Kemba to the Clippers — Is a Trade Worth the Risk?

Kemba Walker

Getty Kemba Walker

During the first half of this year’s NBA regular season, a common narrative surrounding the Los Angeles Clippers was that they needed a point guard to have any chance of a deep postseason run.

Of course, point guards were on the roster — Patrick Beverley, Reggie Jackson and Lou Williams — but none were what you’d call traditional. Beverley is a defense guy, and Jackson and Williams are better suited as shooting guards.

What the Clippers really needed, the thinking went, was someone who could run the offense, maybe score here and there, but mostly create opportunities for superstar wings Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

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So, in late March, L.A. traded Williams to Atlanta for Rajon Rondo — a facilitator if ever there was one — and while that seemed to do the trick for the second half of the regular season, the 15-year veteran Rondo underperformed in the playoffs (ironic, given his “Playoff Rondo” moniker) getting all but shelved for the Clippers ill-fated series against the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals.

Which brings us to now, the offseason. The Clippers are once again on the hunt for a point guard. And though Rondo and Beverley are still in the picture, the expected departure of Jackson means L.A. will be in the market for a floor leader who can ideally both distribute and fill some of the scoring void left by Jackson.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe believes it could be Kemba Walker.

Walker’s Knees Are a Concern

Last week, Lowe, one of the network’s most recognizable NBA analysts whose job includes chewing the cud over potential NBA trade deals and free agency singings, said the following on his podcast The Lowe Post:

“I think both the L.A. teams are gonna be sniffing around Kemba Walker. I think that’s the market. Now I don’t know if they can get up to the money. I don’t know if they have whatever Oklahoma City wants, but that’s the level, that’s the kind of distressed whatever that I think they could target.”

Distressed is right. Walker, who was a star in Charlotte for eight years before being traded to the Boston Celtics in 2019, didn’t live up to expectations in Beantown. Though he played well in the shortened 2019-20 season, averaging 20.4 points and 4.8 assists while helping the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals, persistent knee issues limited Walker to just 43 regular-season games in 2020-21.

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In this year’s playoffs, Walker shot just 31.7% from the field and 17.6% from behind the arc in three games against Brooklyn and he sat out the final two contests because of a left knee bone bruise suffered in Game 2.

In June, following the offseason demotion/promotion of head coach Brad Stevens to president of basketball operations in the wake of Danny Ainge’s resignation, Stevens traded Walker, along with a 2021 first-round draft pick and a second-round pick in 2025, to Oklahoma City for Al Horford, Moses Brown and a 2023 second-round pick. (Boston also reaped a trade exemption worth $6.8 million.)

Walker will make $36 million and $37.6 million over the next two seasons (the second year is a player option), and though Horford is still a serviceable big man, Stevens made the trade primarily to rid Boston of Walker’s financial burden. Of course, Walker’s continuing health issues made the deal easier to swallow, and it’s those two factors — salary and injuries — that make it unlikely the Clippers will pursue a trade.

Players, Not Picks, Would Need to Move

Without tradeable first-round picks until 2028 and well over the salary cap, even if the Clippers looked beyond Walker’s mounting injuries, they would still have to give up several players to make the money work in a trade with OKC. To equal Walker’s $36 million, the Clippers would likely need to part with Marcus Morris, Patrick Beverley and Ivica Zubac, perhaps even Terance Mann, one of the team’s brightest young players.

Morris is a glue guy who also happened to shoot the second-highest percentage from three this season (47.3%), and Zubac continued to make strides on both ends of the floor and looks to be the Clippers’ center of the future. While Beverley has injury issues of his own, missing almost half the season between knee and hand problems, during the playoffs he showed that he still has plenty of value defensively.

Exchanging those guys for Walker, even if OKC included a first-round pick, would be a substantial and risky bet that the 31-year-old point guard, with increasingly rickety knees, could help deliver the Clippers their first NBA title immediately. Anything short of that, would be considered a setback for the organization.

Instead, as suggested by Sportsnaut’s Vincent Frank, the Clippers may be better off holding onto those players and look to use their taxpayer mid-level exception, estimated to be around $6 million, on a point guard who is less marquee-ready but still able to provide consistency. Frank names Derrick Rose, Patty Mills, TJ McConnell, Devonte’ Graham and Ish Smith as potential pickups in that scenario.

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