“Good riddance, Kyrie. Who needs him? We’ve got Kemba now.” This was the general sentiment among Celtics fans when Kemba Walker arrived from Charlotte in the summer of 2019. The masses were again singing Danny Ainge’s praises, exalting the Celtics GM for not only replacing Kyrie with a comparable talent in Kemba, a three-time All-Star coming off a career-high 25.6 points per game, but improving the locker room in doing so. Already a New England legend for his heroics at UConn (there was no putting the genie back in the bottle once “Cardiac Kemba” was unleashed on the world in 2011’s March Madness), Walker was, in many ways, Irving’s polar opposite—a rare team-first specimen in the exhausting age of NBA individualism.
As a token of their appreciation for letting Kemba come up north, the Celtics offered the Hornets Terry Rozier, a fan favorite who filled in seamlessly when called upon during the 2018 playoffs (16.5 points per game). A career backup best known for antagonizing Bucks guard Eric “Drew” Bledsoe, the feisty Rozier was supposed to be just a throw-away piece, an afterthought like the soup that comes with your main entrée. So naturally, Rozier is scoring an electric 21.1 points per game, nearly triple what he averaged as a Celtic (7.7 ppg), while the slumping Walker can’t buy a bucket.
Talk about damaged goods. Walker, whose balky knee required offseason surgery, has missed a combined 31 games in his year-and-a-half with Boston. Rozier, who sank a buzzer-beater over Juan Toscano-Anderson in Saturday night’s upset of Golden State, has suited up for all but four games since his arrival in Buzz City. Speaking of Rozier, the 26-year-old Louisville alum has been scorching hot for the Hornets, eclipsing 30 points in each of his last four games. Walker, who is due a $34.4-million salary this season (nearly double Rozier’s $18.9 million), hasn’t topped 30 points since August.
It’s true Walker’s minutes are down—his 28.9 minutes per game this year are his fewest since 2012—and he hasn’t been playing back-to-backs. Kemba apologists would also argue shots have been harder to come by of late with Boston’s offense suddenly revolving around Jayson Tatum (third in field goal attempts per game). But even with those considerations baked in, Rozier is still mopping the floor with Walker, outperforming his Hornets predecessor by every conceivable metric.
After draining just one of 12 three-point tries in Sunday’s overtime loss to New Orleans, a game that saw Boston squander a 24-point second-half lead, Walker is now shooting a pedestrian 34.8 percent from deep, his lowest percentage since 2015. Rozier, meanwhile, has experienced the opposite phenomenon. His 46-percent success rate from long range ranks eighth out of 167 qualified shooters. “Scary Terry,” as Celtics fans once referred to him, has also been the more efficient player of the two, registering a respectable 19.02 PER (47th in the league), well ahead of Walker’s 14.78 (109th). Walker has played better defensively than Rozier, but if that’s all he’s clinging to, the Celtics have a major problem on their hands.
Hindsight is 20/20 and as lackluster as Kemba has been for Boston in the early going, there’s still plenty of time for the slumping 30-year-old to turn things around. But with their careers seemingly headed in opposite directions, it begs the question, did the Celtics overpay for Kemba when they could have had a healthier and arguably better Rozier for a fraction of the cost? I'm sure that agonizing thought gnaws at Ainge more and more each day.