With the short-lived Kyrie Irving era in Boston over, as expected, the Celtics on Sunday secured a free-agent commitment from the All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, according to two people familiar with details of the signing who were not authorized to discuss them publicly.
Boston entered the off-season in unexpected tumult following a disappointing regular season and a second-round playoff exit, facing the possibility of having to initiate yet another full-blown rebuild.
On the first day of free agency, Irving, one of the league’s best point guards, agreed to depart for the Nets, where he will be joined by the superstar forward Kevin Durant, who tore his Achilles’ tendon in the N.B.A. finals. Another key piece of the Celtics’ core, Al Horford, opted out of his deal and is signing a four-year contract with the Philadelphia 76ers, his agent told ESPN.
But Boston used that cap space to sign Walker, who averaged a career-high 25.6 points per game this past season — comparable production to Irving — and made the All-N.B.A. third team. Walker, 29, has been an All-Star the past three seasons.
Walker is expected to sign a four-year maximum contract, roughly totaling $141 million. And there are reports the Celtics may try to reacquire Horford with a creative sign-and-trade.
In coming to Boston, Walker will hope to accomplish something he was not able to do in Charlotte, where he had spent his entire career: take part in deep postseason runs.
In eight seasons, Walker made the playoffs twice — 2014 and 2016 — and was eliminated in the first round each time. The Celtics will be counting on Walker and their other foundational pieces, like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, to reach the team’s potential. Before last season, many observers thought the Celtics were contenders to reach the N.B.A. finals.
Walker’s departure from the Hornets is a setback for Michael Jordan, who has a controlling interest of the team. In early June, Walker told The Athletic that returning to Charlotte was his “first priority.” Now, after years of futility, the Hornets must rebuild again with minimal direction and top-level talent.
Jordan opted not to trade Walker last season, and he appears not to have offered him the “super-max” veteran contract, which would have allowed the Hornets to give Walker more money than any other team. Instead, the Hornets find themselves in what looks like a worst-case scenario: the loss of a franchise player for nothing.
Irving had verbally committed during the regular season to re-signing with the Celtics, but he sent several recent signals that he had no intention of following through. Now Boston has some work to do in filling out its roster.
With the loss of Horford and Aron Baynes, who was traded to the Phoenix Suns to create more cap room, the team is in severe need of experienced players for its frontcourt. It has limited resources with which to pursue them, given Walker’s contract.
But after losing Irving, Boston should be happy to at least start the off-season with a new centerpiece.
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