Does Kemba Walker Make New York Knicks Elite in the East?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistAugust 4, 2021

Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker (8) laughs as he takes the ball up court during the second 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

Amid an offseason in which the New York Knicks opted against any truly huge swings during the draft or free agency, Kemba Walker's arrival registers as the type of clarifying addition that at once nods to real-time and big-picture progress.

First things first: Kemba is headed to the Big Apple after agreeing to a buyout with the Oklahoma City Thunder, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. He will be signed into the Knicks' remaining cap space, which is a subtle fist bump to the utility of retaining Derrick Rose using Early Bird Rights rather than raw spending power.

Most of the other offseason moves made by New York are worth a discussion. This one is not. It is a no-brainer, an extremely buy-low, no-risk, high-reward play that, if successful, winds up tying together everything else the team has already done.

Figuring out what that specifically means and potentially looks like is a separate matter altogether.

The Knicks just wrapped up a season in which they finished with the Eastern Conference's No. 4 seed. Have they now wedged their way into the tier above, not necessarily meeting but at least nipping at the heels of the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and revamped Miami Heat? Was this more about treading water at virtually no immediate or long-term cost? Is this move, and their offseason at large, actually inconsequential? Or should they somehow be prepared to take a step back relative to the rest of the East?


Kemba's Fit in New York

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Landing Walker says a great deal about the Knicks. It might say even more about the state of his knees. 

He has missed 45 games over the past two seasons largely because of issues with his left knee. Last year represented something of a rock bottom. The 29 regular-season games he missed—plus an additional two in the playoffs—were a career high, and more troublingly, he wasn't nearly as effective when healthy enough to take the court. Averaging 19.3 points and 4.9 assists while downing 36 percent of his threes is a pretty awesome baseline, but he struggled to piece together long stretches of the All-Star impact.

That the Boston Celtics used the No. 16 pick to get out of the final two years and $73.7 million of his deal speaks volumes. Oklahoma City's decision to engage in buyout talks is just as loud.

Holding on to big-money veterans who run counter to the timeline and roster dynamics only to flip them later for additional value has become the Thunder's M.O. under team president Sam Presti. Letting Walker, ahem, walk this early into his tenure is uncharacteristic and could suggest his left knee prevented them from following the Al Horford-Chris Paul rubric.

The wired take, of course, is that the Thunder were worried the combination of Walker and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would win too many games, so they opted for a cap-sheet haircut. That seems unlikely. It almost doesn't matter how much Walker gave back. Working with dead cap of any kind for the next two seasons is a hindrance, even if a minor one.

Bobby Marks @BobbyMarks42

As @wojespn noted, OKC maxed out the value of Walker, turning him into 2 future 1's. It was highly unlikely they could receive more because of a lack of playing time this year. OKC is a little north of $30M in room but technically over because of their TE.

New York needn't concern itself with the possible red flags. Walker is signing for what amounts to less than the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception, and for presumably no more than two years. There are no long-term pitfalls; only immediate upside.

Walker at full strength is the Knicks' best point guard since—well, since Rose last season. But he's their highest-ceiling point guard in approximately forever.

There is a scalability to Walker's offensive game that will buoy the 24th-ranked offense without overpowering it. His shot creation plugs a dire void. The Knicks were all too reliant last season on Julius Randle hitting unfathomably difficult jumpers and crunch-time Alec Burks. Walker arms them with a viable off-the-dribble hub.

Last season was the first time he canned under 35 percent of his pull-up threes since 2015-16—and he still drained them at a 34.7 percent clip, on per-game volume (5.5) that basically doubled up New York's leader in attempted off-the-bounce triples, Immanuel Quickley (2.8). 

Any from-scratch shot-making Walker provides will be gargantuan. His addition alone nudges their offensive pecking order in the most sensible of directions.

Randle no longer needs to be everything-and-then-some. Burks will not be overextended in fourth quarters. The Rose-Quickley duo, which annihilated opponents last season, can continue blasting rival second units without interruption. The offensive tricks and tendencies Quickley can absorb from Walker tantalize.

RJ Barrett's role should be streamlined. He'll have even more room to fire off set threes and maneuver on drives. Evan Fournier goes from a prospective No. 2 to a more palatable third- or fourth-wheel role. The mere idea of Walker's shot-making is functional alleviation, and his table-setting, though not his strongest suit, supplements the playmaking responsibilities of Randle and Rose while sparing others, like Fournier and Quickley, from taking on too much.

At the same time, Walker can exist within a larger ecosystem. Even when operating as the be-all in Charlotte, he never needed to live in isolation, and he's shown the ability to knock down a high percentage of his catch-and-shoot looks:

Dan Favale @danfavale

kemba walker three-point splits: 2020-21 c&s: 39.3% pull-up: 34.7% 2019-20 c&s: 42% pull-up: 36.5% 2018-19 c&s: 34.8% pull-up: 35.6% 2017-18 c&s: 40.3% pull-up: 38.1% 2016-17 c&s: 46.4% pull-up: 38%

That balance is critical. New York still has plenty of players who prefer to work on-ball (namely Rose and Randle) and must maintain the flexibility to squeeze in reps for, at minimum, Barrett and Quickley. A healthy Walker affords the bandwidth necessary to juggle all of those agendas without compromising the ceiling on the end result.

Sure, "a healthy Walker" is a pretty big caveat these days. But on the most basic level, the Knicks are exchanging Elfrid Payton for Walker. Whatever version of the latter they get, they're bound to come out ahead.


New York's Place in the East

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Answering how this impacts the Knicks' place in the East is a tougher exercise.

Walker should, in theory, strengthen a team that focused on talent retention and then added Fournier. In practice, though, the East is interchangeable outside its top-most tier.

Brooklyn remains untouchable. It is the closest the NBA comes to an inevitable champion if Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving remain healthy—a fairly big, albeit not monstrous, if

Milwaukee is right there, too. It just won a title, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton exist. Retaining Bobby Portis was big, George Hill is an upgrade over Jeff Teague, and a healthy Donte DiVincenzo more than makes up for Bryn Forbes' departure. Losing P.J. Tucker (*hard eye roll*) hurts, but it is only potentially crippling at the conference finals level (i.e., another matchup with Brooklyn).

Throw Philadelphia into the fold, as well. Its offseason has been uninspiring, but holding on to Ben Simmons is far from the worst-case scenario; flipping him at the nadir of his market appeal is the nightmare. The Sixers outscored opponents last season by 16 points per 100 possessions when he shared the floor with Joel Embiid. Running it back, barring any shenanigans on their part with free-agent Danny Green, gives them a path to a top-four spot—not to mention the chance to reboot Simmons' value and possibly ship him out for splashier help at the trade deadline.

Miami has also foisted itself into this discussion. There is some combustibility to the offense so long as Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler don't jack threes, but Kyle Lowry is a heavenly fit beside both at either end. Good luck out-irritating the Heat on defense following the additions of him and Tucker. Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo give them two swing pieces not traditionally found on teams this top-heavy.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

The landscape in the East gets murky after these squads. The Atlanta Hawks just rolled the Knicks in the first round, made a couple of solid pickups (Gorgui Dieng, Delon Wright) and can still count on improvement from some combination of John Collins, Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and even Trae Young. The Celtics lost loads of offensive creation in Fournier and Walker but have a potential defensive powerhouse with Horford, Jaylen Brown, Josh Richardson, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum.

The Indiana Pacers are tough to figure out, but they beefed up the head coach spot with Rick Carlisle and, even without Doug McDermott, continue to contend for the league lead in rotation-worthy players under one roof after re-signing T.J. McConnell and snagging Torrey Craig. The Toronto Raptors lost Lowry but will be pesky unless they tear it down; they decidedly won the minutes OG Anunoby, Chris Boucher, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet logged without the GROAT.

The Chicago Bulls just reloaded, again, with Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and DeMar DeRozan. The Charlotte Hornets have LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier. The Washington Wizards still have Bradley Beal and the capacity to surround him with a truckload of shooting. 

Beyond the race for the top three or four spots, the East is extremely fungible. And the Knicks are not undeniably better compared to last year. Head coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive stratagems will be tested. They lost their best perimeter defender in Reggie Bullock without replacing him. If it turns out last year's opponent three-point shooting was more blip than scheme, they will suffer.

You can talk yourself into the Knicks overtaking any one of the contenders outside Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Philly. You can also envision scenarios, of varying likelihood, in which they're the worst or second-worst from the remaining gaggle.   


The Bigger Picture in New York

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

It isn't worth obsessing over the Knicks' place within the East's pecking order. Plenty of offseason has yet to unfold, and progress isn't linear. Finishing with a worse record in a scrappier conference wouldn't necessarily qualify as reversion. 

More than anything, Walker's arrival validates New York's big-picture outlook at least as much as its immediate one—if not more.

This isn't some harbinger that superstars in their prime are ready to engineer their way to the Knicks. Walker isn't that level of player right now. But he did choose them. That matters. Never mind that he's from New York or that cap space has dried up elsewhere. The Knicks didn't win him over in 2019 free agency, and he could have pushed to accelerate the buyout with Oklahoma City if he had designs on joining another team.

There is a material change in how the Knicks are being viewed—by fans, by players, by everyone. They don't get in the discussion for a Kemba Walker dice roll without showing progress in how they carry themselves. 

To be sure: That is different from saying this offseason was a home run or that the front office now plays chess while everyone else plays checkers. The Knicks were not inarguable winners before; they're not even close to the most prominent offseason victors now. 

The decision to not take a bigger swing in the draft (aka Keon Johnson) remains questionable. The contracts they doled out in free agency—two guaranteed years for Burks, Rose, Nerlens Noel and three for Fournier—are absolutely fine but do not magically (or logically) give them a leg up in prospective talks for a superstar. Punting on cap space (for now) in 2022 and 2023 is not profound evidence of restraint just because extensions and "pre-agency" trades are now the norm. 

Really, the best thing you can say about the Knicks' offseason is they gave themselves a viable shot at an encore to last year while up against a scarier conference field without mortgaging or upending their longer-term flexibility. That isn't everything.

But it's a balancing act building towards something.


Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.