The Boston Celtics have shelved Kemba Walker until at least the start of January, as the All-Star point guard continues to recover from a lingering left knee injury, the team announced on Monday morning.
On the advice of multiple specialists, Walker received a stem-cell injection in October. He began a 12-week strengthening program that has him scheduled to return to on-court action early this month. Walker’s game availability will be reevaluated the first week of January, when the Celtics plan to provide another update.
“We are just being very cautious with Kemba,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told Boston radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Toucher and Rich Show” on Monday. Ainge added in the interview, “We are maintaining this strengthening program, which he has been very, very diligent in so far, and we’re encouraged that he will be able to return at full speed. But we do not want to rush the program.”
Walker underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in May 2017. He first missed a game last season with a sore left knee on Jan. 18. He had the knee drained and received a Synvisc injection to treat swelling and soreness in late February, missing nine of Boston’s final 14 games before the NBA’s hiatus in March.
Upon the NBA’s return in July, Walker was still experiencing soreness in the knee. He was placed on a minutes restriction and missed two of the Celtics’ final eight regular-season games in the Orlando bubble. Walker started all 17 of Boston’s playoff games, but was clearly hindered by the injury, despite averages of 19.6 points (on subpar 44/31/85 shooting splits), 5.1 assists and 4.1 rebounds in 36.9 minutes per game.
Last season marked Walker’s first with the Celtics since leaving the Charlotte Hornets for a four-year, $140.8 million maximum contract in July 2019. The injury has to be of concern for a 30-year-old point guard who at 6 feet tall relies heavily on quick changes of pace and direction that put pressure on the knee.
In the short-term, the Celtics signed veteran free-agent point guard Jeff Teague as Walker’s backup and selected four-year University of Oregon floor general Payton Pritchard in the first round of this year’s draft. First Team All-Defensive guard Marcus Smart can also assume playmaking duties in Walker’s absence.
“I’m not worried about Kemba,” Ainge said in his radio interview. “He’ll be back, and it will give an opportunity for Marcus and Jeff Teague and Payton Pritchard to play some minutes at point guard.”
Asked if Boston might have interest in re-acquiring Isaiah Thomas for more depth at the point, Ainge said, “I actually just heard about a week ago he was back and looking good, but we’re loaded at the position.”
Longer term, though, lingering knee issues could severely lower Boston’s ceiling as an Eastern Conference powerhouse in the years to come. As wide as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have opened the window of opportunity, new contracts for those young stars — combined with the losses of Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward to free agency — have left the Celtics with limited avenues to acquire star talent.
They salvaged Walker in a sign-and-trade deal with the Hornets last year, and he looked poised to replace Irving’s output to start last season. That momentum failed to carry into the playoffs and now threatens the second season of his four-year deal. Suddenly, the $28.5 million traded player exception the Celtics just acquired from Charlotte for Hayward seems as much Walker insurance as it is a path to additional talent.
“We’ll see how the season goes and see how we are, but we’ll have the ability to improve our team at the trade deadline or improve our team next offseason if not,” Ainge added on Monday. “It just gives us another vehicle to acquire players we wouldn’t otherwise have had. We don’t want to take on a bad contract. We don’t walk to take on aging veteran players. There are always bad contracts to be had, but we’re looking to acquire some good players. At the same time, we’re looking to have our young guys get a chance to play.”
The outlook may change if the Celtics ease Walker into the 2020-21 season and ensure the knee is strong enough to peak in the playoffs. This NBA season’s condensed 72-game schedule runs from Dec. 22 to May 16, and a two-week absence could equate to 10 percent of that slate. Missing more time might encroach on Boston’s playoff positioning, but that means little in the bigger picture of entering May at full strength.
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