Well, that did not last long.
All the celebration about the return of point guard Kemba Walker to his hometown of New York made for a really nice story, but three games into the NBA season, it already appears the Knicks have a problem, one the Celtics knew all too well when the team traded him this summer: Walker’s balky knees make him very inconsistent.
That has been reflected in the playing time he has gotten from coach Tom Thibodeau through three games. Walker played 36 minutes in the opener against Boston, 22 minutes in the second game in Orlando and just 19 minutes in the home loss to the Magic this weekend.
He sat out the entire fourth quarter in the Orlando loss as Thibodeau went with Derrick Rose instead.
“Like our team,” Thibodeau said about Walker. “There’s been some good moments. There’s been some moments not as good as he can play. But our team, like tonight, we get in a situation where you’re searching. I was just searching for guys that could give us a shot. I thought the group we ended up closing with, you know, they gave us our best shot.’’
Kemba Walker Had Been a 4th Quarter Workhorse
That is a surprise, of course, because over the course of his career, Walker has been known as a very good fourth-quarter finisher. Last year, which was mostly a struggle for Walker, he averaged 4.2 points in the fourth quarter, third on the Celtics behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. In 2019-20, Walker was second in fourth-quarter scoring for Boston, at 5.5 points.
In his final season with Charlotte, Walker was dominant in the fourth, averaging 8.0 points on 46.8% shooting, and 41.7% 3-point shooting.
But Walker is 31 now and his decline in the last couple of seasons has been precipitous. He had a player-efficiency rating (a measure of production, with 15.0 being an average player) of 20.0 two years ago, when he was an All-Star. That fell to 17.7 last year, and is down to 11.4 thus far this season.
Walker’s Knee Problems Possibly Here to Stay
It is unlikely that this slow start will keep up for Walker, though there is a troubling sign that he is not comfortable using his speed and quickness the way he has in the past—Walker is taking only 12.5% of his shots at the rim, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and is making only 33.3% of his shots from that range. Those are both career lows.
For his career, Walker has made 55.5% of his shots at the rim.
Walker is also not attacking the basket in such a way that he draws fouls. In three games, he has attempted only two foul shots. Walker has averaged 4.6 free-throw attempts per game in his career. His struggles finishing are an indication that his persistent knee problems might be slowing him down again.
This does not come as a surprise in Boston. One of the reasons the Celtics were so eager to move on from Walker this summer, sending him to the Thunder in a deal that brought Al Horford to Boston, was concern about the health of his knee.
After Walker was traded out of Boston, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Celtics did not think Walker had much left in the tank. “For Boston, they just had such concerns about Kemba Walker’s left knee and how much he would be available for them and able to play at a really high level over the next couple of years,” Wojnarowski said on the network.