Kemba Walker has been dropped from the Knicks’ rotation. It makes sense if you ignore the name, or have been paying attention. Walker—former All-Star, max contract signee, the best Charlotte Hornet in that franchise’s modest history—has been nursing a bum left knee for three years now and in his diminished state is putting up a tick under 12 points per game on 42.9 percent shooting. His defense, never anything more than respectable, fell all the way off during his time in Boston, got him shipped to Oklahoma City, and remains abysmal in New York. It’s as safe as it is sad to call Kemba’s decline terminal. “I just don’t like the way we’ve been trending, the inconsistency of our team. I want to get bigger,” Tom Thibodeau says. “I want our defense to get bigger at the point of the attack.” That would be the polite and firm way to frame it. If you can rule out anything, it’s Kemba getting taller.
He’s only 31 years old but this feels like the end, or something very close to it. In his prime, Kemba’s contributions to winning weren’t subtle. He was simply one of the better bucket-getters in the league, empowered on Hornets squads that on the one hand didn’t cramp his style and on the other didn’t give him much choice but to drive, pull up, and hoist. He developed some lovely methods. That midrange jumper, from screaming downhill to a dead stop, was his signature going back to his UConn days and as he refined it, he saved Charlotte from unwatchability. He added a three-point shot in his mid-20s and became genuinely unguardable on most nights, cutting a heroic figure on two levels: he was shorter than everyone else on the floor, and his team was almost always facing a talent disparity.
Without that scoring genius buoying his game, it’s hard to see where Kemba fits on an NBA floor. Aging wings can bulk up and become smallball fours and fives, pour everything into the defensive end. Aging big guys can practice their corner threes and bother shots around the rim. To be helpful, Kemba at least needs to be a solid sixth man, a Jamal Crawford or Lou Williams type. He just doesn’t have the juice for that anymore. So sure, it’s probably the right idea to give Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, and Alec Burks all his minutes. They offer length or youth or shooting that he cannot.
It’s a bummer when any player flames out prematurely due to injury, but the doubly frustrating thing is that Kemba is finally where he belongs, at home in New York. The Walker to MSG buzz has been percolating for at least a half-decade now, not really founded on any solid rumors so much as the notion that certain teams and certain players seem destined to enjoin, and the obvious fact that if Kemba had been doing for the Knicks what he did for the Hornets, he would have been beloved—and, not for nothing, considerably more famous. A player who could have been a cult figure ended up existing as a considerably deeper cut because the best Charlotte squad he ever featured for won 48 games and lost in the first round of the playoffs. He would have had to make a Conference Finals, to make any real noise from where he was stationed.
Kemba arrived even in Boston, to a pretty exciting team in a market that just so happens to have spawned 92 percent of all national NBA media members, as damaged goods. That first season with the Celtics was stop and start and below-par, and then the whole league paused due to COVID, and though Brad Stevens claimed Kemba’s knee had healed up, it certainly didn’t look like it as he sputtered in Orlando. That was the first sign that the end was near, the second being that he was worse in year two. The Celtics had to attach a first round draft pick to Kemba, just to get rid of him this past summer.
We’d all have liked this New York adventure to be working out swell, Kemba stirring some scoring into the Knicks’ defensive solidity, but his body won’t travel along that narrative arc. He’s put in his time, and is apparently fresh out of it. There’s nothing to say about this other than that it sucks.
Certain complaints about the cascade of player movement we’ve seen over the past decade are completely valid. The league is a disorienting kaleidoscope of talent, teams don’t have time to develop identities before the faces change again, and some guys are kind of being brats. But then you look at someone like Kemba Walker and think well, shoot. His knee had eight good seasons in it, and he gave them all to a franchise that hardly anyone except the most committed League Pass dorks paid attention to. This is not exactly sad—he made a bunch of money and played lots of (reasonably) competitive basketball—but it is less than it could have been. Kemba probably isn’t totally satisfied with it. Which is why it’s hard to begrudge too strongly any professional athlete who agitates for a move, because he doesn’t feel like he’s everything he could be where he currently is. Even long careers are fleeting, and the human body is fragile. You don’t want to end up where you finally belong too late, coming home only to realize that you’re washed up. Opportunity hasn’t aligned properly for Kemba, and now it never will.