Kyrie’s Ghost Still Haunts the Celtics

Kyrie Irving ditched the Celtics two years ago and in the aftermath, his name was mud in Boston. Facts: the skill of Kyrie has always been undervalued while the pain of Kyrie is forever overanalyzed. But Kyrie on the court has no peer, particularly his shooting and handles. He’s a great backcourt player.

The rest of Kyrie is exhausting. When he was replaced by a nice guy it felt like an upgrade. But Kemba Walker couldn’t be Kyrie on his best day. The Celtics knew it. The fans knew it. The league knew too. It’s no knock on Kemba. He’s a good player just not a great player.

Two years ago, Michael Jordan balked at paying Kemba a max contract when he was a free agent in 2019. Jordan knew what he was doing yet at the time Jordan was pilloried from coast to coast.

In Charlotte, Kemba Walker had been an All-Star and All-NBA. He led the Hornets to the playoffs, was an ideal teammate, had great intangibles on and off the court. The Bronx-born and bred Walker had a consistent three-point shot and clutch moments. So why didn’t Jordan want to pay Walker? Walker was eligible for the supermax of $220 million but the Hornets weren’t willing to budge off of $170 million and were ridiculed for not getting equal compensation when Walker went to Boston.

Kemba is a small 6-0, and being undersized at the PG position has hurt him in numerous ways, just as it has allowed him to weave his way past screeners to the rim or 3-point line. During the Steve Clifford years (2013-16) Walker was his best defensive self. But in Boston, his defensive rating was 112, worse than when he was with Charlotte. He was a better pure three-point scorer in Boston, 37%, and he averaged more rebounds in Boston, but fewer assists and he still turns the ball over too much. His PG ranking (Real Plus-Minus) his last year in Charlotte was 11th, just ahead of Chris Paul. His best PG ranking in Boston was this year when he was ranked 17th. And there were the injuries. Kemba couldn’t stay healthy.

Walker in Boston was supposed to be the anti-Kyrie and on one level he was. A great teammate and presence in the locker room however can’t overshadow what Walker wasn’t on the court. Consistent. A gamer. A stat line you can pencil in. Kemba is a streaky, turnover-prone, in and out the lineup player, and for the Celtics, he was a third option to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown even though the Celtics were paying him like option number one. When Boston underperformed, Kemba was the one to blame.

When Kemba left Charlotte, Michael Jordan drafted a point guard and LaMelo Ball was Rookie of the Year. Ball is the anti-Walker.  He has size, can defend and pass, has a feel for the court and the game, is gifted with the ball. Ball is a charismatic player, someone you just have to watch but he was injured this year just like Walker was injured, but Ball came back to finish off the season.

Besotted by Kemba, bruised by Kyrie, Danny Ainge gave Walker more than he was worth. He gambled. He wanted it to work after the Kyrie experiment blew up in everyone’s face.  All teams, though, have their turn at the overpay wheel. Ainge wasn’t an outlier.  Michael Jordan overpaid Gordon Hayward who couldn’t stay healthy either. But overpaying Walker had a huge consequence. It eventually cost Ainge his job.

Walker was never going to live up to the contract Ainge gave him.  He wasn’t a good fit with Tatum and Brown, and to a lesser extent, Marcus Smart. The Celtics needed someone to organize the offense, someone who had Kyrie skills but LeBron leadership. Kemba is a wonderful human being. But that couldn’t keep him healthy or win games.

Celtics PG Points FG% 3-Pt% PER Playoff Record
Isiah Thomas 24.7 44.3% 36.8% 23.8 11-17
Kyrie Irving 24.1 48.9% 40.4% 24.6 5-4
Kemba Walker 19.9 42.3% 37.2% 18.9 11-11

Unlike Kyrie, Kemba really wanted to be in Boston and play for a historic franchise but he just wasn’t a good enough playmaker and scorer and his body revolted. In OKC he’ll help Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on day one. Shai needs a veteran and a playmaker to occupy defenses. Walker’s lackluster defense won’t hurt because Gilgeous-Alexander is long and skilled on the ball. It will be a nice backcourt if Walker can stay healthy.

Kemba has battled knee issues which hastened his exit. While durable in Charlotte, his body betrayed him in Boston. At the end of his season, Walker lamented on how hard it has been. “Over the course of my career, I’ve played so many games when I’ve been healthy. I came to Boston to be a part of those special runs and be a part of high-intensity games and fans going wild and I wasn’t able to be a part of that. I got to get right.”

Up next for Kemba is OKC while annoyed Boston fans lament at what could have been.