GREENSBORO, N.C. — Kemba Walker doesn’t have an enemy or adversary in the NBA. He is one of the league’s good guys and if it were his choice, he’d still be chasing championships in Boston.
But during his second year with the Celtics he continued to play on a troublesome right knee, and that ailment led to his rapid decline from the league’s point-guard elite. Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens traded Walker a week after taking over, moving an aging player with a bloated contract.
Walker then returned to his native New York, where he had always dreamed of playing for the Knicks. That dream was short lived as Walker clashed with coach Tom Thibodeau, who eventually benched Walker, and he was relegated to cheerleader and emergency backup.
The knee slowed his once-lightning speed and he was never a plus defender, so Walker’s value around the league dropped considerably. Now, he’s fighting just to claim a roster spot. The Knicks traded him to the Pistons in a salary dump, and while he is listed on the Detroit roster, he’ll likely never play a game for the club.
A buyout is in the works but the Pistons offer hasn’t been acceptable, and until it is, Walker is waiting. He made an appearance at the Celtics-Hornets preseason game Friday, receiving a standing ovation when introduced, but all of this adulation, as if for a career that’s completed, is premature for Walker.
He still wants to play. He still feels he can play.
Walker maintains he can play at an NBA level. He said he feels as good as he has in years. But when injury-prone players reach their early 30s, they become expendable. There are a handful of 30-somethings left out in the cold right now, looking for a one-year, minimum deal to get back in. Walker is one of them.
“I’ve got something in the tank, for sure,” he said. “I feel great. I’m going to be honest. I’m going to have my opportunity. I’m not in any rush right now. I’m just grinding and trying to feel as good as I can. And right now, I feel great. I feel as good as I’ve felt in a long time. I’m just waiting for the opportunity.”
Walker was a prolific scorer and star in Charlotte before the franchise decided he wasn’t worth a supermax contract and eventually worked out a sign-and-trade with the Celtics. He played a brilliant half-season in Boston before the knee issues began. He was never the same.
“It’s never been basketball [performance]. It’s just been my knee,” Walker said. “I don’t have [anything] to prove. Everybody knows what I’m about over the years, what I have done in this league.”
There have also been discussions about a return to Charlotte, which needed a backup to LaMelo Ball and signed the younger but well-traveled Dennis Smith Jr., who doesn’t have near the résumé of Walker.
“That would be special,” Walker said of a return to Charlotte. “[But] as far as closing my career, I’ve got a few more years left in my opinion, so I’m not thinking about that yet. We’ll see. I’m just waiting. [Nobody’s] reached out to me. I’m just waiting.”
Waiting is the connecting theme here. Walker has never been through an October without playing basketball, whether it be high school, college, or the NBA. He’s not playing basketball this October — so far — and he’s dealing.
“It’s different. That’s all I can really say,” he said. “Just the support from my family and friends has been awesome, to be honest. That’s how I’ve been getting through everything. Not playing basketball in October has just been different for me. But I’m taking it as good as I can. I’m grinding. I’m working. I’m having fun with my family and my friends. I’ve never not been playing basketball at this time, but I’ll take advantage of the fun, maybe.”
The Celtics signed Blake Griffin because he was a useful veteran who understood he would have a complementary role. His days as a cornerstone are over. It’s the same situation for Walker, and he said he accepts that.
“I just want to be able to play basketball again; I don’t care if it’s the bench or not,” he said. “I started off my career playing basketball coming off the bench. Who cares? I just want to be able to play ball like I love to do, being around some great, great teammates and just have fun.”
The Boston days weren’t great days. He was never healthy after that half-season. He was exposed by opposing teams on defense because of his balky knee and he left as a damaged asset. But there are no regrets about playing on the knee, helping the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals, a plateau he never reached in Charlotte.
“I’m a competitor; I love to play basketball,” he said. “Y’all know me. No regrets. I’ve had a great career. I’ve had fun playing basketball. No one expected me to be here where I’m at from Day One.
“When I got drafted nobody said he’s going to be the all-time leading scorer [for the Hornets]. I can’t complain. I came a long way, man.”