A month ago, Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti challenged himself once again, flipping Al Horford to the Boston Celtics for another player that is deemed to be on a bad contract and a sunk cost: Kemba Walker.
Now, at this point, the Thunder have gained the benefit of the doubt when it comes to extracting value for these bad contract players. It happened with Carmelo Anthony in 2017, Chris Paul in 2020 and now Al Horford in 2021. But Walker might prove to be the toughest challenge yet in this chain reaction of trades.
It’s still up in the air whether or not Walker actually plays a game for the Thunder. There have been reports already that teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers could be in the market for the ten-year-veteran’s services. It is also fair to say that it would be in the best interest of the Thunder to move Walker as well if they are going to try to bottom out once more this upcoming season to land a top lottery pick next year.
But if the Thunder fail to find a suitor, the reasons for why are well known. Walker’s health and his contract are huge question marks.
The point guard’s injury troubles are noteworthy. Knee injuries have quickly caught up to the guard who relies heavily on his athleticism and speed to contribute. Once the knees start to flare up, a quick decline soon follows. Especially for a guard who received stem cell injections to his left knee that caused him to just play in 43 games last season.
Walker’s $73.7M salary over the next two seasons that includes a player option he will most likely pick up does not help aid the cause either of moving Walker to a contender in the twilight years of his prime. At 31 years of age, Walker isn’t getting any younger and the mileage on his knees isn’t going to decrease.
To put things into perspective, here is where Walker’s 2021-22 and 2022-23 salaries currently ranked, this is obviously subject to change:
2021-22: $36M (12th)
2022-23: $37.7M (13th)
It’s fair to say that Walker’s on court contribution does not match his salary. But that does not mean that Walker cannot contribute still. A bad contract does not equal a bad player. Simply put, Walker is a good player with serious health concerns that is overpaid.
To strengthen this argument, let’s take a look at Walker’s 2020-21 season.
Walker’s 19.3 points and 4.9 assists averages look good on paper as it appears Walker can still contribute by being a high volume, decent efficiency scoring guard. His TS%+ is 98 and his 3P+ is 116, both good marks.
In terms of shooting, what Walker struggled with the most was the 16 feet to the three point line distance, shooting nearly a career worst 35.2% from that area. Walker was also below league average in finishing around the rim, shooting 56.8% within the restricted area despite the league average being 58.5%. And when your scoring game relies heavily on those drives to the rim, which he averaged 10.2 a game, that will not cut it.
The good news is, Walker shot extremely well from the outside, shooting 36% on 8.2 threes a game. Walker is also in the 88.3 percentile in terms of spot up shooting, averaging 1.22 points per possession. If the Thunder are to convince a team as to how Walker would contribute to them, this would be a big selling point.
If Walker’s usage rate can decrease and if his shot selection gets minimized to just threes and the occasional drive to the rim, then his efficiency and scoring numbers should drastically improve.
In terms of being the ball handler and distributing as the lead guard, Walker struggled in this aspect last season, ranking in just the 66.4 percentile among P&R handlers with 0.92 points per possession.
Walker has never really been known as a facilitator and most of his bread and butter comes in his scoring game, but this does not mean he should be labeled a ball stopper. Last season, Walker led the Celtics in passes made per game with 51.3, despite playing less than 32 minutes. Walker was also second on the team in potential assists with 8.5 a game.
In essence, Walker may not be the optimal playmaker on a contender, he can still step up and fill in the role if needed.
All of this data points back to the consensus opinion on Kemba Walker: he is still a good player that can contribute to winning basketball when healthy. The two biggest anchors weighing him down are his health and contract.
Now while both of those things are very valid concerns, this should not take away from the fact that Walker is still a great player to have on a contender.
The best case scenario for Walker to resurrect his career is to go on a team that already has high usage players who need a lead guard to help take some of the responsibilities off of their franchise players. If Walker can find that situation, he will thrive as a secondary playmaker, shot creator and spot up shooter.
But first, he must rebuild his value in Oklahoma City like previous sunk cost players have been able to do. The best way to do this is to limit his minutes, ease up on the point guard responsibilities and focus more on threes and limit his drives to the rim.