Signing Kemba Walker would be a big, big deal for the Boston Celtics. In a post-Kyrie Irving and Al Horford world, adding Walker not only would vault the Celtics back into contender status, but also reestablish Boston as a legitimate destination for top NBA free agents.
However, slotting Walker in as the franchise point guard would do nothing to fix the Celtics’ biggest problem: Giannis Antetokounmpo.
As the Celtics learned in the playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks star has supplanted LeBron James as the Eastern Conference’s singular threat, the beast which must be tamed in order to reach the NBA Finals. In many ways, Antetokounmpo, who just won his first NBA MVP award, is more difficult to cover than James despite being an inferior shooter. The 24-year-old can get to the rim at will and is capable of finishing over any big man the NBA has to offer. The Celtics deployed Horford and Aron Baynes — two stout interior defenders — against Antetokounmpo in the conference semifinals, but neither slowed him down.
The Toronto Raptors proved Antetokounmpo can be beaten, but it takes specific personnel. Kawhi Leonard, perhaps the best wing defender on Earth, made it tougher for Antetokounmpo to get to the rim in the conference finals. And when he did penetrate, some combination of Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam (all long, skilled defenders) were waiting.
The Celtics, with Baynes now gone and Horford reportedly set to leave in free agency, don’t have the horses to attack Antetokounmpo like the Raptors did. Yes, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Semi Ojeleye all are strong on-ball defenders, but Leonard is different. Obviously, the 6-foot-1 Walker, whom the Celtics reportedly are favored to sign, isn’t the answer, either.
So, what’s a team to do? Trot out Robert Williams, Grant Williams and Daniel Theis and hope for the best? Hope Leonard leaves Toronto but still bank on the Raptors (or someone else) knocking off the Bucks in the playoffs?
Those feel like recipes for disaster.
If the Celtics eventually renounce their rights to Terry Rozier and sign Walker to a maximum contract, they’ll be forced either to go bargain shopping or to execute a significant trade to fill out their frontcourt. Before the Walker reports cropped up, there were rumors connecting the Celtics to various high-level centers, including Steven Adams and Clint Capela. Boston reportedly also has shown interest in Nikola Vucevic. If Walker enters the fold, you probably can cross all those names off your list.
(That’s not to say there aren’t big trades to be made after signing Walker, but they’re very unlikely.)
Ultimately, the Celtics and their fans need to consider these two (highly) hypothetical lineups:
Daniel Theis/ Robert Williams/Random, unidentified center
Clint Capela/Steven Adams/Nikola Vucevic
The first lineup undeniably is sexier, whereas the second probably is more conducive to matching up with Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. The first one also basically is throwing a ton of money at an existential problem, while the second involves parting with assets to land players who might make more sense for what Boston is trying to do.
Of course, there’s something to be said for sexy. Landing Walker would send a direct message to the rest of the NBA that the Celtics aren’t going to hide in a corner and cry about losing Horford and Irving, that they’re not resigned to the disastrous rebuild that the Nick Wrights of the world so desperately want them be in. Plus, Walker is a fantastic player, and he would make the Celtics better, entertaining and more likable.
But there’s as much to be said for being smart and patient. If the Celtics want to beat Antetokounmpo and achieve their ultimate goals, that’s a strategy they might want to consider — headlines be damned.