The Kyrie Irving era in Boston did not have a chance to officially end before the Kemba Walker era began. Just over 24 hours before the open of NBA free agency, reports surfaced that Walker would travel to Boston Sunday to sign a four-year, $141 million max deal with the Celtics and become their new starting point guard.
The change from Irving to Walker feels seamless—swap one scoring All-Star point guard for another. The hope is that Boston won’t lose much in the exchange. Walker is two years older, but both point guards just finished their eighth NBA seasons. Irving may be the better player, but Walker might be the better fit. That last part may be the important one. After watching their Finals hopes disintegrate into a second-round loss in part because of in-fighting, the Celtics no longer have to worry about their star guard creating more arguments than points, and Brad Stevens no longer has to worry about figuring out what government means to him. The Celtics’ ceiling may be lower with Walker, but there’s still potential to compete at a high level in an Eastern Conference that could be wide open after free agency ends. If Irving ends up in Brooklyn—ESPN reported Saturday that they may move quickly on a max deal, too—he and Walker could be going head-to-head for the next four years.
The news of Walker’s decision completes a 180 from his stance on free agency. In early June, Walker called staying in Charlotte “definitely my first priority,” and said that he might even take a discount to stay. But when the Hornets declined to offer a $221 million supermax contract—The Charlotte Observer reports the most the Hornets were willing to give Walker was $170 million, because of luxury-tax concerns—Walker looked elsewhere.
While Walker leaves behind the only franchise he’s ever known, there are plenty of new opportunities awaiting him in Boston. Walker, who rose to prominence in New England at UConn, returns to the big stage after years playing without much national TV exposure. He’ll get to play for a rabid fan base dying to get behind anyone but Irving. And he’ll inherit the guts of a team that made it one game shy of the Finals in 2018. Al Horford won’t be around to anchor the defense, but the Celtics still have promising young wings in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, a pit bull defender in Marcus Smart, and a former All-Star in Gordon Hayward. If Hayward can regain his pre-injury form and the Celtics can turn Memphis’s top-six-protected pick into a veteran player or two—a center would help—Walker may not have to wait long to get past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in his career.
Walker is already 29, and small guards tend to age quicker than other players, but he still has a lot of good basketball ahead of him. He played all 82 games last season, averaged just one less assist per game than Irving, and scored nearly two more points per game. In Charlotte, Walker was forced to do everything. In Boston, he’ll still have to do a lot, but with better talent surrounding him. Stevens once turned Isaiah Thomas into one of the most dangerous scorers in the league; imagine what he can do with a player like Walker.
Given the stories that have already surfaced about Irving’s clashes with the Celtics, it’s clear a change was needed. Walker may not have the same flash as Irving, but a little less star power in exchange for a bit more cohesion may be exactly what they need right now.