NEW YORK — Even though it didn’t work out in Boston, Kemba Walker should still be praised for how he handled his departure, supported in his quest to chase his first championship, and lauded for his positive influence on his young Boston teammates.
Walker will face the Celtics on Wednesday as a member of the New York Knicks, his hometown team, just a few months after Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens shuttled him to Oklahoma City in a salary-dump deal.
Two years after he signed a maximum contract, Walker was moved soon after Stevens accepted his promotion. It was a two-year stint that started strongly and ended woefully with an injured Walker being unavailable for the Celtics’ final two playoff games.
The Celtics vigorously tried to keep Walker healthy and fresh, preventing him from playing in back-to-back games all last season after he missed the first 12 games after undergoing a knee procedure. But missing so many games wrecked team chemistry and he finally sustained another knee injury in the playoffs.
Walker, 31, swears he’s completely healthy and ready to take the Knicks to the next level after they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs. It remains uncertain whether he will play in back-to-backs, but, going into his 11th season, he wants to prove he’s still an elite point guard.
Playing the Celtics in the opener carries great significance.
“Of course, it’s my old team. Yeah, it matters,” he said Tuesday. “But I don’t go into any game thinking I want to lose. I definitely want to win. Does it make it that much better that it’s my old team? Yeah, no question.”
When asked why the Celtics traded him, Walker said he was befuddled. He did not want to leave. He felt as if he was healthy enough to play a full season but being owed $74 million over two years encouraged Stevens to essentially send Walker to NBA Siberia, Oklahoma City, which soon bought him out so he could sign with the Knicks.
“I don’t know if that’s a question for me to be honest,” he said of the reason for his exit. “I don’t think it had anything to do with my basketball skills. It was more my health. I don’t know if that’s really a question. I wasn’t expecting to get traded. I have never been expecting to get traded to a team, especially just because of the person that I am. But obviously it’s not about that. It’s what you bring to the table. I wasn’t there all the time on the court. Obviously, that was an issue. That’s how it works.”
The caveat for Walker is he ended up playing where he always wanted. The Bronx kid who thrived at Madison Square Garden in those Big East tournaments for UConn is finally back home. That’s what he’s most focused on, not the Boston departure.
“I’m from here and I’m in a Knicks uniform and that’s definitely going to make it 10 times more special,” he said. “I’m definitely excited about that. This is definitely a dream come true to be able to play for this organization.”
Walker was a pleasant transition after the rocky Kyrie Irving years; he was a positive and encouraging teammate, and eventual mentor for young standouts, such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
“I had a great time [in Boston]. I had great teammates,” he said. “I really enjoyed those guys, love those guys, talk to those guys to this day, all the time. I went to the Eastern Conference finals. I made some great friends. It was a great time. I loved it.”
He should receive a strong and thoughtful ovation when he returns to TD Garden (Dec. 18), especially for the influence he had on Tatum and Brown, which will help them become better leaders as they hold reins of the franchise.
“Both are very special talents,” Walker said. “Jayson, I always raved about him. He’s one of my closer friends. His ability to get to the basket is unbelievable, especially as he ages. Those guys work on their games. There’s no secret to why they’re having the success that they’re having. Hard work always pays off.”
Walker said he had no issue with Tatum and Brown being the team’s stars and showcase players. He willingly stepped back and tried to thrive in his role as the third offensive option. But his knees wouldn’t allow it. With Tatum’s maximum extension kicking in this season, the Celtics couldn’t withstand Walker’s salary with a lack of production.
“Even when I was there, it was that way as it should have been, those two young talents just trending upwards and they’ve gotten better from Day 1 when I was there until now,” he said. “They deserve every single thing that’s coming their way.
“Jaylen and Jayson, two very special young men on and off the court with great parents. They deserve everything, I’m super proud of them and I got an opportunity to play with those guys. They are just special guys. I’ll never forget those guys, how they treated me in my time there.”
Walker came to Boston with a classy reputation and he left that way. His tenure just didn’t work out, but he deserves to be praised for his professionalism and he’ll unquestionably show he has something left.