About 15 minutes after free agency opened on June 30, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge picked up Kemba Walker from the Four Seasons in Back Bay to talk to him about joining the basketball team he runs.
Although Walker had yet to make his choice official, his plan to sign with Boston was one of the worst-kept secrets in free agency. And Ainge was surely well aware of that, and he is always thinking about his next move.
So after the two spoke for about 10 minutes, Ainge pulled out his cellphone and called free agent center Enes Kanter. The Celtics already knew they were losing Al Horford, and they had already traded Aron Baynes, and their frontcourt needed help.
But Ainge did not speak to Kanter at that moment. Instead, he handed the phone to Walker and asked him to do it for him.
“It was a deep voice and I was like, ‘Who’s this?’” Kanter said. “He said, ‘It’s Kemba, man, and we want you to be here and we’re excited about you.’ That made me very excited and feel special. Having an All-Star guy, a superstar like Kemba call me and say, ‘Hey, we want you to be here,’ that’s special.”
If Ainge had concerns about Walker having second thoughts, they were surely erased by his recruiting pitch to a future teammate. Kanter was flattered, and a few days later he agreed to join the team, too.
On Wednesday afternoon, the two players stood next to each other and held up their new Celtics jerseys, the most visible indicators that a new era for this franchise had arrived. Few expected it to be here this quickly, of course.
Less than two years ago, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward sat side by side here and smiled and talked about how wonderful their partnership could become. Then last season, with NBA Finals expectations soaring, the team crumbled. And when the dust cleared, Irving, Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier were all gone.
So the Celtics had to regroup and find a new way to strike.
“It’s a tough business,” Ainge said. “You’ve got to have a lot of different directions to go. You’ve got to be ready . . . We’re sitting here with two guys that chose to come to us that we’re very fortunate to have, but if it hadn’t happened we’d have had another plan.”
With an Auerbach Center practice court here converted to a big press conference room—an approach reserved only for the biggest moves — and team employees and kids from the Celtics youth camp watching as Walker and Kanter were introduced, there were smiles, and there was hope and optimism.
Of course, plenty of other teams have held press conferences with new arrivals this month, and they have hope and optimism, too. But the Celtics are confident that despite their recent stumbles and notable departures, they will remain on solid ground because they did not need to do a full reboot. Instead, they are adding one All-Star and one good post player to a talented young core, and they are hoping that these pieces mesh better than the previous ones.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be better [than last year’s Celtics],” Walker said. “I can’t tell the future, but we have a really good team, a bunch of young guys who are very talented who I’m looking forward to playing with. But yeah, do I think we can be good? Yeah. I do.”
Although Walker was a three-time All-Star during his eight-year run with the Hornets, he played in just 11 playoff games and never advanced to the second round. Yes, it is nice for the Bronx native to be closer to home, and closer to UConn, his alma mater, but he has made it clear that the primary allure of joining the Celtics was the chance to compete and to win.
“Throughout my career [in Charlotte] we just haven’t been consistent with winning,” Walker said. “I’m not saying that’s going to happen here, because I don’t know. I can’t see the future or anything like that, but I want to win. I want to be on a team that goes out and competes every night on a high level. Watching Boston over the years, man, that’s just what they’ve done.”
Ainge said Wednesday that he had a “pretty good idea” in March or April that Irving would probably leave at season’s end. But Horford’s decision to join the 76ers came as a bit more of a surprise.
Ainge said that once the team felt like it had a good chance of signing Walker, it reached out to Horford’s representatives once more to see if there was a chance Horford might reconsider Boston.
“But, I think a decision had already been made,” Ainge said.
The addition of Kanter, who averaged 13.7 points and 9.8 rebounds while splitting last season between the Knicks and Blazers, helped fill that void. Kanter has always been known as a powerful rebounder and a strong finisher, but he has never been much of an outside threat.
Over his eight seasons he has attempted a total of just 143 3-point shots, making 29.4 percent of them. Horford and Baynes, who combined to make 94 3-pointers last season, were an important part of Boston’s offensive attack by pulling opposing big men out of the paint to make life easier for players like Irving.
The Celtics are already making it clear that they would like the long-range shot to be part of Kanter’s repertoire. Ainge alluded to his perimeter shooting in a statement that was included in the press release announcing his signing, and coach Brad Stevens later spoke about watching Kanter take jump shots at the training facility recently, “and he looked pretty good.”
“This summer one of my plans was to just add [3-point shooting] to my game,” Kanter said. “I think it’s very important to just stretch the floor. It will be amazing, I think. And then Coach gives me confidence, so that’s going to make me feel comfortable out there to start taking it.”
It was no secret that Boston’s struggles last season were created in part by a lack of cohesion on and off the court. Ever since draft night, Ainge has publicly emphasized the importance of bringing in good people who will help create the culture they need. He went back to that thought several times Wednesday when speaking about Walker and Kanter, and the two already seem to be enjoying themselves quite a bit.
As Walker was wrapping up his final group interview session of the day, Kanter grabbed a microphone and lobbed one more question from the back of the scrum, asking Walker how often he would pass him the ball next season.
“Uh, zero,” Walker said, before chuckling. “Just playing. You know I got you.”