Kemba Walker of the Boston Celtics
When Celtics team president Danny Ainge spoke of point guard Kemba Walker about two-and-a-half weeks ago, the tone probably struck some Celtics fans as odd. Ainge was not just hopeful that perhaps Walker would get himself in order, he was sure of it. Walker had shown very few positive signs during his first games back from an oddly stealthy offseason knee surgery, but Ainge still saw the good in how Walker was playing.
“We like Kemba,” Ainge said. “We know what he’s capable of doing.”
Going by a stretch of eight games after his return from knee surgery in mid-January, Ainge might have seemed to be a bit of a loon. Walker was putting up the kind of numbers expected for an average point guard, scoring 15.5 points and doing so awkwardly—shooting 34.8% from the field and 33.8% from the three-point line.
But Ainge, speaking on his weekly radio hit with 98.5 the Sports Hub in Boston, said that was not where his focus was, and thus, not where the team’s focus was when it came to Walker. The numbers were unsightly but the glimmers of hope were, to Ainge, worth watching.
“I feel like we will be able to figure out ways for him to contribute offensively,” Ainge said, “and get better with that as time goes on because even though it is a sample of, what, I don’t know, 10 games now, Kemba—that’s not a lot especially in this world we are living in with very little practice and time to really get cohesive. It’s really not a lot of time.
“He looks good physically. I like what I see in Kemba’s movement, I think it’s better than it was in the bubble and in the playoffs last year, I think he’s worked hard to get the strength back in his knee. I don’t think it is as much physical as, a lot of it is, there is such a focus on trying to shut him down. We just need to do a better job of getting him better shots.”
Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge.
They have done that, and Sunday’s tooth-scraper win over the Wizards was another example of why Ainge’s faith in Walker has been—and will be, if the Celtics continue to turn things around—-exemplary and worthwhile. Walker finished the game with 21 points, eight assists and five rebounds, stepping up in the absence of star wing Jaylen Brown.
In his last eight games before Sunday, Walker was shooting for 44.3 percent, a solid number, and scoring 22.8 points per game. He is averaging 3.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists in that span, though he’s still not the star-caliber point guard the Celtics were hoping to get when he signed on in 2019. Walker has two years and $74 million remaining on hihs contract, and that is plenty of incentive to make Boston very conscious of Walker’s health.
That health has been the subject of chatter around the NBA, with one reporter suggesting that Ainge and the Celtics “tried like hell” to trade Walker to other teams this offseason. Because Walker was not healthy, the Celtics were charged with dealing on bad faith on Walker, seeking to dump damaged goods. That allegation goes back to Walker’s coping with the knee trouble during the NBA postseason in the Orlando bubble last autumn, and while it has been breathlessly reported in some situations, it is mostly a non-story locally at this point.
It was hard to find an executive who agreed with the notion that Ainge seeking a deal for Walker last winter was somehow a violation, either implicit or explicit.
“We talk about players all the time,” an Eastern Conference GM said. “Same with Kemba. We all knew what the injuries were, what the concerns were. But we talked anyway. It is kind of stupid to say we would be sitting there just not bothering to talk to people or look up whether the guy is healthy or what. We have computers. We can Google GOOG +0.3%. No one was angry at Danny for being open to Kemba talks, they were not hiding his injuries. It is part of the business.”
If Walker’s injuries ultimately kept him from being traded, then the Cetlics stand to benefit in the end. That, too, is part of the business.
I have covered the NBA for 20 years, dating from the first championship of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers right through the rise (and, perhaps, fall) of the Warriors. In that span,