Pay attention to the grammar here: Kemba Walker has a sore left knee. The soreness, at this point, seems about as conditional as its leftness. He is in possession of a knee that exists in a perpetual state of soreness. Like an apple is red, or a building is made of brick. The knee is sore, man, and it doesn’t appear that it’s going to get better.
Kemba’s first season in Boston was start and stop. After missing the first three games of the new year, he couldn’t put more than a couple weeks together. Six nights on, two nights off. That kind of thing. You could say he wasn’t able to settle into a rhythm, but there was little rhythm to disrupt. All his numbers were down; the poor shooting performances piled up. He hadn’t played this poorly since his mid-20s, a different era of his career, before he became a perennial all-star. It didn’t affect his playing time, or his role in the offense. When you’re a good team, as the Celtics were, you can use the winter and spring months to let one of your best players cycle through the gears. But that patience wasn’t reaping any tangible progress. Rested or not, at home or on the road, Kemba looked worn down.
He was one of the few players who thought maybe the NBA’s hiatus would help him out. Perhaps what he needed was simply to not play basketball for a few months. In late July, shortly after the league announced it would be restarting its season in Orlando, Brad Stevens claimed that Kemba’s knee was “the strongest it’s been since September,” implying that it had been a problem throughout the season, even before he sat out those games in January.
The sabbatical made no difference. Kemba returned to action with the same troubling lack of dynamism. His three-point shooting was atrocious. The Toronto Raptors threw a box and one defense at him in the Eastern Conference Semis, which is the sort of ploy coaches use for a game or two and then drop, because you expect a player of Kemba’s ability to solve it, make you find something else to keep him down. But Kemba couldn’t crack it. The Celtics survived that series because Jaylen Brown played like a star, Marcus Smart got hot from deep, and Pascal Siakam was a mess. In the next round, against the Heat, Kemba got waxed by Goran Dragic.
The knee has been a mild issue since he tore his lateral meniscus in 2015. Since then, he’s had it scoped two more times. The joint is probably arthritic, and the shaved meniscus means that Kemba’s bones are a little closer together, the cartilage between them a little thinner, than they were when he was playing at UConn. The Celtics have regularly insisted that he doesn’t need surgery on the knee, but last February, he did have a Synvisc injection, which is meant to strengthen the cartilage that remains. That procedure apparently wasn’t the trick to getting Kemba back to his old self.
More troubling signs: Danny Ainge, as he has done with nearly every injured player he’s ever employed, has been unsuccessfully trying to throw Kemba into trades for the past month. Brad Stevens has said that he might not be healthy for the start of the season and that the plan is to bring him along slowly. For nearly a year now, Kemba’s status has been out (sore knee), questionable (sore knee), 100 percent ready to go (except for the sore knee). The condition, while it obviously fluctuates from day to day, and can be helped to some extent by rest, is trending toward chronic. It’s a single injury that keeps happening, and doesn’t fully heal.
Another way to put this is that Kemba is getting old. He’s 30, and small guards tend to age in dog years. This is partially because they get knocked around more violently than guys the size of Kawhi Leonard, but also because they need all their athleticism in order to survive. While Kemba has plenty of smarts and skills, he relies on his quickness—beating his defender to a certain spot, rapid starts and stops as he drives—to create space for himself. So much of what makes other players effective isn’t available to him. He can’t jab step and shoot over the defense like Kevin Durant or take the punishment James Harden does. If Kemba is indeed in physical decline, there aren’t many options for him to reimagine his game, short of developing reliable 30-foot range. He’ll never invent a new shot as good as his signature pull-up, where he feints toward the rim, crosses over right to left, and drains it from the elbow as the defender stumbles baseline. And he needs his legs under him for that jumper to work as consistently as it does.
We’ll see how he looks after this brief if hopefully restorative offseason. Perhaps the Celtics are being extra cautious with him, knowing that some coddling now might ensure he’s at full strength for the playoffs. Indicators are poor, though, and six-footers often fall off suddenly. Kemba was brought in to carry the Boston offense when Stevens’s system broke down, put up an automatic, improvised 20 points per night, embody the phrase you know I’m good for it. For the first time in years, because he’s got this problem he can’t shake, he can’t be counted on. There’s plenty of time for him to shore himself up, but at his age and stature, the passage of time might not benefit him anymore.
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