The Knicks finally have found their point guard by bringing Kemba Walker home.
A league source confirmed that Walker is finalizing a buyout with the Oklahoma City Thunder and that the Rice High School product will then sign on with the Knicks to provide the key piece to their offseason buildup. The deal was first reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
The Bronx native, who was dealt from the Boston Celtics to the Thunder after the season ended in a cap-clearing move, is 31 and has struggled with health issues. A knee injury limited him to 43 games last season and forced him to miss two of the Celtics' five playoff games. But if he’s healthy, he presents a huge upgrade for the Knicks.
Adding Walker, a 10-year veteran and four-time All-Star who averaged 19.3 points and 4.9 assists last season, and Evan Fournier to the core of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett gives the Knicks a much more versatile and dangerous offensive starting lineup. It also makes sense their decision to bring back much of the bench corps.
Filling the point guard spot was clearly the biggest need for the Knicks heading into the offseason after last season's 41-31 record. Elfrid Payton was the starter through the regular season but was benched two games into the playoffs after his role was reduced to single-digit minutes.
Derrick Rose picked up the slack, stepping into the starting lineup. Rose is returning on a three-year deal. But with Immanuel Quickley and Alec Burks — as well as the possibility of rookies Miles McBride and Luca Vildoza — the Knicks don't need to overwork Walker and Rose.
Walker was still owed two years and $74 million on his current contract, but his timeline never fit with Oklahoma City, which has been focused on accumulating draft picks and young talent. The Thunder’s effort to flip Walker came up empty, and the Knicks could hold firm with cap space still in their pocket and a number of attractive options unsigned. Walker is expected to slot into the approximately $9 million salary-cap room the Knicks still held and with an available roster spot the team does not need to waive anyone.
Although Walker played 43 games last season and 56 the year before in Boston, he did play 82 games three seasons ago and in a four-season stretch with Charlotte sat out just six games.
For the Knicks, a healthy Walker would give them their most talented point guard since Stephon Marbury nearly 20 years ago. But while Marbury’s time in New York was tumultuous, Walker arrives with a reputation as a leader and a positive locker room presence.
"The most challenging part is being in that seat and having to make that call and ultimately say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do that,’ when you’re talking about a guy like Kemba," Celtics general manager Brad Stevens told reporters after making the deal with Oklahoma City in June after serving as coach for the two seasons Walker was in Boston. "Again, coached him for two years, have nothing but great things to say about him and really good teammate, really good player, really good person, easy to be around every day. I think that’s what made it the most difficult part of it, obviously. Just really liked Kemba, period, end of story. He is a super-likable person."
Walker had been a key to the Celtics' run to the Eastern Conference finals two years ago, but knee problems plagued him in the 2020-21 season. He was sidelined at the beginning of the season after receiving a stem-cell injection and he was forced to miss the final two playoff games at the end. After the Celtics were eliminated by the Nets in the first round, he spoke of his hopes for getting healthy again.
"The last thing you want to do is be injured and not be there in the playoffs for your teammates. It’s tough, very tough. I’m a competitor and I love to play basketball," Walker said at the time. "I do anything I can to help teammates win a game, and because I couldn’t do that I’m really down. It’s a tough situation, but I have to look ahead. I want to continue to get healthy and get better. That’s my goal.
"I’m planning on a big summer and getting myself feeling good again. It’s been a while since I’ve really had time off. This is an important time for me."
Kemba in a Nutshell
NBA experience: 10 seasons (704 games)
3-Pt. FG%: 36.0