Although Walker is not quite Irving’s equal as a player, he lacks the personality foibles and flaws that doomed his predecessor. The 29-year-old U-Conn. product has been one of the NBA’s most anonymous stars on one of its most overlooked teams, avoiding drama, sideshows and scrutiny at every turn. His departure will plunge the Hornets into a deep rebuild, while his reliability, pick-and-roll experience and explosive scoring will be welcomed by the retooling Celtics. Even so, landing Walker is a skillful bunker shot — rather than a hole-in-one — considering Boston’s other roster changes.
Walker, an all-NBA third-team selection and a fully worthy max player, appears to be a clean offensive fit. He ranked 10th in scoring and 30th in player efficiency last year, and his high-volume three-point shooting and well-honed half-court game give Boston Coach Brad Stevens a modern, dangerous playmaker to run the show. Walker’s excellent health track record also stands in contrast to the injury issues that plagued Irving and Isaiah Thomas in Boston.
Despite Irving’s brilliant ballhandling and shot-making, Boston’s offense regularly underperformed because of chemistry and flow issues. Walker’s new teammates — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward — are more talented than the mishmashes that surrounded him in Charlotte, and he should be amenable to a balanced attack. After all, his one-man army approach in Charlotte led to just two playoff appearances and three playoff wins over eight seasons.
The Celtics’ central concern going forward, though, is not whether Walker can duplicate Irving’s stats or make better use of the talented wing corps. This is a franchise that has won more with its elite defense, which ranked first in 2017-18 and sixth in 2018-19, than its offense. During the Celtics’ best moments of the 2019 postseason, they short-circuited the Indiana Pacers’ attack in a grinding first-round sweep and confounded Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo early in the conference semifinals.
While the 6-foot-1 Walker has graded out as a minus defender for years, the bigger issue is inside. Boston is expected to lose center Al Horford, a 2018 all-defensive selection, in free agency, and it traded Aron Baynes, a physical and underrated stopper, to create the necessary cap space to sign Walker. Horford’s versatility and Baynes’s strong presence enabled Boston to aggressively defend on the perimeter and to match up with the East’s top stars.
Without them, Boston will struggle with Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, among other key foes. Hamstrung by a weak group of returning options and limited salary cap flexibility, Celtics President Danny Ainge will need to explore trades and minor free agent signings to shore up his interior. Unfortunately, that probably will mean settling for stopgap solutions.
In other words, Boston is on course for two identity changes: the Irving-to-Walker sidestep, and a meaningful defensive regression. The former will help Boston’s fan base lick its wounds after Irving’s ill-fated tenure, but the latter should keep the team out of the East’s top group of contenders.