Why this homecoming is different for Kemba Walker and the New York Knicks

KEMBA WALKER'S FIRST basket in a New York Knicks uniform was a simple one.

A couple minutes into New York's preseason opener at Madison Square Garden against the Indiana Pacers, Walker had the ball at the top of the key. He then executed a give-and-go with Julius Randle, darted around a Taj Gibson screen and casually laid the ball in over the arms of Pacers center Myles Turner.

As Walker ran back on defense, he flashed a quick smile toward the Knicks' bench. It was the culmination of a moment the Bronx native -- and lifelong Knicks fan -- had spent so much time dreaming about.

"It's the most unreal feeling," Walker, a 31-year-old veteran who was a first-round draft pick in 2011, said during his introductory news conference in August. "Like, I can't really explain it. I can't really put it into words how amazing this feeling is being back home."

Walker's history as a New York basketball legend -- first starring at Rice High School, then going on to author unforgettable moments at Madison Square Garden while playing at the University of Connecticut -- is something New Yorkers know all too well.

"It's meaningful because of the fact he's from here," Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau told ESPN. "Who Kemba is as a person I think is reflective of the city. Basketball is really important to this city and the Knicks are really important, and I think Kemba embodies what that is all about.

"He's a fierce, fierce competitor, and I think there's an appreciation here for how hard you play, how smart you play, how willing you are to be a good teammate and that is what Kemba has done throughout his career."

The Knicks are a franchise that, for practically this entire millennium, has chased one dramatic storyline after another. From Stephon Marbury to Larry Brown to Amar'e Stoudemire to Carmelo Anthony to Phil Jackson, the team that makes its home inside The World's Most Famous Arena has made splashy moves in hopes of returning to the glory days of the 1990s.

But it's precisely that history of New York basketball, and Walker's history with the city, that makes this marriage, at this exact moment, so unique. This isn't a case in which Walker is being asked to save his childhood team, in the same way some of those past experiences and characters -- Anthony and Jackson, in particular -- were framed.

Instead, as Walker makes his regular-season debut with the Knicks Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) against the Boston Celtics team that traded him away this summer, Walker is in the rare position of arriving in New York with properly sized expectations.

"My guys, my hometown team, the Knicks, they believed in me," Walker said. "And I'm here now. Whatever happened in the past is irrelevant at this point."

The past isn't exactly irrelevant, of course. The Knicks never would have dreamed that when Walker signed as a max free agent with Boston two years ago that they would sign him for less than $10 million per season a couple of years later.

"He was being judged [in Boston] by being a max player when he isn't anymore," said one Eastern Conference scout. "In a vacuum, as a ball player, it wasn't representative.

"But on the Knicks, he's a perfect fit."

TWO YEARS AGO, Walker joined the Celtics to chase the chance to play in front of raucous playoff crowds and make deep runs after spending his first eight seasons in relative obscurity as the face of the Charlotte Hornets.

That was, in part, what left him so dejected last season after being forced to miss the final two games of Boston's lopsided five-game first-round loss to the Brooklyn Nets because of a knee injury.

"I need time," Walker said via Zoom after Game 5. "I just need a little bit of time to reflect and just get myself back together."

Although both Walker and the Celtics stressed the knee issue that had ended his season two games early wasn't the same one that plagued him throughout his second year in Boston, it didn't change the fact he was 13-for-41 overall and 3-for-17 from 3-point range before being shut down.

"He couldn't make a 3, couldn't finish in the paint and couldn't guard anyone," a Western Conference executive said. "The knee just wasn't in a good enough place."

Walker's Celtics career started off well enough in 2019. The team was successful, finishing No. 3 in the East in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, during which Walker was named an All-Star starter. And he was dominant at times in the NBA's Orlando bubble, tearing apart the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, then forcing Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse to employ a box-and-one in the second round as Boston reached the Eastern Conference finals.

"Yeah, it was tough," Celtics head coach Ime Udoka, who was Philadelphia's defensive coordinator for that series, told ESPN. "Obviously losing Ben Simmons in that series, we didn't have somebody for Jayson [Tatum], but it was just also one less defender for Kemba, so he really got loose in that series."

Hanging over all of it, though, were ongoing issues with Walker's balky left knee. He missed time before the pandemic paused the 2019-20 season and embarked on a ramp-up program into the bubble. Walker then was put on a 12-week strengthening program after Boston's loss in those East finals -- one the Celtics expected would help him begin last season on schedule.

Walker, though, didn't make his debut until Jan. 17.

And while Walker's regular-season performance in 2021 -- 19.3 points per game and 4.9 assists per game, along with 42% shooting overall and 36% from 3-point range in 31.1 minutes a night -- was in line with his production from his first season in Boston (20.4 points, 4.8 assists, 42.5% shooting overall and 38.1% from 3-point range in 31.8 minutes), it didn't have the same impact.

"​​I almost feel like this guy gave up his body in Charlotte," said another Eastern Conference scout. "He had to do everything in Charlotte. And I just feel like he was broken down by the time he got to Boston."

Beyond that, Walker's elite skills became redundant on a Celtics team whose offense evolved to run through its young stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. While Walker, long seen as one of the league's best locker room presences, was always supportive of his teammates, it was an adjustment to go from being a guy who had the entire system built around him in Charlotte to, last season, becoming the third option in Boston.

"Those other two guys had the ball a lot, and can he function as well if he's not 'the' guy?" asked an Eastern Conference executive. "Throughout his career he's always been the best player on his team. ... And he's had the ball in his hands a lot, so there's an adjustment to that and you have to be a real catch-and-shoot player if you're playing off Jaylen and Jayson ...

"I don't think he adjusted to it. And then defensively, his size and inability to keep people in front is a challenge to deal with when people take time to attack you in the playoffs."

Brad Stevens, in his first move as Boston's president of basketball operations this summer, traded Walker and a first-round draft pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Al Horford. It saved Boston at least $20 million and helped the Celtics reshape themselves into a bigger and more defensive-oriented roster.

Walker, meanwhile, had gone from being a max free agent replacing Kyrie Irving to getting jettisoned as a salary dump to a team that wasn't trying to win. At that point, his NBA future couldn't have been murkier.

AS THIBODEAU DISSECTED tape of what prevented his team from advancing past the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs, it was clear what the Knicks needed: more players capable of putting pressure on the defense, rather than having to put everything on the broad shoulders of Randle.

"That was the biggest thing -- just being able to make plays off the dribble," Thibodeau said.

Incumbent starter Elfrid Payton was a non-factor offensively, and while longtime Thibodeau-favorite Derrick Rose was excellent for the Knicks all season after being acquired from the Detroit Pistons, he simply wore out as that Hawks series went on.

So when Walker was bought out by the Oklahoma City Thunder in early August, it was obvious how his long-standing ability to create shots off the dribble -- including pull-up 3-pointers -- would be a boon to the Knicks.

"It's tough when you're in a drop and you've got a guy like Kemba, a guy like Dame [Lillard], who really loves that [3-pointer over a screen]," Celtics guard Josh Richardson, who has faced Walker multiple times in the playoffs, told ESPN.

"It's almost like warm-up shots sometimes."

And, by the time Walker cleared waivers a couple of days later, the deal was done.

Rather than playing for a team with two elite young wing players who need the ball in their hands, Walker is joining a Knicks team that was humbled in its own first-round exit. But while Boston was overwhelmed by Brooklyn's massive talent advantage, the Knicks didn't have the ability to consistently score against the Hawks.

"The difference in New York is he's the second-best player," said the East executive. "He'll have the ball in his hands. Boston tried to fit a square peg in a round hole. They tried to make him fit with them, whereas New York knows who he is and they are more likely to play to his strengths, running high pick-and-rolls for him a lot."

And while Thibodeau is known for his defensive prowess, he has also had a long history of creating effective offenses with small point guards, including players such as D.J. Augustin and Nate Robinson.

"He's always been a really good pick-and-roll player," Thibodeau said. "The shooting [improvements Walker has made] have added a lot.

"You combine that with the ability to go off the dribble ... when you look at the good teams in our league, they have multiple guys who can make plays off the dribble."

Between Walker and fellow former Celtic Evan Fournier -- along with Randle, RJ Barrett, Alec Burks, Immanuel Quickley and Rose -- the Knicks are hoping they have the perimeter firepower to better withstand postseason defenses.

"Thibs does a really good job of providing a lot of freedom for them to get their own," said another East executive. "I think, if [Walker is] right physically, he should be a really good fit."

Walker will have plenty of questions to answer as the season gets underway, with health being the biggest one. While his numbers didn't look great in three preseason games -- 39% from the floor and 29% from 3-point range -- Thibodeau said there have been no health issues. His defensive fit will be a question mark, too.

The difference between Walker in Boston and Walker in New York, however, is the expectations he has to reach. Boston has made it to the playoffs for seven straight seasons, and made the Eastern Conference finals in three of the past five years. New York, meanwhile, has made the playoffs five times in the past 20 years with one series win.

And it's one thing to be dealing with nagging knee issues if you're on a max deal. It's quite another if you're the sixth-highest paid player on the team.

"He's obviously small defensively, and that's a challenge," said the West executive, "but I think he's going to be a fine, capable, starting point guard for the Knicks."

Even if that's all Walker accomplishes, he'll have the chance to do something rare: write a storybook ending to a New York basketball tale.

"I think it is," Walker said, when asked if it was the right time for him to come home. "Perfect timing. [I'm] really motivated. Super excited that these guys have belief in me.

"I just need somebody to believe in me."