What’s the Deal with Kemba Walker?

Stats from Cleaning the Glass and NBA Stats, as of March 1

In my last article, I discussed that the Celtics were in fact, a bad team. One of the reasons for this is that they engage in the masochist act of playing lineups featuring Semi Ojeyele and Tristan Thompson at the same time (net rating -5.4).

The other though is that the Celtics have essentially been functioning as a two-star team, when many of the moves / non-moves Danny Ainge has made over the last few years have been in service of building a three-star team.

That supposed third star is Kemba Walker, who this year is averaging 18/3/4 on 38% shooting, and looking like somebody who has already been moved from sink to drying rack because — he washed!

Before I call into Felger and Mazz and proclaim that “Kemba Walkah is a bum and they nevah should have gotten rid of IT because he played with HAHT,” let’s see if we can piece together what is going on with Walker, and more importantly, determine if he has a chance to rebound.

Let’s start with a side-by-side comparison of some of Kemba’s high-level stats this year vs. last year:

While at first the differences seem small (43% vs. 39% for FG% and 31.7 vs. 30.1 points per 100 possessions), digging deeper you can see that Kemba is generating less points on more shot attempts, coming from the fact that he’s shooting more 2s at a much worse percentage, while also taking a dip in 3-point percentage.

These fluctuations are driving Kemba towards averaging his worst True Shooting % since his 2014–2015 with a miserable Charlotte team and his worst Net Rating since his second season on Charlotte.

Taking a look at Kemba’s shot location and efficiency, a few obvious shifts have occurred, and none of them good:

Essentially, Kemba is now shooting more of his shots from midrange, and shooting those shots even less efficiently — most notably, he is taking half as many shots at the rim as he was last year, and he is only replacing those shots with mostly shots from the dreaded midrange.

The obvious question is — why? From these shot distributions, Kemba seems to have taken a weird step in the wrong direction. However, it becomes a little bit more obvious what appears to be happening when we dig in further, and see how Kemba, one of the league’s high-volume ball-handlers, performs in the pick-and-roll:

Call this table Tony, because the differences here are STARK (I will see myself out). Kemba continues to run the pick-and-roll nearly 10 times per game, but he is generating an abysmal .82 points per possession out of it, putting him in the 36th percentile of PnR ballhandlers in the league. And this is compared to just last year, when he was elite!

Marrying these two data points together, it looks like instead of getting to the rim out of the pick-and-roll, Kemba is settling more and more this year. Although Kemba has that silky-smooth pull-up game, this year it appears as if he has gone from a jumper on thread count 500 to something resembling the knit sweater my grandma made me for my bar mitzvah.

So like that annoying child at Passover (unintentionally making this post very Jewish-forward), we ask why: this is the harder problem to tease out, but it appears to be a confluence of factors:

  1. Teams simply aren’t respecting Kemba’s jumper right now

We know that Kemba is shooting worse from essentially everywhere, and it looks like teams have adjusted to that fact — look at where Kemba is defended by the big man in a pick-and-roll last year vs. this year:

Last Year

This Year

For context, this is how the play this year ended:

Kemba is seeing big men drop down as far as the foul line far more often in the pick-and-roll this year versus last year, and he’s not making them pay. Kemba is shooting 35% on pull-up threes this year, which equates to 1.05 points per possession — instead of settling for the long 2, when given that kind of space, Kemba needs to be firing from deep.

2. Kemba is not being as aggressive attacking the rim

This is the more concerning situation — from Kemba last year, we saw a player who even against drop pick-and-roll could still attack the big man, either by blowing by him or finishing using his body.

We are seeing less of that from Walker this year — the one positive here is that Walker is actually shooting better from 0–3 feet this year (67%) than he did last year (59%). The question is if Kemba is not attacking as frequently because he has permanently lost a step, or because he is simply still working his way into game shape?

The big hope for Kemba (and any player heading towards the wrong side of 30) is that his shooting can open up the rest of his game. In that sense, Kemba has had two strong performances in a row now, in which he has attacked the defense from beyond the arc — continuing to do make shots like the ones below will extend bigs further up the floor and subsequently give Kemba the space he needs to maneuver his way back toward the hoop:

While Tatum and Brown have been two of the best players in the East this year, they still need Walker to be aggressive and efficient if the Celtics have any chance of climbing out of the middle-tier muck of the East. While Walker has a long way to go to get to where he was last year, his issues appear to be fixable if he can channel his performance from the last few games going forward.