LAS VEGAS — Before Kemba Walker underwent the most seismic change of his life in signing with the Boston Celtics, he needed time to process his feelings. He spent eight seasons with the Charlotte Hornets, lifted the franchise to two playoff appearances, made three All-Star teams and the third All-NBA team in 2018-19. He had made it known where his priority was, and hoped the Hornets would match it.
Walker qualified for the $221 million super-maximum contract over five seasons by earning a spot on the All-NBA third team after another All-Star season, but was open to signing a deal less than that amount. He simply wanted the Hornets to present him with a proposal that he could justify, even if it was slightly less than the normal max of $190 million.
None of it came.
“Tough days, **** tough days, I can’t even lie,” Walker told The Athletic. “Excuse my language. It was difficult. I couldn’t see myself just being on another team. It was just hard. That’s all I’ve known was Charlotte. Definitely some tough times. I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to get the offer that I wanted, and maybe not close to it, because of cap space.
“I had to get my head wrapped around the feeling and picking another team.”
Then the thought of Boston gained traction in his mind: The franchise, the roster, the city. The close proximity to his alma mater, the University of Connecticut.
“I’ll get to have a lot of UConn fans around,” Walker said. “And even better, I get a chance to get back more to school, possibly, to watch some games.”
The Hornets’ best offer to Walker was just under $160 million over five years, league sources told The Athletic, and in the meantime, the Kyrie Irving-less Celtics emerged as a significant appeal to the 29-year-old. For their part, the Hornets moved onto another young free-agent point guard, the Celtics’ Terry Rozier, who signed a fully guaranteed three-year, $58 million contract.
Walker wanted to find reasons that would push him toward staying in Charlotte, but once the offers came together and the Celtics’ option became known, he finally relented on his long-heralded desire to be a Hornet-for-life.
Walker said he did not have a final conversation with Hornets owner Michael Jordan, but understood the organization’s viewpoint.
“It’s not disappointing because I understand the business side of things,” Walker said. “I’m not mad at MJ or the organization for anything. I understand it. You have to look at both sides at the end of the day. Could MJ have went over the luxury tax? Yeah, he could have. But why?
“At the end of the day, you have to see both sides of it. That’s what helped me wrap my head around not being around Charlotte anymore. I loved Charlotte. I had to shift my mindset more as free agency got close. I had some priorities and places I wanted to go and didn’t want to go if I didn’t stay in Charlotte, and that’s when Boston even came on the scene.
“It got real, like, ‘Damn, I can really be a Celtic.’”
Walker joined the Celtics on a four-year, $142 million max deal that includes a player option for the fourth season, and will help lead an organization that is built around him and young pieces in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. Walker says he is expecting a major season from Gordon Hayward, too.
In his discussions with the Celtics, Walker became excited about learning about the franchise’s traditions, but mostly succeeding in coach Brad Stevens’ system. The 6-foot-1 Walker watched from afar as the 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas had a career season for the Celtics in 2016-17, and knows about Stevens’ success with guards.
Yes, Walker is replacing Irving and an understandable goal would be to top Irving’s two seasons in a Celtic uniform. For Walker’s part, the goal is just that — but without Irving as a motivating factor.
“I’m not trying to go in and think that I have to be better than Kyrie last year,” Walker said. “It happens. Great players go to teams all the time and it just doesn’t work. It just didn’t work for him. Kyrie is one of the best players we have in this world. It was just unfortunate, an unfortunate season.
“I’m not coming in thinking I’m going to be better. I’m coming in to do my job, play my part and do what I can to elevate these guys as much as possible. Do what I can to help the team, to contribute to winning. These guys, they’ve been winning for years. I want to be part of that. This is a big-time roster. The guys that make up the roster, there’s such great young talent — guys who are hungry, who want to win and want to get better and work hard. That’s who I want to be around.
“Point guards can have great success under Coach. Obviously Kyrie left, so it was an open point guard spot. It was just perfect. Boston is such a historic place. Who wouldn’t want to play for the Celtics?”
A season ago, Boston lacked cohesion from top to bottom, from the coaching staff to its star and face of the franchise. From afar, Walker noticed the situation going awry, and began relishing the opportunity to become the next Celtics’ point guard.
Boston reached the Eastern Conference Finals in consecutive seasons in 2017 and 2018, creating similar expectations now despite the additional loss of Al Horford. Boston acquired center Enes Kanter to bolster their frontcourt, and he and Walker have held conversations about their partnership.
For years in Charlotte, simply reaching the playoffs was considered along the lines of what a conference finals berth would be elsewhere. How will Walker handle the newfound pressure?
“I haven’t wrapped my mind around contending at this high level,” Walker told The Athletic. “It doesn’t even sound right. I’ve been with the Hornets for eight years, and maybe one time we had some expectations. Maybe just one season; seven-, six-seed or something.
“This year, there will be expectations — and I’m excited. I don’t know how to feel, I’ve never had this feeling.”