NBA free agency doesn’t officially begin until Sunday evening, but reports suggest the Celtics will quickly sign Kemba Walker to a 4-year, $141 million deal. Kyrie Irving has made it clear that he will be moving on Boston, and Boston doesn’t seem all that upset about the prospect. Kemba is a really nice fallback plan in the backcourt, an All-NBA caliber player available only because his team reportedly balked at offering a supermax contract.
He’s a nice fallback plan. But he’s not an upgrade, at least not on the court.
Kyrie and Kemba are actually quite easy to compare, given they both entered the NBA via the 2011 draft and play the same position. Per Basketball-Reference.com’s player comparison tool, Kyrie has been a better scorer and playmaker over their careers and a far more efficient shooter at every level. It’s pretty indisputable that Kyrie is better, though we should note that Irving has had better teammates throughout, including LeBron James for three years. Neither is a very strong defender, though each has had his moments.
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Even last year, when Kyrie’s reputation took a hit (for various reasons) and Kemba reached his zenith, the two guards were essentially break-even in per-minute scoring, with Kyrie shooting substantially more efficiently and picking up rebounds, assists, and steals more frequently. Kyrie is also two years younger than Kemba, which could mean that while Walker is in the middle of his age-expected peak, Kyrie is just approaching it.
Kyrie is just a better basketball player with more on-court upside.
But he’s also an active reagent in the locker room, and received a lot of blame for the Celtics mentally and emotionally falling apart this season. If Kyrie takes the bad vibes away with him, and Kemba brings that magnetic smile he’s known for, perhaps group happiness can lead to more success and even a championship.
There’s a scheme argument to be made, that Kemba fits Brad Stevens’ system better than Kyrie. But frankly, with Al Horford on the way out and the roster in a bit of flux, we don’t know how that system will evolve, so it’s hard to judge at this juncture. We also don’t know how Gordon Hayward will look next season, and how much Stevens’ early-season push to “force feed” Hayward the ball at times affected the chemistry problems Irving has taken the hit on. If Hayward is no longer a problem and in fact becomes an asset, that changes everything.
As Kemba knows all too well from his years toiling in disadvantaged Charlotte, team context matters a lot. The Celtics were a joyless, confused affair last season. Being rid of the Kyrie uncertainty and mood and hopefully being in a better place with Hayward should help. More improvement from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown should help. The Horford loss will sting badly, especially since there’s not a clear path for replacement. But perhaps Boston can overcome that with a smart trade or free agent signings, or one of the new rookies stepping up.
Kemba is individually a downgrade on Kyrie. There’s no getting around it. But because of everything else changing about this team, the Celtics can be better than they were. Whether they are and in what ways they succeed might just reveal a lot about the nightmare season they just completed.