This is the time of year when NBA teams break from pursuing free agents to take a bow for reeling them in. And Wednesday was the Boston Celtics turn to gloat.
The Celtics have shaken off the losses of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford by replacing them with Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter. And at least for one day, they had us thinking it’s been a major upgrade.
Boston posed them holding up their new kelly green jerseys. Walker gets No. 8 and Kanter will wear No. 11, which ironically was Irving’s number with the Celtics.
“I think I had a pretty good idea in March or April (that Irving would leave), said Celtics president Danny Ainge said. “Not for sure though, not certain. But I was obviously thinking a move in a different direction at that point, thinking of the different options.”
In Walker, the Celtics are getting a three-time All-Star guard who might be even more offensively dynamic than Irving, a great scorer with perimeter range who can light things up.
In Kanter, Boston receives a well-traveled center who will help with rim protection. He also hasn’t averaged fewer than 12.3 points per since 2012-13, can handle himself in the lane and has a nice outside touch.
In truth, the Celtics were looking forward to this day. There seemed to be something off-kilter about last season, a subtle change of energy from the year before that slowly whittled life from one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams.
Most of the dysfunction was blamed on Irving, who earlier in the year told Celtics fans he would re-sign instead of becoming a free agent. He seemed to have a problem meshing with their younger players. Ultimately, most of their fans couldn’t wait to wave goodbye after the Celtics were eliminated by the Milwaukee Bucks in five games in the conference semifinals after winning Game 1 by 22 points at home.
During the press conference, Ainge said most of his attention during free agency was centered on Walker and Kanter, certainly once he realized trading for Anthony Davis wasn’t going to happen.
Ainge had Walker lined up even before free agency began on June 30. And it wasn’t long before he nabbed Kanter. Walker took an active role in recruiting Kanter, at one point using Ainge’s phone to call him. The big man credited that for his decision to sign.
“It was a deep voice and I was like, ‘Who’s this?’” Kanter told the Boston Globe. “He said, ‘It’s Kemba, man, and we want you to be here and we’re excited about you.’ That made me very excited and feel special. Having an All-Star guy, a superstar like Kemba call me and say, ‘Hey, we want you to be here,’ that’s special.”
Walker originally didn’t want to leave Charlotte, where he’d played the first eight years of his career. He enjoyed the community and worked hard to integrate himself with charitable work. But he also came to realize the Hornets were a perennial longshot to make the playoffs – Walker played in only 11 first-round postseason games – and Boston will give him a legitimate chance to win.
“Throughout my career we just haven’t been consistent with winning,” said Walker said. “I’m not saying that’s going to happen here, because I don’t know. I can’t see the future or anything like that, but I want to win. I want to be on a team that goes out and competes every night on a high level.
“Watching Boston over the years, that’s just what they’ve done. They’ve competed at a very high level each year, been in the playoffs every year, and I want to be a part of something like that. So that was kind of some of the things that went into my decision.”
Now Celtic fans can imagine a future built around Walker, Jason Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Kanter. And that should keep them popping in a conference led by the defending champion Toronto Raptors and the Bucks.
“Do I think we can be good? Yeah, I do,” said Walker. “I think I’ll be a huge part of that, as well as to grow the young guys, we need those guys to step up and be huge for the team, as well as Gordon. We want Gordon to have a great year as well, which I think he will because he’s been working. That’s what it takes to succeed in this league.”