About a half-hour after the Celtics’ season ended with a Game 5 playoff loss to the Nets June 1, point guard Kemba Walker sat down for a Zoom interview in the bowels of the Barclays Center and briefly rehashed a frustrating year.
He had missed that game and the previous one because of a bone bruise on his left knee, and that stubborn knee would end up defining his tenure in Boston. Walker was asked about changes he anticipated in the offseason.
“I have no idea,” he said. “Like I said, just need time to reflect. It’s just so soon.”
But on Friday, Walker’s two-year stint in Boston came to a sudden end. In his first major move as the team’s president of basketball operations, Brad Stevens agreed to trade Walker, the No. 16 pick in next month’s draft, and a 2025 second-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for former Celtics forward Al Horford, center Moses Brown, and a 2023 second-round choice.
Walker has two years and $73 million remaining on his four-year deal, and his departure will create some future financial flexibility for the Celtics. They will remain over the salary cap, but in the short term, it will increase the likelihood that they can re-sign free agent wing Evan Fournier now that the tax burden will not be as steep.
Horford has $53 million left on the four-year deal he signed with the 76ers two seasons ago, and his salary for the 2022-23 season is partially guaranteed.
In July 2019, point guard Kyrie Irving dented the Celtics’ bright future when he decided to sign with the Nets. But the Celtics bounced back with force and replaced one All-Star with another, signing Walker to a four-year, $141 million deal.
Although Irving is slightly more talented, he also had been polarizing, and there was hope within the organization that Walker could reinvigorate the culture that had suddenly deteriorated. He made the All-Star Game in 2019-20, but persistent swelling and soreness in his left knee became a concern.
Walker missed the first 11 games of this season to strengthen his knee and did not play in games on back-to-back nights all year.
“I mean, it wasn’t the greatest season for me personally,” Walker said June 1. “There definitely was some things — I would like to play better, more consistently. As far as where I’m at, I mean, I need time. I just need a little bit of time to reflect and just get myself back together.”
Walker averaged 19.3 points, 4.9 assists, and 4.0 rebounds this season. His contract was widely viewed around the league as an albatross, and it was clear the Celtics would need to entice a team with some extra draft compensation in any deal involving Walker.
Typically, a trade of this magnitude would be consummated closer to the draft, after teams have had time to evaluate the value of a first-round pick. But the Thunder lingered as an obvious trade partner, which was probably why this deal was struck so quickly.
Oklahoma City has spent the past two years collecting draft picks as if it planned to display them in a trophy case, and the logic behind this transaction made almost too much sense.
While Irving’s departure in 2019 was a setback for the Celtics, Horford’s decision to opt out of the final year of his deal so he could sign with the 76ers was considerably more stunning. When Horford signed a four-year, $113 million contract with Boston in 2017, it was considered a substantial coup, as it accelerated what once looked as if it would be a lengthy rebuild. Horford led the Celtics to consecutive conference finals appearances before they lost to the Bucks in the 2019 semifinals.
But Irving’s situation, uncertainty about Gordon Hayward’s health, and the 76ers’ ascension behind young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons made Horford believe that Philadelphia offered the best path to his first NBA title. The hefty four-year, $109 million deal Philadelphia offered didn’t hurt, either.
“Obviously Al was great here,” Stevens said in July 2019. “We loved Al. We wanted him back. Again, it’s his choice. He can go do what he wants to do and there’s a lot of factors that end up helping these guys making those decisions. But he’s a heck of a player and did a great job here in the three years he was here.”
But it turned out to be a clunky fit for Horford. The Celtics swept the 76ers in the first round of last season’s playoffs, and soon after that, Horford was traded to the Thunder in a salary-clearing move. He played in 28 games with Oklahoma City this season before the team deactivated him so it could focus on developing its younger players.
Now Horford returns to Boston. Center Robert Williams, perhaps Boston’s big man of the future, said several times during his rookie year in 2018-19 that Horford served as a valuable mentor to him. He and Horford will now be reunited.
The acquisition of Horford raises some questions about the future of center Tristan Thompson, who has one year remaining on his two-year, $19 million contract. But one league source said that there is a good chance Thompson will be back next season as a kind of insurance policy. Williams’s three-year career has been marred by injuries, and Horford turned 35 this month.
Brown, 21, parlayed a two-way contract with the Thunder into an NBA deal in March, one day after erupting for 21 points and 23 rebounds in Oklahoma City’s loss to the Celtics. He averaged 8.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game. He was mostly added to this deal for salary-matching purposes, but the Celtics are intrigued by his potential, too, a source said.