This summer, two of the best point guards in the league are available as free agents: Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker. Both players are multiple time NBA All-Stars in their late 20s, and either guard would be a major acquisition for any team, but how do these superstars compare against each other?
Kyrie Irving was primed to be an NBA superstar before he could drive. Growing up in New Jersey, Irving showed off his skills from an early age, garnering Division I scholarship offers before he even reached middle school. Throughout his high school years, the Australian-born guard continued to improve, earning a spot on the McDonald’s All-American team and becoming one of the most sought after recruits in the nation.
Even though he only played 11 games at Duke due to a ligament injury, NBA teams still saw Irving’s elite skillset, and he was taken by the Cavaliers with the first overall pick in a move that most experts saw as a no-brainer.
Irving quickly adapted in the NBA, winning the Rookie of the Year award by a landslide in his inaugural campaign and notching two All-Star selections in his first three years in the league. However, his Cleveland team failed to match Irving’s individual success, missing the playoffs for three consecutive seasons with Irving as their sole front man.
Everything changed for Irving after his third season, when the young point guard was joined by superstars Kevin Love and LeBron James. Immediately, the Cavaliers transformed from a lottery regular to perennial title contenders. Irving thrived alongside his new co-stars, helping his team reach three straight NBA finals, and winning an NBA championship in 2016.
While Irving was certainly a prominent figure on his team, he was clearly not the lead. Overshadowed by James, Irving wanted the chance to prove that he could finally be the frontman on a successful team. Irving requested a trade after the 2017 NBA Finals, and the Cavaliers complied, dealing him to the Boston Celtics.
In his new home, it was clear that Kyrie would be the leader for the Celtics. Alongside a core of young players such as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, Irving appeared to be an apt leader, guiding his team to an impressive 55 regular season wins and the second seed in the Eastern Conference during his first season with the team. Unfortunately, Irving suffered a season-ending injury before the playoffs, but the rest of the team showed promise without him, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals without their superstar.
With the re-addition of Irving and Gordon Hayward, along with the promise their young core showed during the previous postseason, expectations were high for the Celtics coming into last season. To put it kindly, the Celtics were nowhere near their preseason expectations, as their rocky season officially crumbled in the second round of the playoffs.
Throughout the season, Irving failed to provide leadership for the youthful squad, with a new story about the team’s dysfunction coming out after almost every game. Irving was accused by his teammates of constantly pointing fingers at his peers and refusing to take responsibility for his mistakes. Now, the six-time All-Star, who is currently an unrestricted free agent, is looking for a new place to move, but should teams be willing to chance on an elite player who has yet to show he can be a leader?
Kemba Walker had a much different path to NBA stardom. After growing up in The Bronx, Walker committed to play for the nearby Uconn Huskies. Walker had a successful freshman campaign, being named to the Big East All-Rookie team, but he was far from a bonafide NBA prospect.
After a lackluster sophomore campaign, Walker was finally ready to explode onto the national scene. An early frontrunner for the College Basketball Player of the Year Award, Walker truly made a name for himself in the postseason, leading his Huskies during an iconic 11 game stretch that culminated with a team National Title and a Final Four Most Outstanding Player Award for Walker.
However, many scouts were still concerned by Walker’s small frame and his inconsistent shooting, causing the 6’1” guard to fall to the ninth pick, where he was selected by Charlotte. Unlike Irving, Walker didn’t immediately become an NBA superstar. While he was a solid player on a mediocre team, he put up fairly average numbers, averaging less than 18 points per game in each of his first four seasons in the league.
Finally, Walker had his breakthrough in the 2016 playoffs. After leading the Hornets to a 48-34 record, the team’s best mark since 2000, Walker entered the playoffs ready to make his mark. Even though the Hornets were only the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, they were ready to take on the third seeded Miami Heat. Walker led the Hornets to a 3-2 series lead, but the Hornets couldn’t close the series out, losing in seven games.
While the Hornets may have lost, Walker reminded everyone of his ability to play under the bright lights. The point guard averaged over 22 points per game in the series, including a 37 point performance in game 6. Unfortunately, Walker’s teammates, the best of which was Nicolas Batum, were not able to provide enough support for their superstar teammate.
Since that playoff series, it’s been much of the same in Charlotte. Walker continues to show his value, being named to three straight All-Star teams, but his supporting cast hasn’t performed well enough to bring the team back to the postseason. In particular, last season was especially frustrating for Walker, who averaged almost 26 points per game and was named to his first All-NBA team, but was still unable to receive enough support to lead his team back to the playoffs.
While many players would have left in Walker’s situation, Walker has showed his loyalty to the city of Charlotte. Throughout his career, Walker has never complained about the players around him or publicly expressed any sense of frustration. When things go wrong, as they often have in Charlotte, Walker’s solution is never to blame his teammates. Instead, he takes full responsibility for the team’s struggles, and he continues to work harder and harder to improve his game.
On the other hand, it’s unknown how Walker would deal with other stars on his team. Throughout his career, he has always been the face of the franchise, and he’s always been the guy with the ball in his hand when the game is on the line. Should teams risk a max deal on a talented scorer who might struggle to play with other stars?
Now, teams have a choice to make between the two guards. Do they want the prodigy and NBA champion with a lackluster history of leadership or the quiet, hard-worker who has yet to advance past the first round of the playoffs?
Further complicating the issue is the finances of both player’s situations. While Irving has made multiple All-NBA teams, his move to Boston to escape LeBron’s shadow means he is out of the running for a supermax deal. On the other hand, coming off his All-NBA selection, Walker can now be offered a supermax deal of 5 years and $221 million by Charlotte, while other teams can only offer him a shorter, less lucrative deal.
While he is now available for the supermax, Walker has stated his desire to remain in Charlotte, even if it means taking a paycut. However, after eight seasons of mediocrity, could he really pass up an opportunity to join a title contending team playing under the bright lights? Even if he takes a pay cut, the Hornets don’t seem likely to build a competitive squad, and in an era where players are judged by rings, Walker might be eager to chase after one as he nears the age of 30.
While Kemba might stay with his current team, it’s becoming apparent that Irving will not be a Celtic next year. Brooklyn seems to be Irving’s top target, but they also have an eye on Kevin Durant. In their dream scenario, the team would receive both superstars, but what are they going to do if they can’t get Durant? Do they trust Irving to be the sole leader of a young squad after what happened in Boston?
While the two guards have had very different paths to get to where they are now, they have both ended up at a very similar place. After years of trials and tribulations, both of these elite point guards have a decision to make, and their decisions could alter the NBA landscape for years to come.