fb-pixel Skip to main content

Can Kemba Walker make fans forget about Kyrie Irving?

The Celtics are hoping the Kemba Walker era turns out better than the Kyrie Irving one.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. The Celtics held a press conference to fete their new franchise point guard, fawn over him, and hail all the glory days surely ahead for the Green now that he’s made Boston his hoops home. On Wednesday it was Kemba Walker’s turn to get the royal welcome. Two years ago, it was Kyrie Irving (remember him?).

The old, imperious king of the parquet, Kyrie, is gone, long live the new king, Kemba. Walker said all the right things at his Auerbach Center press conference with fellow new Celtic Enes Kanter, just as Irving did in September of 2017, when he was introduced with Gordon Hayward at TD Garden. Winning the press conference is a layup. Blending talents is the real challenge, which the Celtics learned the hard way during the brief, but turbulent Irving era.


Walker is his own man, regarded as a low-maintenance, high-output scorer, but he’s following in Kyrie’s Nikes and suturing wounds he left behind. That means everything Walker, good, bad, and in between, is going to be funneled through the prism of his point guard predecessor. Living life through the lens of the Kyrie Experience is not always an enjoyable experience, as last year’s underachieving Celtics can attest. Walker deserves a clean shot, but there’s going to be skepticism attached after the carnage Irving left in his wake.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge must have some feline DNA. The Celtics got pushed out of a (championship) window with the defections of Irving and Al Horford and somehow still managed to land on their feet with the signing of Walker, a three-time All-Star point guard in his prime coming off a career season. That’s why the vibe was upbeat, sanguine and optimistic at Celtics Central on Wednesday. With Walker, a healthier Gordon Hayward, and young stars Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics are instituting a soft reset, not a hard reboot. They’re leaving one of the most disappointing seasons in Celtics history in the rearview mirror.


“These were great players we brought in and sometimes the chemistry works and sometimes it doesn’t work. We’ve seen that in the history of the NBA,” said Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, following Walker’s unveiling. “So, I think what you learn is that you need the right mix of players, and Danny is focused on that. We’ve had that for 15 or 16 years, and we had one bump in the road. But the great news is that it was just very serendipitous that Kemba was available, and we had the cap space. He was kind of the No. 1 guy we wanted, and he chose to come here. We’re very high on that.”

In landing Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter, Celtics rebounded in an instant

The Celtics are selling that a very good Plan B was really their Plan A all along. It wasn’t. They would have taken Irving back, moody, capricious demeanor be darned, if he would have agreed to return. They kowtowed to Irving all season, trying to coax him to adhere to his now-infamous preseason pledge to re-sign with the Celtics. But like many things with Irving it proved an ephemeral feeling.

Ainge said Wednesday that he had a “pretty good idea in March or April” that he needed to explore Irving alternatives. It definitely had to be post-All-Star break after poor coach Brad Stevens was forced to pretend that Irving missing games due to a sore knee leading into the All-Star game and then playing in the glorified pickup game, which was ironically held on the floor of Walker’s former team, the Charlotte Hornets, was actually beneficial to Boston.


In the NBA, you sell your soul for talent.

The 29-year-old Walker is a supremely talented player. He torched the Celtics in one of their more memorable losses of a season with too many of them, scoring 18 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter to help the Hornets overcome an 18-point deficit. (That prompted Irving to passive-aggressively chide Stevens for not doubling Walker.) But he feels a little like a Kyrie consolation prize. He splits the difference between Isaiah Thomas and Irving on the franchise point guard scale. Pagliuca referred to Walker as a transcendent using a liberal definition — a top 20 NBA player that can do things in a special way that other players can’t.

Walker has never been out of the first round of the playoffs and made the postseason twice in his eight seasons in Charlotte. I’m not convinced he can be the best player on a championship team. Maybe, he doesn’t have to be if Hayward returns to form or Tatum lives up to the hype.

Refreshingly, Walker conducts himself as the anti-Kyrie in tone and temperament. He plays with a perma-grin. He said all the right things on a crowded riser on the Celtics practice floor. He said he was easy to get along with everybody. He spoke of being excited to work with Stevens: “There is nothing more important to me than having a good relationship with your head coach, so we’ll get there.”


He offered a vision of leadership that’s exactly what the Celtics ordered after Irving’s public and pointed lamentations of teammates shortcomings.

“If I have something to say, I’m going to say it, but I’m more of a guy who says things in a positive way,” said Walker. “Everybody is different. You can talk to a guy in a different way. I just let things flow. I try to lead by example, for the most part. That’s the kind of guy I am. I think chemistry is important. I think the team has to be together. That’s one thing that I try to do throughout my career, you know, team activities, small things like that. I’m more of a lead by example guy.”

It all sounded so good. The only thing missing was Walker turning to Kanter and saying, “It’s about to get crazy, E,” echoing what Irving said to Gordon Hayward at their joyous press conference, sadly the high point of their short-lived basketball union. The point is Irving said all the right things too. The one expression of caution the day Irving was coronated on Causeway Street came from Stevens, who cautioned there was a lot of work ahead. Perhaps, more than he knew.


Actions always speak louder than words in sports.

The Celtics were sure Irving was a fit for their team and their culture. How can they be sure Walker, who was second in the NBA in field goal attempts last season with 1,684, trailing only James Harden (1,909), is now? There’s definitely going to be an adjustment for Walker, who was a lone gunslinger in Charlotte and averaged a career-high 25.6 points per game last season with a usage percentage (31.5) that was ninth in the NBA, ahead of Russell Westbrook and just behind LeBron James.

“One of the things that is very obvious when you sit down with Kemba for the first time is it’s all about winning,” said Stevens. “That’s it. We watched film at my house last night, and it’s like that guy just wants to win. He has been like that his whole life. He was a high volume guy and a high usage guy in Charlotte, but he always brought it.

“He played every night, and he made you scared as the opposing coach every time he had the ball, but he can make plays for other people. I think you’ve seen that all the way throughout his career, but, certainly, last year’s assist totals [career-high 5.9 per game], in addition to the efficiency offensively are pretty impressive.”

Ainge sidestepped a question about why it will be different this time with an All-Star point guard, saying it wasn’t all Irving’s fault. Correct, but he was at the epicenter of the team’s issues. At the risk of alienating members of the NBA’s superstar fraternity, the Celtics remain loath to publicly assign any blame to Irving.

Irving and Walker are different players, but they’re in similar positions with the Celtics. So, why will this version of the Celtics work?

“Good question, we’ll see. It takes a lot of commitment. It takes a lot of time,” said Stevens. “Everybody can say the right things before the season, but it’s about what you do once the season starts. It’s about every day in the locker room. It’s a commitment to one another and to try to bring out the best in one another. I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of the teams . . . that at the end we fit, and it really worked. That’s why last year was disappointing.”

Welcome to Boston, Kemba. Sorry if we’re skeptical, but the last guy left a mark.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.