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An Aggressive Kemba Walker Could Turn Around Boston’s Season

In July 2019, when Kemba Walker joined the Celtics in the largest free-agent acquisition in franchise history, he arrived in Boston with the expectation of augmenting the trajectories of young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The first year of Boston’s newest Big Three ended promisingly in a six-game showing in the Eastern Conference finals, the team’s third trip in four seasons. But 10 full seasons have passed since the Celtics last made the NBA Finals, and the task of returning has only grown taller since the Heat sent them home last September.

At 21-22, Boston sits in eighth place in an Eastern Conference that has been dominated by different iterations of MVPs — reigning two-time winner Giannis Antetokounmpo, the previous winner in a new home in James Harden and a budding candidate in Joel Embiid. So far, the prospects of beating any of the three aren’t promising, as evidenced by Boston’s 1-4 mark against Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Milwaukee — the three Finals favorites who each sit well ahead of the other teams jockeying for home-court advantage in the first round. 

To bolster their chances of escaping such a competitive conference, the Celtics will need to handle the ebbs and flows that have affected Walker, whose season debut on Jan. 17 followed the team’s 8-3 start. As illustrated by his win-loss splits, the Celtics’ chances of competing improve with a confident Kemba Walker on the court.

Kemba Walker is playing far better in Celtic wins

Kemba Walker’s points and free throw and field-goal attempts per game, plus field-goal and 3-pointer percentage, in 2020-21 wins versus losses

Attempts per game Shooting Percentage
outcome Points Free throws Field goals Field goals 3-pointers
Wins 21.1 4.6 14.8 44.9% 43.6%
Losses 14.5 1.8 15.9 33.8 28.2

Through games of March 22, 2021.

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

“I think we’ve got to do a better job as a team of helping Kemba,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said earlier this month. “And I’ve said that several times this year. I think that it’s really important that we put him in a position to have success and play to his strengths, and I think he does a great job. He’s so unselfish that he will defer, but we need him to be the guy that he can be. Scoring, keeping defenses on their heels with actions for him and secondary actions for him, or when a play breaks down, getting the ball on the second side is really important.”

In his first 10 games of the season, Walker struggled to find his rhythm from the field, sporting a sub-50 true shooting percentage that ranked near the bottom of Boston’s rotation, per NBA.com. That stretch was concluded by a 14-point loss to Utah on Feb. 9 — the team’s seventh in Walker’s first 10 games — during which Walker scored 7 points on 2-12 shooting from the field, including 1-4 from three.

Walker suffered through most of the 2020 calendar year with knee discomfort, and his rehab both delayed his start to the season and has kept him out of team back-to-backs. Though the 2018-19 All-NBA selection says now that he’s pain-free, his prowess when driving to the basket seems to have been affected.

According to Second Spectrum, Walker’s blowby rate (26 percent) on drives this season ranks 14th of 99 qualified ball-handlers,1 but his volume and efficacy on such possessions has waned. In his three seasons before joining Boston, when he earned three straight All-Star nods, Walker ranked sixth among all players in total drives — ahead of even LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. This season, he ranks 78th.

Walker drives less often but still blows by defenders

Kemba Walker’s total drives and drives per 100 possessions, with blowby rate and points scored per possession, since 2016-17

Season Team Drives Drives Per 100 Poss. Blowby rate Points Per Poss.
2020-21 Boston Celtics 242 15.63 26.0% 1.084
2019-20 Boston Celtics 805 16.66 24.1 1.190
2018-19 Charlotte Hornets 1,254 21.45 19.6 1.177
2017-18 Charlotte Hornets 920 16.51 15.1 1.243
2016-17 Charlotte Hornets 976 18.09 14.2 1.183

Through games of March 22, 2021.

Source: Second Spectrum

Replicating that volume is more difficult with two star teammates who need to get critical touches. But Walker — the team’s third-leading scorer — has acknowledged the value of finding easy buckets for himself near and away from the basket to remain effective.

“I think I can hunt shots a little more,” Walker said. “I think watching film of some of the games, I think I turned down a few shots, a few opportunities, spot-ups. I could take some more spot-ups when my guys give me the basketball. So, yeah, I think I’ve just got to hunt shots a little more, be a little bit more aggressive.”

Last season, Walker didn’t always need to hunt for shots to remain effective on offense: He shot over 40 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, per Second Spectrum. Up to this point in 2020-21, Walker’s overall rate on such shots has fallen to 37.9 percent, but it climbs to 39.4 on attempts after passes from Tatum or Brown, who are both averaging career-highs in assists per game this season.

Walker’s struggles aren’t the only problem for a Celtics club that is 2-5 post All-Star break and is now treading .500 overall. Boston went 18 games without Marcus Smart, who has been hot and cold since returning. But the team needs its stars to figure out how to play together again: Last postseason, Boston’s quartet of Tatum, Brown, Walker and Smart played an NBA-high 349 minutes and outscored opponents by 5.4 points per 100 possessions. But through March 22 of this season, those four have spent only 78 minutes together with a net rating of -6.5, and precious time is ticking away for the Celtics to find the necessary cohesion.

Smart is Boston’s leader in assists per game this season, and his reintegration should allow Walker to focus better on knocking down the shots that come his way. And given Tatum and Brown’s continued development, the Celtics don’t need Walker to carry the load every single night. But for the Celtics to make a playoff run, they’ll likely need their point guard blowing by defenders and hunting for his shots.

Per FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based projections, Boston’s chances at advancing to the Finals currently sit at a faint 7 percent. Unless Walker gets on the right side of his peaks and valleys, the Celtics’ ambitions of winning an 18th title may have to wait another season.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. With at least 200 drives, through Monday’s games.

James Jackson is a Florida A&M graduate from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Currently with ESPN, he has covered the NBA since 2014, with work featured on ESPN.com, NBA International and SB Nation, among other platforms.

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