The very first act performed by Brad Stevens when he made the unexpected leap from a warming (but not quite hot seat) as the Celtics’ head coach to being the franchise’s head decision-maker, was to trade away Kemba Walker.
At the time, it made sense because of what the Celtics were getting in return (a familiar, productive face in Al Horford) not to mention the increased salary cap flexibility Walker’s departure could provide in the future.
But on Monday, we got a somber reminder of what the Walker deal in Boston was really about and why it remains Stevens' most impressive deal to date.
Boston sent out an aging player on the downside of his career, for another aging player who is still productive and impacts winning.
We knew Walker was on the downside of his career, but the 31-year-old may be closer to his basketball career being over than anyone expected.
Meanwhile, 35-year-old Al Horford is playing like he took a few swigs from the fountain of youth. He has had the kind of impact and production that has made him one of the most reliable Celtics this season and a big reason why they are above-.500 after a horrific start to the season.
But back to Walker.
Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau has gone beyond just trimming a few minutes off Walker’s playing time, but cutting him out of their playing rotation altogether.
"It's a tough decision to make, but you always have to do what you think is best for the team," Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters on Monday. "I view Kemba as a starter, and so it'd be tough to play three small guards together. I gave it consideration, and I've got great respect for who Kemba is as a person and all he's accomplished in this league.”
Thibs isn’t alone.
Everyone that knows Kemba, loves Kemba.
And yes, Brad Stevens, too.
But the reality is as much as folks love Kemba, the four-time All-Star has become a rotation liability at a time when the man Boston got in the trade, Horford, has been stability personified this season.
Defense has always been a strength of Horford's while an ongoing issue for Walker.
Walker's shortcomings become even more glaringly obvious playing for Thibodeau whose teams defensively have consistently ranked among the NBA’s best.
This season is no exception...except when Walker is on the court.
When the Knicks are playing with Walker off the floor, they have a league-best defensive rating of 99.0.
Considering he has been on load management each of the last two years, it’s hard to imagine his defense will get any better, anytime soon.
And Stevens, to his credit, realized this immediately upon taking over as the Celtics’ president of basketball operations and subsequently shipped him out to Oklahoma City.
Walker’s scoring is at a career-low mark as well, but he’s still good enough offensively to help a team at that end of the floor. In fact, he’s making a career-high 41.3 percent of his 3-point shots this season.
But his defensive shortcomings are just too much for a defensive-minded team like the Knicks to continue playing him regular minutes.
So now he’s on the Knicks bench with no indication when, if at all, he’ll return to the rotation or find himself on another team’s roster between now and the Feb. 10 trade deadline.
But as much as we’ll all cling to the memories of Cardiac Kemba doing his thing at Madison Square Garden, the reality of where he’s at now isn’t pretty.
Celtics fans saw the first really tangible signs of Walker’s decline when he arrived in Boston in 2019.
That season, Walker played a career-low 56 games.
And in his follow-up season, Walker played even fewer games (43).
Now out of the Knicks rotation altogether, he could be looking at a third straight career-low in games played.
As much as Kemba is seen as one of the league’s genuinely good guys, Celtics fans have to be feeling a collective sigh of relief that Stevens pulled the trigger on trading him.
Not only did the Celtics move on from a player that was probably going to hurt more than help them win games, they also brought in Horford who has played at an all-NBA Defensive level.
Not including games played on Monday, Horford ranks ninth in the NBA in blocked shots (1.7) per game. Opponents are shooting just 43.4 percent from the field when defended by Horford this season.
And the leadership Horford has provided has been among the low-key factors in Boston getting back into the Eastern Conference thick of things after a rocky start in which they lost five of their first seven games.
All has not gone well for Horford, who is shooting a career-low 28.9 percent from 3-point range this season.
But considering how Walker has struggled to the point where he’s not even in the Knicks’ plans to play anytime soon, his situation is a sobering reminder that as rough as things have been for Boston it could have been worse - a lot worse - if they didn't move on from Walker and get Horford back.