When Kemba Walker found his way home to the New York Knicks this NBA offseason, it was one of the feel-good storylines of the year. On the wrong side of 30 with a mammoth contract and balky knees, the Celtics cut bait, but coming home to the Garden was a redemptive arc even the staunchest Celtic fan could get behind.
The double-OT season opener win against Boston seemingly set the tone. There is one good knee between Walker and Derrick Rose, but on an up-and-coming Knicks team, all Kemba had to do was operate as an effective third option. But in the wake of a 5-7 November record after going 5-1 in October, Tom Thibodeau banished Cardiac Kemba to the bench for his perceived defensive faults and a rough shooting stretch. It was a tough situation. Walker — ever the class act — accepted his new cheerleader role for nine-straight games.
Two weeks and one Omicron explosion later, Thibs’ hand was forced and Kemba was reinserted back into the rotation. The results have UConn fans Bing Bonging from the mountaintops.
Since Dec. 18, Kemba has averaged 26 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists per game, all of which earned him Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Just when you thought he couldn’t top a 44-point explosion on Festivus (that still drew criticism from an ornery Thibs about defense), Walker followed it up with a historic Christmas Day triple double that had the Garden chanting his name once again.
Let’s get one thing out of the way; Kemba’s defense has been bad, especially this year. His defensive rating this season is 114.6, the worst over his entire career. He currently houses a -6.6 net rating, his lowest since his rookie season. When the defense is that rough, you have to provide something on the other end, and Kemba wasn’t; he shot 39% from the field in November and 29% from three. That’s the textbook definition of a shooting slump. Kemba — and undersized guards in general —are prone to them, but in Kemba’s case, the stats eventually even out.
Sure enough, after this four-game stretch, Walker is shooting a career best from three (40.6%) and his field goal percentage is on par with recent seasons.
If someone like Kemba is mired in a slump, maybe you try bringing him off the bench with a different lineup to get him going. Or if the defensive struggles are intensifying, pair him with a bigger, defense-first guard to mask his liabilities, like the Celtics did with Marcus Smart or the Warriors do with Steph Curry. What you don’t do is outright remove him from the rotation for nine games. But maybe that’s the type of decision coaches that have won one playoff series since 2013 make.
If the Knicks suddenly reeled off wins left and right after Walker’s benching, there’d probably be begrudging acceptance from UConn fans of Kemba’s new reality. But as the Knicks continue to Knick, its clear Kemba wasn’t the only thing holding them back. Their defensive rating of 110 is the third-worst in the NBA. And as Jim Calhoun pointed out in the most Calhoun-esque way imaginable, “Kemba was 5-11 before and after they signed the contract and it dried.”
Immanuel Quickley and Alec Burks were the benefactors of Kemba’s benching. The former is a plus defender but has shot 31% from three and an anemic 36.7% from the field. His net rating for December is 0.9. Burks’ December splits aren’t much better; 32.7% from both the field and downtown, with a net rating of -4.2. Kemba’s net rating, in an albeit smaller sample size, is 12.1 for December.
Kemba shouldn’t and won’t play 40 minutes every night, as he’s done in the last three games. Ever an optimist, he even noted the benching was a “blessing in disguise” for his knees. Walker’s shooting percentages may regress to the mean. But to seize that opportunity after it was snatched from him not only shows that Thibs’ decision should be widely panned, but it reminds the world what type of man Kemba is.
None of this comes as a surprise to UConn fans. National pundits have quickly jumped back on the Walker bandwagon, while Husky fans simply move over to make more room.