When the Boston Celtics and Kyrie Irving divorce became inevitable, the franchise saw an opportunity. With a few shrewd moves, including a draft night trade and the renouncing of some key free agent cap holds, the Celtics could once again clear enough room to offer a max contract on the open market. The target of their lust for a superstar: point guard Kemba Walker.
In some ways, the cost of acquiring Walker—letting Al Horford and Marcus Morris walk away—was steeper than just the $141 million deal he’s reportedly going to sign. In others, it was the only way to salvage a team built for contention over these next few years.
What may be most exciting for Celtics fans (and head coach Brad Stevens) is the offensive shift that will occur as the team sheds Kyrie’s ball-dominant nature.
Gone are the frequent end-game isolations, the ball-begging and the offense designed around one primary creator. What Kemba Walker represents is a top-notch scorer that is capable of holding the same role, but also a willing enough teammate to play in an off-ball role.
We could be seeing the return of the Celtics’ style that once made Isaiah Thomas a star.
We all know Kemba is a fantastic scorer and can create his own shot as well as any point guard in the Eastern Conference. Twitter user Max Carlin noted the rare combination of efficiency and volume that Walker is able to attain:
Kemba Walker has led the league in halfcourt off-the-dribble shot attempts each of the last three years. His efficiency on those shots has ranked in the 86th, 85th, and 86th percentiles among all players
— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) June 28, 2019
The Charlotte Hornets have lacked primary creators alongside Walker. Nic Batum is their best perimeter handler and secondary offensive threat, which won’t strike fear into the hearts of opposing coaches.
Walker repetitively playing with the ball in his hands in the pick-and-roll was a necessity. According to Synergy, he took 971 possessions in the pick-and-roll last year, the league’s highest total. D’Angelo Russell was the only other player above 900, while there were only ten players above 600.
That’s right… Walker was involved in nearly 400 more pick-and-rolls than the eleventh-most frequent pick-and-roll ball handler.
As such, the efficiency becomes that much more impressive. But it also skews how Walker was deployed too heavily in favor of ball screens. If we step back and look at the other ways he got his shots, the volume of different actions are akin to Thomas’ miraculous 2016-17 season in Boston:
During that season, the Celtics were fifth in half-court offensive efficiency. (They were 14th and eighth the two seasons since, respectively.) That’s not to diminish Irving’s value, but it instead highlighst a comfort level that Stevens has with a more well-rounded, motion-like approach.
Stevens ditched that approach to cater to Irving, but it is unlikely he does so for Walker. That’s because the similarities between Walker and Thomas are staggering.
Both are undersized but super effective at creating space for themselves. They are good movers without the ball, shrewd cutters and high-IQ players with an unparalleled feel.
The Celtics ran frequent Horns sets within their offense a few years ago, both from normal walk-ups and from a pitch to the trailer. The objective was to get Thomas setting a screen near the block, which would force his man to help. That momentary stunt from a defender woud propel IT to get open, a simple concept where the need to toggle between setting hard screens and slipping actions was necessary.
Stevens ran these sets towards one side of the floor, designed to get Thomas going to his left hand coming off a down screen:
It just so happens that Kemba Walker is pretty good at the same thing coming to his right. He was 31-63 (49.2 percent) off screens heading that direction. Only Stephen Curry and Joe Harris were more efficient with that many attempts.
Under first-year coach James Borrego, the Hornets ran occasional flex actions, with the planned end result eerily similar to what used to happen in Boston.
Kemba would set a screen, then dart off to his right for a shot with his dominant hand:
In two subpar and injury-riddled seasons since leaving Boston, Thomas has failed to live up to the scoring prowess he once put forth. Injuries have hampered his lateral quickness, the most vital part of his game.
When he was healthy, however, nobody was more shifty in the half-court and able to slither free from whatever coverage was thrown.
Thomas mastered the pop-back cut, the art of reading his defender off a screen before he even reaches it. As defenders would cheat the initial back screen before the Flex action, Thomas would notice them sliding underneath his teammate and pop backward to the three-point line, freeing himself for a shot:
The truth is, anything Thomas could do, Walker can do better. There is nobody more explosive or skilled in these situations today than Kemba.
He had numerous pop-back reads in Charlotte last year that torched defenders:
Kemba needs to play off-ball more than he did with the Hornets. He’s far too respected of a shooter to not be used as a decoy or someone that comes off screens, and his ability to read a defense at full speed is begging to be used more.
Plus, there will be need to let Jayson Tatum, Jalen Brown, Gordon Hayward, etc. initiate with the ball every once in a while.
The Celtics previously ran a set called Delay Flare, essentially an early-clock give-and-go for Thomas where he jumps to the sideline off a screen. Teams get sucked into the multitude of Horns and trailer pitch actions and start to jump middle, making an action like this so deadly.
Walker can score off flares with the best of ’em. The Hornets even ran Delay Flare for him on a few occasions, as if the similarities were not glaring enough:
Everything the Celtics used to do revolved around Thomas, either as a ball handler or with his movement off-ball. But he wasn’t a stagnant or even incredibly frequent pick-and-roll initiator. Stevens found other ways to use him , and that allowed others to touch the ball and get involved. On a team with talented scorers like Tatum and (a hopefully healthy) Hayward, a return to such a style would be welcome.
We don’t know much about the Celtics frontcourt yet or how it will take shape, but even they will have an opportunity to get involved in the playmaking action.
Many of Stevens’ sets involve playing through the bigs at the elbows or top of the key. Some are tailored to freelance movement around cutters after pick-and-pops. Others are out of their trailer and Horns series that script movements and passes.
For players that are incredibly fast, a simple give-and-go can be more lethal than the pick-and-roll. Stevens understands that concept and uses it within his early offense looks. Disguised as the normal entry to their Trailer Pitch series, Stevens would have a simple give-and-go between Isaiah and the big, which would get Thomas the ball going downhill to his left.
Consider this the definitive Isaiah Thomas give-and-go collection:
Am I the only one here that sees Kemba already doing the same things?
Under Borrego this year, the Hornets instituted a unique counter to teams that would jam Walker in ball screens. If unsuccessful the first time around—particularly against teams playing a drop coverage—the screener would pop to the perimeter. Kemba would hit him, then follow his pass for a quick give-and-go.
The action is more of a scripted counter than an actual counter, but the effect of a lightning-fast guard racing for an unsuspecting dribble handoff is the same. Kemba gets buckets:
The Hornets have not always utilized Walker in the same way the Celtics will, but the glimpses of skill level in the most similar actions provide great hope that he will succeed in green and white. There’s a lot of Walker left to be unlocked, and he’s the type of player that will not see his production or value decline if he plays with the ball in his hands a little less.
A hole still exists in the frontcourt, where the Celtics are suddenly short on talent, but a group of Kemba, Tatum and Hayward has a great deal of offensive intrigue. Sprinkle in Romeo Langford, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, and this is a team built to play small, fast and in space.
It just so happens they now have the right point guard to maximize all those strengths and allow the other threats to have the ball in their hands too. This could be an easy and welcomed transition for Brad Stevens and his squad.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of July 1, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.