The Celtics are going to consider some big changes to their roster this offseason and one place it makes sense to look is with point guard Kemba Walker. The 31-year-old veteran has battled constant knee issues during his last two seasons in Boston and his hefty salary limits Boston’s spending options to improve for the next two years.
MassLive reported last week that league sources expect Boston to explore moving the former All-Star in order to create more payroll flexibility and find a better fit next to the team’s All-Stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
However, trading Walker will not be a slam dunk due to his contract and injury situation. He is currently projected to be the 12th highest-paid player in the NBA next season, earning $36 million in 2021-22 and $37.6 million in 2022-23 (player option). Walker’s camp also negotiated a 15 percent trade kicker into his original deal so the Celtics would be on the hook to pay out an additional $3.3 million dollars to Walker as a part of any deal (unless Walker agreed to waive the trade kicker to help facilitate a deal). Walker’s trade bonus would also factor into the cap math of dealing him since it would require the Celtics to take back more salary (around $3 million) in any trade.
Due to these factors, finding a deal involving Walker that makes sense for Boston and a trade partner in both the long and short term is going to be a big challenge for Brad Stevens, and there’s no guarantee a good match is found. However, there are a few paths Boston’s front office should be looking at if they are motivated to get a deal done. Let’s examine some of these hypothetical trade partners and possible proposals.
REBUILDING TEAMS AS POTENTIAL TRADE PARTNERS
Walker still has enough in the tank to help a good team. However, most playoff teams aren’t going to want to pay Walker $36 million to be a third or fourth option, particularly with his injury concerns. That fact should limit most of Boston’s potential trade partners to asset collecting teams at the bottom of the NBA standings. Boston gets some salary relief and/or easily movable players and a trade partner gets draft picks and/or young players for helping out. A few teams to monitor on this front:
Proposal: Kemba Walker and a protected first-round pick for Eric Gordon, DJ Augustin and Avery Bradley
Purpose: Long-term cap relief, movable contracts
Houston already has one of the worst contracts in the NBA at the point guard spot in John Wall so adding another wouldn’t make a ton of sense. However, the Rockets should be in asset collection mode here and landing a good first-round pick to move off some of their own overpriced, albeit less expensive deals (Gordon, Augustin) could be seen as a win-win for them. The problem for Boston is that Gordon is injury prone and his size (6-foot-4), age (32) and defense shouldn’t help much in the short term when it comes to getting the Celtics back contending. This trade would reduce Boston’s payroll but doesn’t necessarily build a better supporting cast. Augustin’s contract is also partially guaranteed for 2022-23 so this transaction would free up about $17 million in cap space for next summer.
Likelihood? Low due to Wall’s contract.
Proposal: Kemba Walker and the No. 16 pick for Gary Harris and Terrence Ross
Purpose: Adding useful role players, reducing payroll
One of the more appealing possibilities on this list from Boston’s perspective, in my opinion. The team would get a pair of useful players in Harris and Ross for next season on the wing, reducing the need to pay big money to Evan Fournier over a long-term deal. Additionally, Harris is on a $20 million expiring contract so Boston would be set up to have tremendous cap flexibility next summer if they avoid long-term deals this summer. Ross is a useful spot-up shooter with a couple years left on his deal, so he could either be kept or moved.
The problem here for the Celtics will be getting the Magic to bite. They have a pair of young point guards already in Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony so they simply may be uninterested in having Walker taking some of those minutes while they try to rebuild his value (a buyout could be possible here too). A mid-first round may not be enough for Orlando to make that sacrifice for adding so much extra payroll for the next two years so the Celtics may have to sweeten the deal here with another draft pick or a young player with promise (Aaron Nesmith?). Finding an appealing enough package for Orlando will be a challenge but there is a deal to be made here if the Celtics find the right mix of assets to satisfy the Magic.
Likelihood? Dependent on Orlando’s willingness to sacrifice cap room for draft assets
Oklahoma City Thunder
Proposal: Kemba Walker and the No. 16 pick for Al Horford
Purpose: Reducing salary, adding a stretch option
There is no other team that’s done better in the asset collection game than the Oklahoma City Thunder in the last two seasons. They’ve acquired an incredibly long list of future draft picks while serving as a dumping ground for bad contracts and have even rebuilt the value of some veteran players (Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder) for more assets after stops in OKC.
The Thunder will eventually make a push toward competing, but that won’t happen until another year or two down the road. For now though, they have a high-priced former Celtic on the roster in Al Horford who would love to return to Boston, according to league sources. Moving a first-round pick with Walker to bring back Horford to Boston would potentially help on a couple of fronts. First, it would significantly reduce the payroll for the next two years as Horford only makes $27 million next season and his 2022-23 salary is only partially guaranteed ($14.5 million). Horford also would fit a big hole as a stretch big in the frontcourt in the interim, although it remains unclear how much he has left in the tank after flaming out in Philadelphia.
Once again, this proposal will come down to a price point on draft compensation. Will Horford have other suitors around the league? Is moving one injury-prone veteran for another a good idea when it costs a draft pick to do so? Realistically, this is an option will be on the table though if Boston is willing to meet Sam Presti’s price.
Likelihood? Very possible but dependent on Horford’s market and Boston’s willingness to add more assets
Proposal: Kemba Walker and two first-round picks (2021, 2023) for Cory Joseph, Mason Plumlee, Rodney MacGruder and Jahlil Okafor
Purpose: Cap relief and movable contracts
One final rebuilding team to consider. Same logic as the others except this time, it costs Boston an extra first round pick since they get massive cap relief in 2022 with this proposed swap. Detroit would be sacrificing a ton of future cap space in 2022 to take Walker’s deal so there’s no guarantee they would be interested in limiting their future offseason maneuvers. However, Boston could try to sell Walker as a mentor to the team’s young talent and point guard of the future in Killian Hayes. However, the odds are here the Pistons decline to take on a big-money star that will likely be looking for a buyout (see: Blake Griffin) for the second straight season.
Likelihood? Dependent on Detroit’s willingness to sacrifice cap room for draft assets
BAD CONTRACT FOR BAD CONTRACT?
Proposal: Kemba Walker for Kristaps Porzingis
The money works here for a straight-up swap. Porzingis at age 26 is much younger than Walker and would align with the timetables of Tatum/Brown better on paper. However, this is a deal to stay away from for the Celtics since Porzingis does not turn this roster into a contender due to his drop-off in play in Dallas, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. The big man would also add an extra year of money onto Boston’s payroll beyond when Walker’s deal expires in 2023, essentially blocking Boston from having any meaningful cap room for another year with their young core. If building a long-term contender around Tatum and Brown is the goal, adding Porzingis to the roster would be a step in the wrong direction if he isn’t a viable third option. His play this past season suggests he’s not.
Likelihood? Not happening
Proposal: Kemba Walker for Kevin Love
Love makes only $60 million total over the next two years, about $13 million less than Walker and that’s where the positives end in this deal for Boston. Walker is the more productive player at this stage of his career as Love has been riddled with injuries since 2018. Cleveland also has a fully stocked backcourt already with Colin Sexton and Darius Garland, which probably makes this a no for both sides.
Likelihood? Very low
New Orleans Pelicans
Proposal: Kemba Walker and a future protected first-round pick for Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams
An uninspiring deal for both sides. The Celtics get another overpaid big who can’t shoot and a guy in Bledsoe who has always struggled under the postseason spotlight. However, Bledsoe’s deal is only partially guaranteed ($3.4 million) for 2022-23 so this would be a path to some cap relief for Boston (albeit at the price of a draft pick). The Pelicans would simply be looking to land a draft asset here and hope Walker stays healthy as a pick-and-roll partner with Zion Williamson. However, the Pelicans may prefer the flexibility of more cap space next summer rather than an additional draft pick.
Likelihood? Very low
PLAYOFF TEAMS THAT COULD CONSIDER UPGRADE?
Los Angeles Clippers
Proposal: Kemba Walker and a first-round pick for Luke Kennard and Patrick Beverley
Purpose: Cap relief for 2022 and more movable contracts
There are a few teams in the NBA with payroll flexibility, the need for an upgrade at point guard and desperation to improve. The Clippers may be on that list if they ended up as a second-round out for the second straight season. With no draft assets or cap space to improve, they could be willing to take a talent upgrade on an overpriced contract in Walker for a couple of overpaid role players. Steve Ballmer has shown a willingness to pay a monster tax bill before so the Celtics would benefit from that here to put a 20-point scorer next to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The problem for Boston? The Clippers could find less pricy paths in trades to achieving the same goal. A disappointing exit to the playoffs is the only way this becomes a feasible plan for Boston.
Likelihood? Depends on how the Clippers finish their season.
New York Knicks
Proposal: Kemba Walker and a first-round pick for Norvel Pelle (i.e. filler)
Purpose: Cap relief for the long term
The Knicks were reportedly in the running for Walker when he was a free agent in 2019. Two years later, they are a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference and could have upwards of $50 million in salary-cap space this summer. Would they want to use it on Walker? Surely not for his current salary. However, is it possible the Celtics could incentive them to take on that money with draft picks or other young players? It’s a call Boston should make but the read here is that it wouldn’t go anywhere. New York has plenty of talent in the backcourt already with Derrick Rose and an emerging Immanuel Quickley. Clogging up cap space and opportunity for two years with Walker is probably not worth it for the franchise unless Boston is willing to hand over a lot of sweeteners (picks and young players) their way. Hard to envision Brad Stevens does that with a divisional rival, even if it would create a massive trade exception for Boston.
Likelihood? Knicks say no
There are a couple of feasible scenarios on this list (OKC, Orlando) but there are serious deterrents for both sides in the vast majority of these potential swaps. For that reason, it’s far from a sure thing the Celtics make a move with Kemba Walker this offseason, even if they are motivated to. Running it back with Walker and making some other tweaks to the roster may end up being preferable to giving up serious draft capital and/or young players to move Walker’s deal. Brad Stevens will need to weigh the risk and reward of those paths as he tries to map out Boston’s path back towards contention this offseason.