Kemba Walker Is The Perfect Fit For The New York Knicks
Welcoming Kemba Walker to New York has been nothing but rainbows and butterflies.
It’s the story everyone loves to see — the local star returning back to his roots in order to not only help out the home team, but to help restore his value in the eyes of those around the league. He is walking into a situation that seems perfect on the outside as the Knicks desperately need some panache at point guard, especially one that has star potential.
The caveat to all of this is always the health concerning Walker. That concern is why the Boston Celtics moved him to the Oklahoma City Thunder and why the Thunder— the franchise that forever is chasing value no matter what the consequence— decided to pass on restoring his value and elected to buy him out.
Those concerns are valid as Walker has been forced to miss more than 30 percent of the regular season for Boston over the past two seasons due to a variety of injuries, most notably the left knee that he has had a couple of surgeries on. Yet, he still has shown effectiveness in the minutes he has played— posting an All-Star caliber season in 2019-2020 before turning in a solid, if not unspectacular second season in the green and white.
Expectations change with money and that is even more true for a player that has the fanfare of Walker. His potential ceiling is more than the two-year, $17.9 million contract from the Knicks (he is essentially being made whole after his buyout with the Thunder). Should those expectations change now that he is on a newer, more inexpensive deal? Tom Thibodeau doesn’t think so.
The most obvious area in which Walker will be able to help the Knicks is in the pick and roll. Walker is a maestro with the ball in his hands and is able to slink his way around screens to either dish to the big man or pull up for one of his patented jumpers. His decision making on these plays has grown as he’s become more comfortable in his shot.
His explosiveness makes him such a trip to handle for big men — play him a step too high and he blows by you, or give him too much room and he capitalizes by draining the 3-pointer. Both options are in Walker’s bag, but it’ll be interesting to see if the propensity to drive stays as he ages. His shots at the rim have dropped concerningly low over the past two seasons, even though his efficiency has maintained.
Regardless Walker still has moments where he is able to translate his two skills into an offensive eruption, which he did against the Bulls in May. On this particular play he completely exemplifies all of his tantalizing skills. He is able to utilize the high double screen as an opportunity to get a runway before attacking the basket. His speed gives him a chance to separate from Garrett Temple before putting Nikola Vučević in an untenable situation by faking the pass before banking in his layup.
As the game progressed, Walker started to get more comfortable from behind the arc as he drained several 3-pointers. He was able to take advantage of the drop scheme from the Bulls— keeping their center anchored in the paint, and allowing Walker to get open looks. Kemba capitalized and made the Bulls look silly over and over again.
When Vučević decided to take an extra step out to contest Walker? He made them pay.
The stats back up the eye test. Walker struggled a bit more than usual last season, but he has always been one of the more pick and roll heavy ball handlers in the league. He has finished in the top-10 in points per possession for ball handlers in the pick and roll in five of the past six years. He has led the league in possessions as the lead ball handler in two of those years and has ranked in the top-10 in the other four years. Efficiency within that frequency is what makes him such an intriguing partner for rim runners like Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel.
Both centers, along with Obi Toppin, struggled to get consistent looks at the basket due to the lack of respect defenders gave Elfrid Payton. Payton was in the bottom half of the league in the pick and roll; he consistently failed to make timely passes and would often force contested shots in the paint. The negative impact of Payton has been written and talked about repeatedly. But it is important to note the stark difference in production between the two .
One of the biggest benefits of Walker should come offensively as the Knicks ranked 7th worst in the league in offensive rating. It would be fair to assume that their 4th ranked defense could suffer after some shooting luck from last year, so it’ll be integral for their regular season success to come more from the offensive side of the ball. Payton forced the team into having two non-shooters (or more) on the floor every time he stepped on to the court. Walker automatically gives the Knicks their best pull up shooter in years since no Knick has averaged more than three pull up 3-point attempts per game in the eight years that second spectrum has tracked the stat. Walker averaged over five per game in his last four seasons.
An extra shooter with this level of firepower should, in theory, make life easier for everyone around him. Julius Randle can suffer a dip in efficiency without the offense crumbling, Alec Burks may lose some of his scoring punch and RJ Barrett may even cool from his blistering shooting finish to the season. That can happen because Walker provides the offensive cushion the team needs to allow for some regression. He is the safety valve that can allow the train to keep moving forward, even when problems arise.