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Kemba Walker isn’t himself. His trademark smile, bounce and swagger have disappeared as he labors through the early stages of a return from left knee rehabilitation.
In 10 games since his mid-January return, Walker is shooting 34.2 percent from the floor overall and a meager 30.6 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Three of his worst shooting games in green have come in the past 11 days. The Celtics are a mere 3-7 in the games that Walker has played this season.
The question, of course, is whether this is simply an extended funk for a player that is still working his way back while adjusting to a new role, or a potentially more concerning dip for a small guard who is now north of 30 and has battled chronic knee issues.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens, staunch in his support of Walker, continues to insist its the former.
"He’s a huge part of us, if we’re going to be what we want to be,” Stevens said after Walker missed 10 of his 12 shots in a loss to the Jazz, which included a couple airballs and four blocked shots. "I really, really believe that he will be that guy.”
Let’s dive deeper into what is ailing Walker and what it means to the Celtics moving forward.
THE PICK AND (EYE) ROLL
For the entirety of his basketball career, Walker’s bread and butter has been scoring out of the pick and roll. Over the past three seasons, Walker has averaged a robust 1.04 points per play and has ranked in the 91st percentile or better when finishing plays as the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls, per the NBA’s tracking data.
This year? He’s down at 0.82 points per play and ranks in the 40th percentile. After shooting 47.1 percent in pick-and-roll situations last season, he’s at 36 percent this year. Even more concerning, his free-throw frequency has been sliced in half from just two years ago (only drawing free throws on 5 percent of his finished pick-and-roll plays this season).
Here’s a closer look at Walker’s points per play on plays finished as pick-and-roll ball-handler, with field goal percentage and free-throw frequency, since the NBA started tracking that data during the 2015-16 season:
Again, we’re left to wonder if Walker’s downturn is the product of rust after all the downtime and rehab since his knee first became an issue more than a year ago? Has his frustration snowballed and simply impacted his early returns? Or is his hesitation and tentativeness a product of physical limitations from that knee?
The latter is far more troubling than the former.
MODIFYING WALKER’S GAME
By the end of last season, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown blossoming and cementing themselves as the focal points of Boston’s offense, Walker embraced being more deferential. He’s going to have to do that even more now and it’s going to require Walker to really modify his game.
A year ago, Walker topped the team with 70.8 touches per game. The Celtics’ offense started with him and a heavy focus on those pick and rolls. This year, Boston wants the ball in the hands of Tatum and Brown more, allowing them to create off the dribble, and that means Walker has to embrace catch-and-shoot opportunities when operating off the ball.
Maybe with a goal of jump-starting Walker and because Boston has routinely been shorthanded, Walker's play type and shot profile hasn’t changed much from a year ago through his first 10 games. Walker is taking only 2.2 catch-and-shot attempts per game this year and making only 31.8 percent of his attempts. Walker needs to find more spots where the attention on Tatum and Brown creates open catch-and-shoot looks. On the encouraging side, Walker shot 42.5 percent on catch-and-shoot chances last year, the second best mark on the team.
Walker might need to embrace the corner 3-pointer more. If half of his shots are going to come beyond the arc, then gravitating to the corner and getting more looks off Tatum and Brown drives could be beneficial. Only two of Walker’s 72 3-point attempts this season have come from the corner and he’s historically leaned on above-the-break pull-ups.
Last season, Walker was vital to Boston’s offensive success. The Celtics had a team-best offensive rating of 115.2 in Walker’s 1,742 minutes of court time. That number dipped to 108.9 in his 1,221 minute on the bench. This year, Boston’s offensive rating is a meager 107.3 with Walker (nearly 5 points lower than the team’s season average) and is 112.7 without him.
KEMBA THE PLAYMAKER AND FINDING SPOTS TO BE AGGRESSIVE
Walker’s evolution to third option means he needs to put more of a priority on playmaking. He’s averaged 5.4 assists per game for his career but he has to more often turn the attention he draws into easy looks for his teammates. His size and vision complicate matters as it’s easy for him to get swallowed up around the basket. But for a player that attacked those pick and rolls with a score-first mentality in the past, he needs to crank up the playmaking slider.
There are going to be times when Walker can ramp up his scoring aggression. On Tuesday night in Utah, the Celtics made Tatum an early sub and will often mask some of their bench scoring woes by running Tatum in reserve heavy lineups. When it’s just him and/or Brown on the court, that’s when Walker can operate at full tilt in those pick and rolls while sharing focal point responsibilities with Brown.
There’s a bigger question here about whether Walker is the ideal fit alongside the Jays. Last season showed that, off the court, he’s undeniably ideal because of his willingness to nurture and support the Jays and their ascension. Now, one season after they were the co-stars to Walker's leading man, that trio has to figure out how they can accentuate each other’s talents when it’s Brown and Tatum in the leading roles.
In 82 minutes together, the Brown/Tatum/Walker trio has a minus-5.6 net rating this year. That’s still a small sample size. But certainly not ideal when the Brown/Tatum combo has a plus-11.0 net rating in the 296 minutes without Walker this season.
THE LONG-TERM OUTLOOK
Here’s the most prickly question of all: If Walker’s struggles persist, or if he can’t figure out how to modify his game to accentuate the Jays, the team has tough decisions about how to proceed. Boston’s title window is open given the development of Brown and Tatum and the Celtics have to maximize every second of the next four years.
Let’s be clear here, this isn’t a “the Celtics need to trade Kemba Walker!” suggestion. It’s too soon to make firm declarations on what becomes of Walker. He clearly has the support of Stevens and there is always the chance that much of this is overreaction to his 2021 shooting woes and his defensive limitations. There is a danger in putting too much stock in a 10-game sample in a wonky year.
But Walker is making a team-high $34.4 million this season. He’s under contract at $36 million next year and holds a $37.7 million option for the 2022-23 season. His contract makes it difficult for the Celtics to maneuver and add impact talent around the Jays.
Walker’s age and price tag don’t make him a particularly valuable trade asset, at least until he’s closer to free agency. The Celtics would be hard pressed to get comparable value and would likely have to take back an aging veteran on a similarly pricey deal, all while giving up other assets. Moving him might be an even riskier play than hoping he finds his way.
Even if he’s not quite the All-Star player he was at the start of his Boston tenure, getting Walker to be an efficient third option that can make life easier for the Jays has to be the priority for Boston. The first 10 games haven’t been encouraging but the Celtics have other issues beyond Walker, including thinned depth from injuries.
Walker needs find the joy he typically plays with. He needs to regain his swagger. We’ve seen glimpses, like in the final moments of the win over the Clippers, which was maybe the most encouraging moment of the recent road trip. Stevens needs to help put him in spots to better thrive. Maybe more time and better health will help the Celtics get this all on track.
But it’s fair to be concerned based on early returns. The jury is out if this is just a blip, or something that will define the Celtics’ 2021 season -- and beyond.