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Sources: Knicks Will Try to Move Kemba Walker, Could John Wall Be a Target?

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor INovember 30, 2021

New York Knicks guard Kemba Walker (8) smiles during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021 in New York. (AP Photo/Jessie Alcheh)
Jessie Alcheh/Associated Press

Kemba Walker's return home as a key offseason addition to the New York Knicks roster was supposed to be one of the feel-good NBA stories this year. 

The megawatt smile of his that never seems to dim was supposed to light up Madison Square Garden akin to what he did as a youth at Rice High School and the New York City Gauchos AAU team. Or when he took over the Big East tournament at MSG when he was a star at UConn on his way to leading the Huskies to a national title in 2011. 

But the dreamy return of the highly productive native son has become a nightmare for all involved, resulting in the unimaginable: Walker out of the New York Knicks' playing rotation altogether. 

"It's a tough decision to make, but you always have to do what you think is best for the team," Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters following the team's practice on Monday.

Moving Walker out of the rotation is in response to a Knicks team (11-9 this season) that opened the season with wins in five of its first six games only to be a sub-.500 team since then. 

The reasons are plentiful for the Knicks' latest in-season struggles, but the play of Walker (particularly on defense) has stood out for all the wrong reasons.

That is telling when you consider Walker's defense has been widely considered his biggest weakness as a player. 

So what do the Knicks do now with their prized offseason addition?

Multiple league sources believe the Knicks will look to trade Walker, whose value on the trade market, much like his production, is at an all-time low.

However, league sources believe Walker's value has the potential to change as the Knicks get closer to the Feb. 10 trade deadline and teams get more desperate to add a veteran who, despite his defensive shortcomings, has shown he can still make shots, albeit in a more limited capacity. 

A source close to the Knicks indicated New York may also have a potential trade partner in the Houston Rockets, who are eager to move John Wall

Like Walker, Wall has had his share of injuries that have factored heavily in him not playing at the level that made him an All-Star from 2014 to 2018.

In fact, Wall hasn't played in an NBA game since April 23, 2021.

And while Wall not playing in Houston was agreed upon by both sides earlier this season, he and the Rockets are reportedly having conversations about a return to the active roster.

John Wall, center, could emerge as a trade target for the Knicks in their quest to move Kemba Walker's contract.
John Wall, center, could emerge as a trade target for the Knicks in their quest to move Kemba Walker's contract.Tim Warner/Getty Images

The trade market for Wall is non-existent now, but returning to play may open the eyes of potential trade partners interested in acquiring the five-time All-Star who has two years and $91.7 million remaining on the four-year, $171.1 million contract he signed (then with the Washington Wizards) in 2017.

The key to a deal with New York will be the compensation agreed upon beyond those two marquee players. 

"It's so tricky because you're talking about two players who are never going to get back to where they were and, to be frank, aren't going to live up to the contracts that are on the books for them now," said an Eastern Conference executive. "You can't just add them and be good with that."

Walker's future may also hinge on how the Knicks respond to this rotation shake-up. 

Making the decision a little easier for Thibodeau has been the play of 6'6" guard Alec Burks, who now moves into the starting lineup after he scored 23 points in 39 minutes to help the Knicks knock off the red-hot Atlanta Hawks on Saturday. 

He joins a Knicks guard rotation that includes Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley and Evan Fournier, all of whom are taller than the 6'0" Walker. 

While Thibodeau says he still views Walker as a starter, the roster isn't ideal for Walker's attributes. "It'd be tough to play three small guards together. I gave it consideration, and I've got great respect for who Kemba is as a person and all he's accomplished in this league.”

There are a number of issues that have flared up since the Knicks' fast start, but few stand out more than New York's defense with Walker in the mix. 

Thibodeau-coached teams have consistently been among the league's best defensively. 

This season?

Not so much. 

Not including games played on Monday, the Knicks rank 17th in the league in defensive rating (108.0). Last season, their first time making the playoffs since 2013, New York's defensive rating ranked fourth. 

But here's where it gets interesting. 

The Knicks have what would be the league's best defensive rating (99.0) this season when Walker is off the floor, a data point that only reinforces Thibodeau's decision to take him out of the rotation altogether.

Walker's defensive deficiencies have been well documented throughout his career. But his struggles at that end of the floor have reached new depths this year, with a career-worst defensive rating of 116.3. 

The Knicks signed Walker to a two-year, $17.9 million contract to provide the team with added scoring punch to complement rising All-Star Julius Randle as well as one of the league's top defenses.

It was clear that New York needed more scoring to build off last season's playoff appearance, a first-round elimination by the Atlanta Hawks. 

But instead of having a bounce-back season, Walker has struggled much more offensively in New York than he did in Boston last season when he appeared in a career-low 43 games.

This season, the 31-year-old has started 18 games while averaging 11.7 points, 2.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists, all of which are career lows. Walker has had just two games in which he has scored 20 or more points, a clear indicator that the high-scoring expectations the Knicks had for him have been unfulfilled.

But more problematic than his scoring has been his defense, which Thibodeau alluded to in his comments addressing Walker's demotion. And the data overwhelmingly backs up the coach's decision. 

Opponents are shooting 50.8 percent against Walker this season, 6.5 percentage points better than their combined average. This would be the second straight season opponents have shot better than 50 percent from the field against Walker, a concerning trend.

New York's usual starting five consists of Walker, Evan Fournier, R.J. Barrett, Randle and Mitchell Robinson. It is the most-used five-man lineup in the NBA this season, having played together for a league-high 287 minutes, and it has a minus-15.7 net rating. 

And Walker was the weak link, as the Knicks were being outscored by 13.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, the lowest of the starting five. 

Offensively it's a somewhat different story. Although his scoring average has dropped to a career low, Walker still knows how to knock down the deep-ball, as he's making a career-best 41.3 percent of his three-pointers this season. 

Still, that's not enough to keep him on the floor in New York, turning what had the makings of a feel-good fairy tale for Walker into a story that doesn't appear will have a happy ending.

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