Firstly, the Celtics’ interest in free agent guard Kemba Walker is indeed real. They are fully prepared for Kyrie Irving and Al Horford to leave via free agency on Sunday and are gathering monies to make Walker a maximum contract offer.
Walker has played for the Charlotte Hornets the past eight seasons, rising from virtual anonymity to All-Star status playing for a franchise with no sizzle, no national television appearances, and Walker shouldering most of the responsibility of leading the franchise to respectability.
Acquiring the 29-year-old Walker would be an adequate response to losing Irving because he’s arguably better and comes with a personality that has little in the way of off-the-court baggage. Told for years he was too small — at 6 feet 1 inch — to be a true superstar, Walker carries a “The Little Engine That Could” attitude.
He has earned three consecutive All-Star appearances from 2016-17 to 2018-19 and averaged 25.6 points per game along with 4.4 rebounds and 5.9 assists last season. Because he had little help, the Hornets finished ninth in the Eastern Conference at 39-43, one spot short of making the playoffs.
So Charlotte is in a major quandary. If the Hornets re-sign one of the greatest players in franchise history to a super max contract — Walker is eligible for a five-year, $221 million deal — it could cripple the team’s salary cap in coming years and curtail its ability to compete. Or the Hornets could allow Walker to leave and become part of another rebuild with another team.
Even if Walker signs with the Celtics, the Hornets won’t even have much cap flexibility because of the other poor contracts on their payroll. So the motivation for Walker to re-sign is loyalty and money, not necessarily winning.
In Boston, Walker would immediately become a cornerstone and would help the Celtics become a legitimate playoff team. It’s highly likely the Celtics would take a step back in losing Horford and Irving, but the club is hoping a change in culture, a healthy Gordon Hayward, continued progress from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and, perhaps, the addition of another free agent will stem any decline.
Walker would help change that culture. You’d have to do a serious search to find someone who had a bad word to say about him. He has been a model and durable teammate who is not only assumed but readily embraced as the face of the franchise. Walker has missed six games — six! — in the past four years and played in all 82 games last season.
He is in the prime of his career. He can score on any defense and scored a combined 79 points on 26-for-50 shooting, including 13 of 26 from the 3-point arc and 16 of 17 from the foul line, in two games against the Celtics at Spectrum Arena in Charlotte.
Here were Irving’s comments after Walker scored half of his 36 points in the final 7:43 of Charlotte’s 124-117 comeback win over the Celtics on March 23: “We should have probably trapped him a little bit more, like every other team does in the league, but we didn’t. He torches us every time we play them. It’s no surprise.”
You could say Walker is Irving without the publicity and the prestige. He has played in Charlotte for four different coaches and reached the playoffs in 2014 and 2016, both resulting in first-round eliminations against the Miami Heat. This will be Walker’s last best contract and while he has stated his desire to return to Charlotte, he wants to win and, perhaps, play near his Bronx home.
There will be plenty of other suitors because Walker is considered the second-best point guard on the market behind Irving. The Lakers could be interested. So could the Nets or Knicks or the Dallas Mavericks, all of whom will be after a franchise-altering point guard.
There are some concerns. Walker is not as efficient a scorer as he could be. He’s a career 41.8 percent shooter, but he has shot better than 43 percent in the past three seasons. Irving is a considerably better scorer than Walker with short jumpers and layups.
Irving is a career 39.1 percent shooter from shots from 3-10 feet, including 44.1 the past two seasons with the Celtics. Walker is 33.4 percent. Irving is a better 3-point shooter at 39 percent career than Walker (35.7).
The issue with Irving wasn’t his production on the floor — except for the playoff series vs. Milwaukee — it was his mercurial personality and leadership issues.
The Celtics obviously need a fresh start and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge made that clear in his draft press conference. And now that the Celtics have essentially found money with Horford opting out for perhaps a more lucrative contract (four years, $112 million) with another club, they can invest in a player who will produce on and off the floor, who will understand that he is a leader and won’t allow issues like impending free agency to affect how he approaches his job or teammates.
Walker is a true professional. He will be 33 at the end of a four-year deal, so it’s not like the Celtics are investing in player who could be in decline at the end of his contract.
If the Celtics are going to spend most of their salary cap space on one player, Walker is the right choice.