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gary washburn | on basketball

Kemba Walker’s star-crossed two-year tenure with Celtics ends as a big what-if

Durability became a big factor with Kemba Walker, and the Celtics simply couldn't afford to wait for him to come around.
Durability became a big factor with Kemba Walker, and the Celtics simply couldn't afford to wait for him to come around.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

The Celtics wished it had worked out better. They wished Kemba Walker had been more than just an adequate replacement for Kyrie Irving on the floor, just as much as he was a better teammate and leader off the floor.

It just didn’t work, and it’s really nobody’s fault.

Walker’s knee was never quite right after that 2020 All-Star Game appearance, turning the final 75 percent of his Celtics tenure into a disappointing sojourn of games and jumpers missed. He could never develop into that bona fide third option behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and it cost the Celtics a chance at reaching the NBA Finals and then avoiding the Brooklyn Nets in the first round this season.

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If there was any doubt about whether new president of basketball operations Brad Stevens would deal players he’s emotionally attached to, he erased those concerns by moving Walker to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday for former Celtic Al Horford, center prospect Moses Brown, and a 2023 second-round pick. The Celtics also sent their 2021 first-round pick and a 2025 second-rounder to OKC.

For Walker, it ends a difficult two-year run with the Celtics that did not meet expectations. He earned All-Star honors in his first season but played in that game in Chicago with a troublesome left knee that never returned to 100 percent.

He did not play in the second games of back-to-back sets this season, which disrupted the team’s chemistry. And while he blended well with Tatum and Brown and was an encouraging mentor, he did not produce enough on the floor.

It was surprising, because Walker was a durable player in Charlotte, but he also was approaching 30 when he signed with Boston. And while NBA fans have been spoiled by players such as LeBron James and the late Kobe Bryant playing at a high level into their late 30s, that is a luxury, not a given.

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The Celtics had to feel Walker would not return to form by next season, and they never addressed the question of whether he would be able to play in back-to-back games in 2021-22.

And while the club spent all season preparing Walker to be healthy for the playoffs, he missed the final two games of the Brooklyn series with a bone bruise in that same left knee, unrelated to the previous injury.

Durability was a factor, and perhaps the Celtics would have been more patient had Walker not been owed $73 million over the next two years, if he opts into the final year of his contract in 2022-23. That was too much salary for the Celtics to bear for a player with such an uncertain future.

They can use the extra money to re-sign Evan Fournier and perhaps sign a stopgap point guard such as Goran Dragic.

Walker tried feverishly to return to form but his body would not allow it, and that zapped his confidence. One poignant moment occurred in the final minute of the January home game against the Lakers.

Walker had a chance to cap a Celtics rally with a buzzer-beating midrange jumper, one he has swished thousands of times in his career. Instead, he missed the wide-open 15-footer, and the Celtics lost. It was indicative that Walker could no longer be depended on to consistently score when necessary.

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He showed flashes of his previous self, able to help with big fourth quarters, but too often he was unable to become that reliable scorer. And if he wasn’t going to knock down shots, it reached a point where he was no longer useful on the floor.

It wasn’t from lack of effort, but when Toronto’s Nick Nurse exposed Walker defensively in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, it opened up an opportunity for other opponents to hone in on the weaknesses of the undersized point guard.

Walker leaves Boston as a “what if?” case. What if he had stayed healthy throughout his tenure? What if he had been able to play in back-to-backs? What if he was able to consistently knock down shots and take over games as he did in Charlotte?

It leaves an unsavory feeling for both sides. Stevens felt he couldn’t afford to wait for Walker to find himself again. He had to move on with the reshaping of the roster, and Walker became his most movable asset.

Trading max contracts is difficult, but Stevens was comfortable with the return in Horford, who had left the Celtics for that four-year, $109 million deal with the 76ers.

That relationship lasted one year before Horford was moved to Oklahoma City in a salary dump, much the way Walker was just dealt. The Celtics will save potentially $20 million, and Stevens gets an opportunity to rebuild his backcourt.

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Moving Walker was obviously Stevens’s biggest priority, and there were but a few teams that could — or would — accommodate his contract.

It was an unfortunate ending, one that appeared inevitable a few weeks ago. Now both sides can move on. The Celtics can find another capable point guard and Walker can seek redemption with little expectations.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.