Kemba Walker’s injury could torpedo the Celtics’ title hopes

Kemba Walker is an elite scorer in isolation. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
Kemba Walker is an elite scorer in isolation. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images) /

The Celtics can survive without Kemba Walker in the regular season, but their hopes of making a deep playoff run do hinge on the point guard’s health.

Kemba Walker isn’t the Celtics‘ best player, but he is a crucial piece to their championship puzzle. Even a team with Boston’s depth can’t thrive without their best point guard on the floor.

That’s why the news that Walker won’t be ready to play when the regular season begins should be a worrying development for the Celtics. The team declined to give too many details about the knee issue that will sideline him, but he will immediately begin a 12-week strengthening program to alleviate the issue. The hope is that he can return to on-court duty for Brad Stevens’ team sometime in January.

How will the Celtics compensate for the loss of Kemba Walker?

In the meantime, look for the Celtics to rely heavily on the combination of Jeff Teague, Payton Pritchard, and Tremont Waters to soak up minutes at the point guard position. Marcus Smart can also play the position in a pinch, but his value for the team is better served as a wing defender. Teague will likely get the first shot as the most established player in the trio, but Pritchard has some admirers inside the organization. His ability to shoot the ball at an elite level from the perimeter makes him a great fit to play alongside Jayson Tatum in the team’s starting lineup.

Boston has plenty of offensive firepower to win games without Walker in the regular season. The franchise’s sole concern should be getting Walker back to 100 percent health before the postseason arrives. It’s hard to envision a scenario where the Celtics credibly challenge for an Eastern Conference title if Walker isn’t playing at a high level.

One of the unintended consequences of losing Gordon Hayward is that the Celtics suddenly find themselves a little short on perimeter creators. Tatum is an exceptional isolation scorer, but his offensive game doesn’t perfectly lend itself to making plays for his teammates.

When Boston is at its best, Walker is the player who initiates the majority of their offensive sets. He is not an elite three-point marksman, but his ability to create plays off the dribble forces opposing defenses to focus on him when he has the ball in his hands. That naturally creates a ton of space for Tatum and Jaylen Brown to operate on the wing.

The loss of Walker also gives the Celtics offensive issues at the center position. His ability to create offensive via the pick-and-roll is crucial for the offensive effectiveness of Daniel Theiss and, especially, Robert Williams. In a strange way, losing Walker could give Tristan Thompson more playing time at the five. He isn’t a significant offensive threat no matter who else is on the floor. That could lead Stevens to lean on him to overcome the loss of Walker’s offense with an increase in post defense.

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It’s too early for the Celtics to panic about Walker’s injury, but it’s entirely appropriate for the franchise to worry. The history of short NBA guards in their 30s suffering knee injuries and declining quickly is a lengthy one. If Walker’s headed downhill he could drag his team down with him.