By Jaron May, 98.5 The Sports Hub
The Celtics’ season finished just a couple of weeks ago, but the drama has only increased.
First, Danny Ainge’s retirement pushed Brad Stevens into the President of Basketball Operations role. Now, Stevens is tasked with handling what could be the busiest offseason Boston has seen in quite a while.
This summer won’t be like some from the past, when the Celtics were in the sweepstakes for a big free agent. The 2021 free agency market is actually pretty thin. Instead, Boston has to deal with a handful of internal questions. What to do with Kemba Walker is chief among them.
When the Celtics signed Walker in 2019, the point guard was playing at an All-Star level. In his final season with the Hornets, Walker averaged 25.6 points and 5.9 assists per game, but that’s not even the most impressive stat: he played all 82 games.
If you compare that with what the Celtics have gotten out of Walker over the past two seasons — averaging just 50 games and putting up his worst scoring and assist numbers since 2014 — you can see the difference.
Walker’s situation only gets worse for the Celtics when you take into account that he is 31 years old, has a knee that seems like it will never heal, and is owed $73.7 million over the next two seasons. He has one of the least tradable contracts in the NBA, and is seen as a depreciating asset. So, if the Celtics want to trade Walker, which they should, the return is not going to be plentiful.
Despite all that, there are a few possible suitors willing to take on Walker’s contract.
Dallas Mavericks: They were interested in Walker when he was a free agent in 2019, and are still in the market for a scoring point guard. The Mavs’ first-round exit in the playoffs showed just about everyone that they don’t have much scoring outside of Luka Doncic. Walker would represent a proven secondary option, whether he starts or comes off the bench.
Dallas has $20 million in cap space this offseason, and has a couple of players they are rumored to want to move. The name that rises to the top is Kristaps Porzingis, who has three years and $101.5 million left on his deal. The move wouldn’t clear up any space for the Celtics. It would just swap big, bad contracts. The caveat in this scenario is that Porzingis is also injury-prone. He’s played 65 games or fewer in each of the past five seasons.
Oklahoma City Thunder: OKC is in full-on rebuilding mode, after going just 22-50 and trading away pretty much every asset they had. They are a young team with a whopping 34 draft picks over the next seven years. Sending Walker westward would add veteran leadership to a young group that will need it.
This would most likely send Al Horford back to Boston. Horford is the only big contract that would make sense to move for the Thunder, especially because they made him sit out the back end of the season. Horford averaged 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds in 28 games with Oklahoma City this year.
New York Knicks: They were in the Kemba sweepstakes in 2019 and are in need of a point guard. Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley fought for time at the point this past season, but neither are exceptional at creating their own scoring on a consistent basis. Plus, Rose is a free agent and Quickley is still young. Like the Mavericks, the playoffs revealed that the Knicks are too heavily reliant on one guy for scoring. Julius Randle needs some offensive help, which Kemba can provide.
New York is projected to have the second-most cap space in the NBA at upwards of $59.5 million, according to Spotrac. This means they could take on Walker’s contract without having to move any pieces. That also means the Knicks are really the only trade option that wouldn’t have to send a big contract back to the Celtics. Oh, and not to mention: Walker is from the Bronx, so the Knicks would be a return home for him.
Time-Lord’s’ Sticky Contract Situation
Center has been the Celtics’ biggest area of need in recent seasons. Since Al Horford’s departure, Boston has trotted out decent bigs like Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson, but none of them popped. The C’s have been waiting to hit on a free agent, trade, or draft pick at the position, and it seems like they may have done it with Robert Williams.
“Time-Lord” finally showed some signs of becoming a legitimate starting center this past season. Williams put up career-highs in points per game (8.0), rebounds (6.9), and blocks (1.8) in 52 games. Perfect timing: his contract is now eligible for the rookie extension.
Re-signing Williams is not as easy as it may seem. First, he has yet to make it through a full season as he’s dealt with various injuries. If you are Brad Stevens, you don’t want one of your first moves as President of Basketball Ops to be a big contract for someone who can’t stay on the court. However, rookie contract extensions are based on upside, and Williams is progressing in the right direction. He could develop into a long-term answer in the middle. Once you figure out that conundrum, then you need to think about how an extension now will look down the road.
ESPN NBA insider Bobby Marks told NBC Sports Boston’s Chris Forsberg on the “Celtics Talk” podcast: “Eventually, we’re going to get another infusion of national TV money. So by like, 2023, ’24, in that area, this cap is going to go up again. And eventually, in Year 2 of that Robert Williams extension or Year 3, paying him $17 million a year might be kind of like a team-friendly contract now, because the cap’s going to go up.”
Although Stevens may have to pay above market-value right now and could catch some flack for it, that value may prove to be a great deal in 2-3 seasons. It is like walking a tightrope.
“If he’s part of your future, and you think his upside is high, you don’t need to go out and pay him $25 million, but there’s got to be some kind of compromise there,” said Marks.
So, the Celtics need to decide if Williams is a player they would like to extend. Then figure out his value. Then weigh how his injury history impacts that value. Then take into account the cap going up. Then land on a number that the team and Williams will both agree on.
Sounds easy enough.
Pre-Draft Workout Attendees
The Celtics are not only worrying about the current players, but have also been scouting quite a few college prospects. Most recently, Boston held a pre-draft workout on Monday which included E.J. Liddell from Ohio State, Troy Baxter Jr. from Morgan State, and M.J. Walker from Florida State, according to Forbes’ Chris Grenham.
Liddell played just two seasons at Ohio State. Last year, the Illinois native was in the top-10 in the Big Ten in scoring at 16.2 points per game, rebounding at 6.7 boards per contest, and shooting at 47.4 percent from the field. Those numbers earned the forward First Team All-Big Ten and All-Big Ten Tournament Team honors. Liddell is listed at 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds.
Baxter Jr. bounced around while in school. He played his freshman year at UNLV, then transferred to Florida Gulf Coast, and then switched to Morgan State where he played three seasons. The 6-foot-9, 200-pound forward was First Team All-MEAC and All-Defensive Team in 2021.
He took a big leap from junior year, when he averaged 10.2 points, to senior year, when he ranked first in the conference with 17.1 points per game. Baxter also put up 1.7 blocks per contest as a senior. The Florida native is an athletic freak with some serious bounce, but is already 25 years old.
Walker accomplished pretty much everything you can as an individual while at Florida State. He won the ACC Regular Season Championship, he was a team captain, he was named to the All-ACC team, and the list goes on. The guard is listed at 6-foot-5 and 213 pounds, and is one of the best shooters in FSU history. Walker has his name all over the Seminoles record books, including three-pointers attempted (479), three-pointers made (173), and three-point field goal percentage (39.1 percent). Walker is an experienced, mature guard that could add more sharpshooting on the outside if the Celtics end up drafting him.
The 2021 NBA Draft will take place on Thursday, July 29. The Celtics have the 16th overall selection.