As the NBA approaches its restart of the 2019-20 season and players become accustomed to the league's Orlando "bubble," there's one player in particular who may face additional obstacles. Celtics All-Star Point Guard Kemba Walker will reportedly begin the restart on a minutes restriction, as he continues to battle the same knee issues that plagued him months ago.
While Kemba should theoretically be fresh, with no games having been played since March, head coach Brad Stevens will likely be reluctant to play him full time until after the initial seeding games are completed. Stevens is on the record as saying that he does not expect Walker to have a minutes restriction for the start of the playoffs. He spoke to the media this past Sunday about his plan for Walkers’ return.
“The biggest thing that we don’t want to do is go through a typical training camp, which is usually a ramp-up session for most people to get to where they need to be,” Stevens told reporters. “For him, we need to make it a ramp-up session so he doesn’t have setbacks once we start playing.”
Walker's knee trouble stems back to January, when he called members of the team's medical staff in the middle of the night to express that he was experiencing considerable knee soreness. Shortly afterward, Walker had an MRI that revealed no ligament damage, which eased the minds of team officials who had wondered if this news would cause any long-term ramifications on their season.
This wasn’t the first time in Kemba Walker's NBA career in which the guard experienced knee issues. At the conclusion of the 2016-17 season, he underwent a minor arthroscopic procedure to repair a torn meniscus. Recovering in full, he went on to play 80 games for Charlotte the following year.
Despite the good prognosis, the Celtics took no risks and were extremely cautious with Walker's injury. Coach Stevens made the decision to rest him intermittently for a few games. Upon his return to action, Kemba seemed to have shaken off the soreness and things were full steam ahead. However, after playing 29 minutes in the 2020 NBA All Star Game, Walker revealed that his knee was swelling up and was subsequently injected with Synvisc to relieve the issue. Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse quickly drew blame from both Boston media and Celtics fans for playing Kemba nearly 30 minutes while on a minutes restriction.
After having his knee drained, Brad Stevens told reporters that, once again, the Celtics did not consider Walker's knee condition to be a "long term injury" and that there was still no structural damage. Walker continued to play on a minutes restriction and would again sit games out intermittently, but it soon became clear that his play was being impacted.
Walker averaged merely 14.8 points, 4.3 assists, shot only 30.5% from the field, 25% from 3-point range and committed 10 total turnovers in the 4 games he played in prior to the NBA suspending its season. Luckily, the Celtics were largely unaffected by Walkers’ poor performance, both during this stretch and directly prior to it, as fellow All-Star Jayson Tatum was in the midst of an unbelievable run.
During the month of February, when Kemba was either unavailable or performing below expectations, Tatum averaged 30.7 points per game, along with 7.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks. He did this while shooting 49.4% from the field, 48.1% from beyond the 3-point line and 76.9% from the free-throw line. Due to Tatum's play, Boston posted a 14-6 record in the month of February while pushing for the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference.
During quarantine, Kemba provided fans with a pleasant update on his knee injury, stating that he was recovering "very well" and getting plenty of rest. When the NBA announced their plan to restart the NBA season in early June, Celtics fans became filled with excitement at the possibility of a healthy Kemba Walker returning to the starting lineup.
However, given the more recent status update on Walker's knee injury, those spirits have collectively darkened. Although the situation again seems to be precautionary, with the Celtics not wanting to rush Walker right back into action, there is still cause for concern. That fact that, even with the 4 month hiatus, Kemba is still not 100% warrants said concern.
Quite frankly, Kemba Walker's current knee issues remind me of the problems Kyrie Irving faced during the 2017-18 season. Irving suffered the injury sometime around the All-Star break and, despite immediate concern from fans and media, Brad Stevens assured everyone that the injury wasn’t serious and Irving would be day-to-day.
Despite these comments from Stevens, however, the Celtics soon placed Irving on a minutes restriction. Like Kemba, Kyrie also sat out games intermittently, but the pain soon became unbearable for him. After undergoing an MRI, it was revealed that Irving would require surgery to repair his patella, which he originally fractured during the 2015 NBA Finals. Facing a 3-6 month recovery, Irving missed the remainder of the regular season and playoffs.
While Walker and Irving's injuries are not exactly the same, the point remains that Kyrie wound up needing surgery to fully recover from the constant soreness he experienced after having his knee drained. Based on the similarities between the two situations, it's fair to wonder if Walker himself may need surgery at some point, either now or whenever the Celtics' season ends. I wouldn't be surprised if Walker didn’t finish this restart at all and elects to have surgery sooner rather than later in order to fully recover prior to the 2020-21 season.
Walker will be a focal point in the Celtics' chances to make a deep playoff run this summer, so him missing time could drastically hurt their odds of capturing an NBA title. Despite this reality, it is important to remember that both the Celtics and Kemba Walker have goals that lie beyond this re-start, so they'll likely continue to monitor the severity of his injury throughout the remainder of the summer to avoid any long term issues.
For all we know, this could all be nothing more than speculation; Walker could, in fact, be completely healthy. It's entirely possible that the Celtics just want him to ease his way back into play. However, given how long these issues have been persisting with Walker having experienced soreness for nearly 7 months, both he and the team will soon be faced with a decision. Is it worth Kemba Walker playing long, extended minutes in critical situations so soon after dealing with these issues, or should be focus on being healthy for next season?
Tough decisions lie ahead for the Celtics. Be ready.