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Sources Say Boston Celtics and Kemba Walker Want a Breakup

Farbod EsnaashariFeatured Columnist IJune 9, 2021

Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker (8) looks to pass during the first quarter of Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets, Tuesday, May 25, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The Kemba Walker experiment in Boston seems to be coming to an end. Sources said the Boston Celtics and Walker are likely to move forward from their relationship this offseason in a mutual agreement between the parties.

The once promising young Celtics who were so close to the NBA Finals are now in the middle of a potential blowup. Their season went so poorly that the organization decided to shake up the front office, the coaching staff and player personnel.

President of basketball operations Danny Ainge retired, and former head coach Brad Stevens was promoted to fill the position. Sources said the team will keep Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but Walker will be a part of the shakeup. And the feeling is mutual between Walker and the organization.

Walker helped push the Celtics to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2020, but they fell short to a surprise Miami Heat run. Despite that success, Ainge was ready to move on from Walker within the point guard's first year.

Sources close to the Celtics revealed Ainge sought to trade Walker, and Jrue Holiday was the target. Holiday ended up with the Milwaukee Bucks, who are now in the second round of the playoffs.

A source close to Walker said he was hurt by Boston's efforts to trade him, which created a rift in the Walker-Ainge relationship. Walker has a great relationship with his teammates and looked forward to being a veteran mentor to Tatum and Brown, but the same can't be said about Walker and the front office. He no longer feels wanted.

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One executive in the NBA said Walker isn't the only player to have those negative feelings toward Ainge, as players around the league have not trusted Celtics management during the Ainge era. Perhaps the most telling public example of that reputation came when Anthony Davis' father said he would never want his son to play for the Celtics after how they handled Isaiah Thomas' injury and departure.

The NBA's health and safety protocols and injuries made a big impact on the Celtics. Tatum had a serious case of COVID-19 that resulted in his needing an inhaler, four other players simultaneously dealt with the protocols, and Brown suffered a season-ending injury. Boston fell short of expectations as the East's No. 7 seed.

The COVID-19 situation was so bad that by April, the Celtics had lost 131 player-days because of the health and safety protocols. The end result of the season was getting eliminated by the Brooklyn Nets in five games in the first round.

Walker had his moments last season but was not healthy during the 2020-21 season. He missed 29 games in the regular season and the final two games of the playoffs.

Even when Walker, Tatum and Brown were all on the floor, ball-stopping issues plagued the Celtics; they ranked 25th in assists per game in both 2019-20 and 2020-21. This was the type of season wherein the Celtics realized things just weren't working.

Walker is set to earn $36 million in 2021-22, which will make a trade difficult. His contract expires at the end of the 2022-23 season, during which he has a player option for $37.7 million. According to The Athletic's Jared Weiss: "Multiple front-office sources across the NBA told The Athletic [last] week they still view Walker as having negative trade value should the team decide to go that route this offseason. That likely means a trade would cost the Celtics extra picks or assets to offload, even if Walker is universally admired for his relentlessly positive attitude and hard work through injury."

But sources still expect teams looking for a veteran scoring point guard to monitor Walker. The New York Knicks, who must make decisions on soon-to-be free-agent Derrick Rose's future and whether to start rookie sensation Immanuel Quickley, could be on that list. Walker said last year that the Knicks were one of his "top priorities" when he was a free agent in 2019.

The Knicks have roughly $60 million in cap space and could take on Walker's contract while making other free-agency moves. The playoffs proved the Knicks need another scoring option besides Julius Randle; the team ranked last in postseason points per game, averaging only 97.0.

Another team that could easily assimilate Walker would be the Dallas Mavericks. Kristaps Porzingis is reportedly frustrated with his role and was used less and less throughout the playoffs; he had a 26.5 usage rate in the regular season, and it dropped to a career-low 16.2 in the playoffs.

A straight-up trade of Walker for Porzingis could give both players fresh starts and Dallas a shorter contract (Porzingis is owed $31.7 million and $33.8 million over the next two seasons and has a $36.0 million player option for 2023-24). The playoffs showed Luka Doncic needs someone else to help create so he doesn't slow down in the fourth quarter—when he scored just 40 points in seven games on 34.9 percent shooting.

But anything is possible in the NBA—if the Philadelphia 76ers were able to clear Al Horford's $27 million-per-year contract from their books, the Celtics should be able to clear Walker's. Teams such as the Oklahoma City Thunder could accept the salary dump in exchange for draft picks.

As for what Walker wants, a source close to his camp said it's a winning situation. This doesn't necessarily mean a championship-or-bust team such as the Nets or Los Angeles Lakers but one in which Walker could positively impact its ability to win. Contributing to a younger team's potential playoff success, such as the Mavericks' or Knicks', could fulfill that desire.

Where Walker lands could depend on what happens with starting-caliber free-agent guards, including Kyle Lowry, Dennis Schroder and Mike Conley. Teams with cap space would be expected to do their due diligence on those players before dispensing with valuable assets to land someone such as Walker.

Let the musical chairs commence.

   

Adam Borai contributed to this report.

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