than they were just a week or two ago and the many possible directions that this team could go in the coming week -- all relatively positive -- speak to how lucky we are to have Ainge at the helm despite all of the criticism he receives.
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