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Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, and the Pursuit of NBA Happiness

The All-Star point guards are turning down more money for a change in scenery: Irving is joining the Nets and Walker is replacing him in Boston. Here’s what these moves say about their new teams, their old teams, and what players are actually looking for.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Saturday afternoon in Charlotte, Kemba Walker attended a Big3 game. The three-time All-Star point guard wore a black hat with the following words stitched to its side: “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” It’s a quote by Erich Fromm in his 1941 book, Escape from Freedom. It’s quite a mouthful for a hat, so here’s a snappier version: Do you want the bag, or do you want the ring?

In the NBA, championships are the barometer for success or failure. The other reward is money, but the two pursuits aren’t always in harmony. A player can’t always have it both ways, and neither path is a guarantee to satisfy the soul. Walker had that choice for the first time this year as an unrestricted free agent. While Kemba sat watching the Big3, rumors swirled about his potential move from the Charlotte Hornets to the Boston Celtics. Walker was eligible to receive a supermax worth five years and $221.5 million from the Hornets, but they reportedly offered him five years and $160 million. Word is that Walker recently told owner Michael Jordan that he would leave for a team with actual hopes of contending. Once free agency officially opened on Sunday, the rumors became reality: Walker is committing to a four-year, $140.8 million contract with the Celtics.

Walker replaces Kyrie Irving, who knows all about tough financial choices, and fancies himself a bit of a philosopher, too. Irving requested a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017 because he wanted out from under the shadow of LeBron James. He wanted to run his own team. After an up-and-down first season in Boston, Irving’s second campaign was marred by ego clashes, and the Celtics’ team chemistry crumbled. Now, Irving is going home, sort of. The New Jersey native will sign a max deal worth the same amount as Walker with the Brooklyn Nets, the former New Jersey team that he rooted for while growing up in the Garden State. He will reportedly be joined by Kevin Durant, who will leave Golden State to form a caveat-riddled superteam of the near future (the caveat being Durant’s recovery from a ruptured Achilles suffered in the 2019 NBA Finals). The pair will also be joined by center DeAndre Jordan.

Irving is signing for far less than he would’ve been eligible for had he never requested a trade from the Cavaliers. If Kyrie stayed in Cleveland, he could have signed the $221.5 million supermax. His new deal is also less than what Boston could still offer: $189.9 million over five years. Just like Walker, Irving’s decision isn’t dictated by dollars.

In just the past week, Darren Collison retired at age 31 to focus on the “unmatched joy” of practicing his faith. Nikola Mirotic is leaving the NBA to play in Barcelona. Anthony Davis waived his $4.1 million trade bonus to make life easier on the Lakers front office. Kawhi Leonard, who lost his right to sign the supermax just like Irving after being traded to the Toronto Raptors, could sign for less money in Los Angeles or New York if he leaves Toronto. The difference in lifestyle is minuscule for players already making obscene amounts of money. For most people, a raise of a few thousand dollars could help pay rent or support their families, but for elite players, it means investing in one less company or having one less home. Players don’t just chase money or power or rings; they’re pursuing happiness.

After making the playoffs only twice in eight seasons, money couldn’t buy Walker’s happiness in Charlotte. It’s a sad reality that Nicolas Batum or Al Jefferson would qualify as Walker’s best teammates ever. The Hornets, loaded with bloated contracts for players like Marvin Williams and Bismack Biyombo, could offer only cash and hopelessness to the only player who inspired any hope at all. After being drafted ninth overall in 2011 out of UConn, Walker toiled in mediocrity in Charlotte for long enough; now, he heads north to Boston, closer to home, for less total money but a chance to fulfill his desire to win.

The Celtics went from Isaiah Thomas to Kyrie Irving to Walker, three smaller point guards with similar games. They’re nifty ball handlers who thrive in the pick-and-roll, but they all have different flavors. Walker is more like Thomas than Irving because of his off-ball style. During Thomas’s MVP-caliber 2016-17 season, he was as potent with the ball in his hands as he was racing through screens or curling from the corners into dribble handoffs. Offensive possessions had more variety due to his versatility. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens could run a hybrid offense that featured Thomas as a pick-and-roll and isolation scoring machine, yet seamlessly blend him in with crisp motion actions while other players handled the ball. Irving did some of those things off-ball, but he wasn’t nearly as engaged. Walker’s on-ball responsibility in Charlotte was significant due to his supporting cast, but compared to Irving, Walker displays more willingness to come off screens or handoffs, and drive to the rim or elevate into off-balanced 3-pointers. In the clip below, watch how Walker uses hesitations and jukes to shake off defenders.

Since 2015-16, Walker has shot 37.8 percent on 3s off screens, while he’s scored 1.05 points per possession on handoffs, per Synergy Sports. It’s not all about scoring, though; Walker can scatter off-ball to get open, then attack the paint and create shots for others. The Hornets needed Walker to spam pick-and-rolls, since he was their only lifeforce on offense, but the Celtics should be able to provide better balance because of their depth. Gordon Hayward perked up towards the end of the 2018-19 season, and he can still serve as a playmaker. Jayson Tatum is a blossoming scorer, and Jaylen Brown is a complementary player worthy of touches. So is Marcus Smart. Walker became a star because he learned how to score on-ball, and now with Boston his off-ball versatility can be unleashed.

Beyond the numbers and the tactics, Walker plays with an emotional availability that is reminiscent of Thomas. Irving was always litigating his role on the team in public, through the media, and with cryptic comments. Walker is a more straightforward proposition. Everywhere he’s played, he’s connected deeply with the fan base. After two years of the Irving roller coaster, he will be like a sports meditation app for Celtics fans.

Irving is still better than Walker. He’s a deadlier shooter, even if he’s a less versatile one, and he’s a more potent interior scorer, despite the fact that he draws fewer fouls. Walker is also smaller than Irving, which makes him more of a liability on defense. Irving has also proven himself on the biggest stages, while Walker has played in 11 total playoff games. Walker’s style should theoretically be more conducive to Boston’s preferred offensive flow, thus fostering better team cohesion. Walker has never played on a team with this much talent, which suggests he could be due for a career-best season in terms of scoring efficiency and playmaking, though he’ll also need to change styles for the first time. All he’s ever known is ball dominance due to the nature of his teams.

At the least, Walker is undoubtedly an upgrade for the Celtics in the chemistry department. He is a Boston sports hero in the making. He is widely regarded as one of the best guys in the league. Boston’s issues can’t be pinned solely on Irving, but Walker’s chiller vibe should help.

Boston had to lose a lot to sign Walker. At the time of publication, veteran big man Al Horford looked to be moving on from Boston. Horford’s importance goes beyond numbers; it’s about presence. During the 2016-17 season, Horford’s shooting ability opened massive driving lanes for Thomas to attack the paint. And though Irving didn’t attack with the same tenacity, his impact was comparable the past two seasons. Horford’s shot creation was vital for Tatum and Brown. Now, Boston’s big-man depth chart includes Robert Williams and Guerschon Yabusele, and they could re-sign Daniel Theis. They’ll need to use their $4.8 million room mid-level exception to find a true big—perhaps Robin Lopez or Nerlens Noel—otherwise they may frequently have to play small with Semi Ojeleye or rookie Grant Williams, unless Robert Williams is able to take on more minutes at center.

Signing Walker restricts Boston’s flexibility; they don’t project to have cap space moving forward unless Hayward or Smart are dealt, and both Brown and Tatum will be up for extensions in the next two summers. The Grizzlies’ top-six protected first-round pick in 2020 (which becomes unprotected in 2021) remains a highly valuable asset, but Boston’s treasure trove of picks from the Nets is gone. The Grizzlies’ first-rounder and a 2020 Atlanta second-round pick are their only non-player assets, aside from their own picks. The Celtics will be competitive in the Eastern Conference with Walker, but they need their young players to make a leap and they’re still a move away from taking the next step.

The Celtics could’ve played it slow and developed the youth. Walker, who will be 29 next season, is closer to the end than the beginning. It’s notable that Walker has already undergone three surgeries to his left knee. The issues haven’t kept him off the court for long, but they loom for a tiny guard listed at 6-foot-1 whose speed and shiftiness are integral to his shot-creation ability. And though he’s not a dunker, he is a leaper; any loss of athleticism would severely limit his scoring around the rim. Could it be these concerns played a role in the Hornets lowballing Walker? Had they paid him, they’d be forced to go into the luxury tax for a crappy roster with no ability to build around him. At least the Celtics can aspire to compete for a title, even if they’re not favorites.

The Hornets will free fall to the bottom of the league. During the past three seasons, they weren’t so bad with Walker on the court. Charlotte outscored opponents by 2.3 points per 100 possessions with Walker, but got throttled by 6.7 points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench, according to PBP Stats. Tanking won’t be so bad for a team that needs a new face of the franchise, but it’s inexcusable that the Hornets didn’t more seriously explore the trade market for Walker when teams were placing calls prior to the trade deadline in 2018 and 2019. It would have stung to trade Walker, but nothing hurts more than getting nothing back. The Hornets signed free agent point guard Terry Rozier, who will take his place in the great point-guard carousel and move from Boston to North Carolina. Rozier is signing for three years and $58 million.

It’s cold comfort, and Walker’s departure must be seen as another critical mistake for the Michael Jordan era. He drafted Kwame Brown and Adam Morrison, approved the signing of multiple albatross contracts, and vetoed multiple trades that would’ve brought a haul of draft picks to the Hornets. In 2014, the Hornets declined two first-round picks for Noah Vonleh. Then, in the following year, Jordan declined at least four first-round picks from the Celtics for the pick used on Frank Kaminsky. Walker’s free-agency departure is a fitting ending to this decade in Hornets basketball, which has included bad decisions compounded by worse ones.

There was debate over whether the Nets should have kept D’Angelo Russell, unless Irving brought Durant with him, because Russell is four years younger and less of a headache off the court. It’s a moot point now with Durant joining Irving in Brooklyn. Durant’s recovery from his ruptured Achilles will determine the heights that Brooklyn can reach once he returns for the 2020-21 season. There is no guarantee Durant will ever be the same, but even if he’s 75 percent of his prime he may still be great enough for the Nets to compete for multiple championships. For now, the Nets will be led by Kyrie.

The off-court stuff does matter, as was evident in Boston: Irving may walk into Kenny Atkinson’s office one morning and ask what government means to him, he may passive-aggressively make a comment about teammates to the media, or yell “I am NIKE!” at a ball boy just trying to hand him a towel. The Nets, specifically Atkinson, will have to deal with some degree of drama, but they’re a franchise that built itself up with its culture so they believe they can handle anything. Irving isn’t a bad guy anyway; he’s just complicated.

Irving’s health is also a concern since he’s dealt with nagging knee injuries after breaking his knee cap in the 2015 NBA Finals. But Russell isn’t without any worries, either; he underwent his own knee surgery to remove loose bodies in 2017. Russell was really good last season, averaging 22.2 points and 7.3 assists in Brooklyn’s final 68 games, or since the night Caris LeVert got hurt. For the first time in Russell’s career, he had a stable role and he thrived. It looked like Russell was back at Ohio State playing with confidence as he made highlight passes and hit filthy dribble jumpers. It’s possible that Russell’s best years are ahead of him, but he may never be as good as Irving, who is a proven commodity as an elite scorer who can fill it up from anywhere in the biggest moments.

Russell’s career-best season was largely fueled by his hot shooting season from midrange; he shot 53 percent on floaters and 45.7 percent on pull-up 2-pointers. Is that sustainable? Probably not. Those are elite numbers, so some regression is likely, which means he’ll need to improve in other areas. The big problem is he’s allergic to the paint, as only 17 percent of his shots came near the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass. When his shot isn’t falling, as it wasn’t in the postseason, he doesn’t have the quickness to blow by defenders to get to the rim, or the athleticism to finish over length, or the toughness to barrel into big bodies to draw fouls. At-rim finishing was a concern for Russell in college, and it remains one today. Of players that have attempted at least 17 shots per game, Russell has posted one of the lowest free throw rates in league history, per Basketball-Reference. Only Klay Thompson and a guy named Woody Sauldsberry ranked lower.

Irving doesn’t get to the line a lot either, but he gets inside when he wants and is an excellent below-the-rim scorer with patented finishes off the glass. Irving is also a better shooter off the catch, more lethal off the dribble, and more capable inside. He’s about equal as a playmaker, though far less flashy than Russell, and similar as a defender, too.

You could say Irving’s best years are behind him since he’s already accomplished so much: He was a top-ranked high school player, the first pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, made All-Star and All-NBA teams, won Olympic gold, and hit one of the most iconic shots in NBA Finals history. But studies suggest a point guard’s prime years are between ages 28 and 32. Irving is 27 now, and he’s about to play in a system that runs a heavy dose of pick-and-roll—something he’s elite at—with a talented supporting cast featuring Joe Harris (a knockdown shooter), Spencer Dinwiddie and Taurean Prince (secondary scorers), Jordan and Jarrett Allen (lob guys), and LeVert (a rising star). Irving automatically accelerates Brooklyn’s rebuild, and in a year he’ll be joined by Durant, who could make the team one of the NBA’s elites. Brooklyn is taking a calculated risk in adding Irving and Durant, just as the Celtics are in signing Walker to make a push with their young core. Both franchises are chasing greatness. It’s exhausting to strive for something so tough to achieve, and satisfaction may never come. But being greedy for rings sure beats being the Hornets.