Depending on who you ask, Kemba Walker might be anywhere from overly washed to overly joyous.
But as usual, no one has time for nuance once a position has been decided upon. It’s important to remember that Walker’s initial knee injury was suffered last season after being named an All-Star for the fourth consecutive year, which was his first as a Boston Celtic. The knee injury arose prior to the All-Star break; then he got it drained before missing five games and returning against the Brooklyn Nets (one year ago today).
Walker never quite replicated his All-Star form until he torched the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the NBA Playoffs last year, and even until Game 6 of the semifinals vs. Toronto, Walker had been averaging 21.9 points and 5.2 assists per game on nearly 50-percent shooting. Even against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, Walker put up close to 20 points and five assists, though he only shot 42.6 percent from the field, and about 35 percent from three. At that point, he led the team in offensive box plus-minus during the regular season (4.6) and was second in the playoffs (2.6) behind Tatum’s 4.5, as well as playoff Win Shares (1.9), sandwiched in between Tatum’s 2.3 and Brown’s 1.8.
Walker has only logged just 28 minutes this season alongside Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart, who remains out with a calf strain. According to head coach Brad Stevens, Smart’s return is ‘getting a lot closer.’
The first area where you could justify Walker having shortcomings for a prolonged period just came and went. And unless it resurfaces, we could categorize that as a brutal, post-injury grace period and or recovery stretch. After missing the first 11 games of the season, Walker gradually worked his way back from the knee injury, which at one point required stem cell injections, and he didn’t even log 30 minutes until Game 7. In fact, you could divide his 19 appearances into two factions. Walker’s first 10 games since returning saw him average a pedestrian (for his standard) 15.0 points and 4.3 assists on shooting splits of 34.2 / 30.6 / 88.9. The free throw percentage was outstanding, but only on 2.7 attempts per game, two fewer than his career average, indicating a level of trepidation, as well as a minutes cut. The Celtics were only 3-7 on this stretch.
But in his last nine outings, Walker resembles the closest he’s been to his All-Star self. In said nine Walker appearances, the Celtics are 6-3, with the Bronx product putting forth 22.7 points and 4.7 assists per contest on shooting splits of 43.5 / 42.2 / 92.1. Showing a level of confidence, he’s gotten to the foul-line over four times per game during that run, which just about matches his tally from last season. He’s also averaged 32.5 minutes in those nine showings, which is actually above his 31.1 mark from the 2019-20 regular season. Most importantly, Walker is showing the bounce he displayed for the first three months of the 2019-20 season. Before last season, Walker never missed more than nine games in a season outside of his 2014-15 effort.
The Celtics are still only 18-17 and need Walker to maintain his recent play, if not elevate it even a tad further, but the team still ranks fourth in the Eastern Conference, withholding other concerning trends.
The homie Sam Fels noted two weeks ago that Jayson Tatum’s COVID struggles raise questions about what may stem from the after effects he himself noted, especially as it relates to conditioning. In 10 games before missing time due to COVID, Tatum averaged 26.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 3.8 assists with 47.4 / 43.8 / 88.9 shooting splits. Tatum then missed two weeks, sitting out five games, and has since played every game upon coming back, logging 20 appearances and averaging over 36 minutes per outing, like nothing. However, his production has dropped (almost) across the board, averaging 23.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 4.8 assists on just 41.2 / 32.1 / 87.3 shooting splits. Outside of Tatum’s struggles, the Celtics still lack a reliable scoring big man, though Robert Williams appears to be breaking out of his shell a bit, averaging 11.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.7 blocks in just 20.4 minutes per contest.
With Walker, it may prove to be concerning that his first serious injury lingers, as a 30-year-old undersized guard, but for now, it should be more concerning that with his struggles, he’s still easily the team’s third-most productive player. Boston’s bench has been vastly underwhelming as a collective group, though Payton Pritchard is having an encouraging rookie season. The Celtics also await the return of Marcus Smart, who is their most valuable player on defense.
And I wanted to do this without mentioning Kyrie Irving, but let’s briefly acknowledge this: The Celtics CEO could say what he wants, but there’s a direct correlation between Irving’s absences and the Celtics’ playoff success. We could debate the 2017-18 season forever, but following Irving’s season-ending knee surgery, then-rookie (#HesOnly19) Jayson Tatum and second-year breakout star Jaylen Brown led the Celtics into Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals with the last good LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers team.
Throughout 2018-19, there were endless reports of friction between Irving and everything Celtics, opening the door for his Brooklyn exit. But as a result, the Celtics were uninspiringly steamrolled by the Bucks in five games in Round 2. Irving had shooting splits including field-goal and three-point percentages of 38.5 and 31.0 in the playoffs, respectively. And when he left, we saw the rise of both Tatum and Brown. Whether it’s a natural development, Irving’s departure, or both, it happened, and it landed the Celtics in Game 6 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals, with Walker and not Irving.
The argument (for reasonable folks) was never that Walker is a better straight-up one-on-one player than Irving, but that he’d fit better with Boston than Irving did, and he has because Tatum and Brown have accelerated to undeniable All-Star levels as a result. Irving is also a better fit in Brooklyn, where it’s possible he ends this year as an NBA Champion. As it relates to Walker-Irving, everyone can win here, and so far, everyone seemingly has, when considered in totality, but history will be written when all is said-and-done.
To the same tune that Walker’s previous struggles warrant criticism, his recent play deserves recognition. For now, we’ll call him overly criticized.