With his buyout from the Detroit Pistons seemingly all but a done deal, Kemba Walker’s future within the NBA is looking quite shaky, to say the least. The four-time all-star has had a rough last two stints, with both the Pistons and the Knicks designating him to the sidelines. While the buyout will make his ludicrous salary more appealing to the rest of the league, is there a place for a worn-out Kemba Walker in the modern NBA?
The Emergence of Cardiac Kemba
For the majority of his career, the general consensus on Kemba was that the Charlotte Hornets were wasting his talents. With the Hornets, Kemba Walker quickly became a fan-favorite league-wide due to his electrifying play and charisma, giving birth to the legend of Cardiac Kemba. His eight seasons in Charlotte saw Kemba reach the NBA Playoffs on two separate occasions, both resulting in a first-round elimination by the Heat in 2014 and 2016. Individually, Kemba prospered with a total of three All-Star selections, as well as an All-NBA Third Team Selection in 2019.
Despite being undersized by NBA standards, Kemba’s explosiveness and handles more than made up for his short stature. Initial concerns regarding his lackluster three-point shooting and questionable decision-making were overcome as he steadily developed into a walking bucket. But despite his wide array of offensive tools, Kemba’s efficiency remained questionable at times. As his game matured over time, the biggest irk left in Kemba’s game was his defense. Kemba’s contributions on the defensive end were in all honesty below average, mostly due to his diminutive stature. While not a horrendous defender by any means, he tended to struggle when matched against bigger guards.
Most importantly, Kemba rarely ever missed games. Even with his solid track record, knee injuries plagued Kemba for the latter part of his stint with the Hornets. The first big scare came in the form of a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee, with the surgery sidelining him for six weeks in 2015. The left knee continued to be a prevalent issue for Kemba as he underwent surgery in the post-season for the next two years in a row.
During his tenure with the Hornets, Kemba became the much-needed face for a team that was often looked down upon due to its mediocrity. He managed to overcome initial doubts and blossomed into one of the league’s most prolific and exciting scorers as well as becoming a fan-favorite far outside the borders of Charlotte.
Big Break With The Celtics
Walker’s big break finally came in the summer of 2019, after he was traded to the Boston Celtics. As a testament to his prowess, Cardiac Kemba left the Hornets as the franchise leader in both most points scored (12,009) and most minutes played (20,607), as well as the second in overall assists (3,308).
The shoes Kemba Walker had to fill in Boston were as big as they could get, seeing as he was brought in to replace none other than Kyrie Irving. On paper, he seemed like the perfect candidate. Both the Celtics and the public viewed the acquisition as an overall upgrade considering all the factors behind it. Even though he lacked Kyrie’s clutch gene, his similar skill set was not viewed as a major downgrade in comparison. But one of Kemba’s main selling points to the Celtics was his attitude and locker room presence. With the fallout of the rift by Irving’s unseemly exit still fresh, Kemba’s easy-going nature seemed like just what Boston needed. All in all, he just seemed like a good fit with Boston’s system, if he managed to stay healthy.
One thing was clear though, we were definitely going to see less of Cardiac Kemba. His ball dominance, coupled with sharing the floor with Boston’s dynamic duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown left less room than he was accustomed to in Charlotte. Despite the lack of a true playmaker in Boston’s rotation, thoughts were that the team’s iso-heavy offense would greatly from a reliable option such as Kemba.
Recurring Knee Problems
His first season with the Celtics was mostly defined by the outbreak of COVID and the NBA bubble. After a fairly successful regular season, Walker once again experienced knee soreness during the 2019-20 playoffs, but ultimately decided to play through the pain. It was during the NBA bubble that we saw the first signs of Kemba’s game slowly regressing, as the knee problems took their toll took on the main part of his arsenal – his explosiveness. All things considered, the C’s loss in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Heat was not viewed as a tragedy, and aspirations were high heading into next season. In hopes of ending his chronic knee problems once and for all, Kemba opted for a stem cell injection treatment and a 12-week strengthening program that ultimately sidelined him for the first half of the 2020-2021 season.
The Celtics would go on to have a disastrous start to the 2020/201 season, as all eyes were on Kemba’s return to the team. While he did manage slowly re-integrate himself into Boston’s system, it was more than evident that his chronic knee issues had effectively slowed him down. Without his trademark quickness and athleticism, Kemba at times seemed more of a liability on the court. Although the Celtics did slightly recover, they ended up just barely making it to the playoffs. After finishing as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, Boston had to battle its way into the postseason via the Play-In tournament. Their victory over the Washington Wizards earned them a series against the stacked Brooklyn Nets led by Kyrie, James Harden, and Kevin Durant. Bad come to worse, a bone bruise in his left knee saw Kemba miss four of the five playoff games against the Brooklyn Nets, which the Celtics would go on to lose 4-1.
After two seasons of play, it looked as if the Kemba Walker experiment in Boston had failed. With his massive contract on the books, constant injuries, and further deteriorating game, Boston would go on to trade the point guard to the OKC in return for Al Horford.
While his failed stint with the Celtics can mostly be blamed on his chronic knee problems, Kemba ultimately proved to be an ill fit with the team’s young core. The rise of Tatum and Brown as Boston’s one-two showed that instead of a reliable third-scoring option, what the Celtics really lacked was efficient playmaking. Kemba’s ball dominance proved to be more of a detriment to the team’s offense, hampering the team’s ball movement. Lastly, it can be stated the TD Garden never quite truly got to see the Kemba Walker that once lead the Charlotte Hornets. Instead, the Celtics had to settle for a watered-down version of what was not too long ago one of the league’s premier point guards.
Kemba’s career with OKC ended before it even started, as both parties reached a buyout only a couple of weeks after the trade. He would go on to sign with the rejuvenated New York Knicks, a team itching to get back into the playoffs.
Sadly, the writing was already on the wall. Kemba’s first couple of games showed just how far his game had deteriorated, with his offensive capabilities the Knicks coveted nowhere to be found. After an underwhelming start to the season, Kemba Walker was completely removed from the Knicks rotation in favor of Alec Burk just one month into his tenure. He would soon be called upon again following an injury to Derrick Rose, but knee problems once again sidelined him after a mere two weeks on the court. As a result of his poor performances and constant injury struggles, Kemba reached an agreement with the Knicks in February that saw him sit out the rest of the season.
The agreement was by far the biggest career blow to a player who three years ago was selected to an All-NBA Team, as well as a new low in Kemba’s dwindling career. Walker would ultimately get traded to the Pistons for a future first-round selection. With the Pistons never intending to play Kemba, a buyout with the franchise seemed like the only way to save his fading career.
What’s Next For Kemba Walker?
With the buyout all but a done deal, Kemba’s future is looking quite bleak. While there have been whispers of him possibly joining the Lakers, those seem like nothing more than wishful thinking. Kemba has stated that he still wants to continue playing at the highest level, but as of now no concrete offers have surfaced.
“Nobody’s reached out to me… I just want to be able to play basketball again; I don’t care if it’s the bench or not.”
Although there’s no denying he could be a valuable rotation player, it’s obvious that Kemba’s career as a core player is over. And in his current situation, the position of a role player is the best option he can currently get. With his trademark quickness all but gone, Kemba doesn’t have a lot to give in the modern NBA landscape. In a league that’s heavily dominated by 3&D guards, Kemba’s flashy ball handling, below-average defense, and average three-point shooting seem like a relic of the past. Considering his experience and attitude, we could very likely see Kemba take up a mentoring position in the near future. The most wholesome option imaginable would involve Kemba’s career going full circle, with the veteran settling as a mentor to the Charlotte Hornets’ promising young core.
Ultimately Kemba Walker is yet another example of a trend that follows his archetype in the NBA – the fact that undersized guards, who rely on their quickness and athleticism, do not age very well. It’s just a shame that it seemingly happened in the blink of an eye. In the words of Clutch Points, “Kemba’s downfall came quicker than his crossover”.