The Los Angeles Lakers are looking to add, among other things, a third star and perimeter playmaking this offseason, likely via trade. Arguably, recently-traded Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Kemba Walker checks both of those boxes.
The keyword there: “arguably.”
Just a couple of years ago, that caveat would not have been necessary. Over his final four seasons with the Charlotte Hornets (2015-19), Walker missed just six regular-season games, averaged 23 points per outing, and made three All-Star teams. (He did, however, undergo knee surgeries in 2015 and 2016.)
Walker parlayed his stellar prime into a four-year, $140.8 million deal with the Boston Celtics.
His Boston tenure started off well enough: Walker averaged 21.8 PPG through the first 46 games in 2019-20 and made another All-Star team. But, he wasn’t the same player post-hiatus as he battled a lingering knee issue, which continued to plague him through 2020-21.
Walker averaged 19.3 points and 4.9 assists in 43 games this past season while shooting 42 percent from the field. In the Celtics’ first-round loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Walker struggled mightily, averaging 12.7 points and on 13-of-41 shooting. He missed the final two contests.
Suddenly, the 6'0 veteran — and one of the nicest dudes in the league, per everyone — became an onerous contract as much as an on-court asset. In Brad Stevens’ first major move as president of basketball operations, he salary-dumped Walker, along with the no. 16 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and a second-rounder, to the Thunder in exchange for Al Horford, Moses Brown, and a 2023 second-round pick.
OKC, as they do with expensive veterans who net them draft assets, will collaborate with Kemba to find a more competitive next team for him, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Last month, The New York Daily News reported that a Walker trade is “imminent”, though acknowledged that the timeline could extend through the entire offseason.
The Los Angeles Lakers have emerged as a potential suitor for the former UConn star. Last week, ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on “The Lowe Post” podcast that both the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers will explore a trade for Walker.
“I think both the L.A. teams are going to be sniffing around Kemba Walker,” Lowe said. “I think that's the market. Now, I don't know if you can get up to the money, I don't know if they have whatever Oklahoma City wants, but that's the level that I think they can target.”
Of course, the Lakers (and their fans) would rather land a stud like Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal. Ben Simmons is another possibility (gulp). But in any of those cases, it’s hard to imagine the Lakers cobbling together a more appealing trade package than competing teams. As a result, a portion of the speculation has shifted to the lesser-valued Walker.
Kemba is due $36 million in 2021-22 and has a $37 million player option for 2022-23 (plus a 15% trade kicker). Sam Presti, it’s safe to say, will want to add a first-round pick in any deal.
Lakers GM Rob Pelinka will not want to part with valuable role players such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Kyle Kuzma for a declining 31-year old with health issues (you would think). After all, the Lakers are trying to get younger and more durable after an injury-riddled campaign.
The Lakers should be understandably reluctant to trade their 2022 first-rounder (No. 22 overall) for Kemba. Pelinka could offer Dennis Schroder (via sign-and-trade) and Montrezl Harrell ($9.7 player option), though neither player is likely to accept a trade to the Thunder over testing unrestricted free agency.
In theory, if Presti was truly interested in the Lakers' 2027 first-rounder (the only post-2021 first they can trade for now), Schroder (perhaps at $20ish million), Harrell, Alfonzo McKinnie ($1.7 million), and a slew of second-rounders, then, sure, kick the tires.
But Presti is smarter than me or you, and he’s not simply going to trade a good player to the Lakers without getting a useful asset back. More likely, Presti would ask for the 2022 first-round pick and/or THT via sign-and-trade (both can't be dealt until August). If not, he could request Kuzma and/or KCP, who have real value, then flip them to a third team for another asset.
From the Lakers' perspective, Walker would help in the scoring department, especially when James is on the bench — a crippling area of weakness for the past two seasons. In playoff crunch-time, though, Walker's limited defense and stature render him borderline unplayable. The idea of losing a proven rotation piece and championship contributor — Kuzma's struggles vs. the Phoenix Suns have now overshadowed his productive qualities — would be imprudent.
If this was 2018, the Lakers would surely pursue this, and the fanbase might be excited by that prospect. Now? Not so much.