Four-time All-Star guard Kemba Walker and the Oklahoma City Thunder agreed to a contract buyout Wednesday morning, paving the way for the New York City icon to sign with his hometown New York Knicks, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti and Walker’s agents with Excel Sports Management, Jeff Schwartz and Javon Phillips, worked to come to an agreement on a buyout of the two years and $74 million remaining on Walker’s contract. He can now slide into New York’s roughly $10 million in remaining salary-cap space, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
The Thunder acquired Walker from the Boston Celtics in June in what was the first major move made by Brad Stevens after moving from coaching the team to replacing Danny Ainge as president of basketball operations, getting the 16th pick in last week’s NBA draft while also moving on from center Al Horford in that deal.
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Now the Thunder can use the roster spot created by Walker’s departure to give playing time to their fleet of young guards as they continue their rebuild. Budding star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander agreed to a five-year max extension earlier this week, sources told Wojnarowski, while the Thunder also have developed Lu Dort into one of the better defensive guards in the league and drafted Josh Giddey and Tre Mann in the first round last week. They also have Theo Maledon, a second-round pick from last year’s draft.
Walker, meanwhile, now gets to go home to New York, where he starred first at Rice High School — where he once played against new teammate Derrick Rose, then with Chicago’s Simeon High School, at Madison Square Garden. He then built his legend as one of the greatest players in the history of the University of Connecticut’s storied program by winning five games in five days to win the Big East tournament title at MSG in 2011 — only to follow that up by leading Connecticut to its third NCAA title.
He now will get to carry on that history at MSG with the Knicks, with whom he should slot right into the starting lineup as a significant upgrade over his predecessor, Elfrid Payton, and next to fellow Knicks newcomer and former Celtics teammate Evan Fournier in New York’s backcourt. The Knicks will be counting on both Walker and Fournier to boost an offense that struggled mightily in New York’s five-game loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Celtics traded Walker to the Thunder as part of a pivot to create salary-cap flexibility in 2022, as well as to better balance out a roster that had heavily swung in the direction of spending resources on perimeter players, just two years after signing him to a four-year, $141 million max contract after Walker spent his first eight seasons with the Charlotte Hornets.
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Walker, who made the All-Star team in his first season in Boston, spent last season on a plan to manage his left knee, which gave him trouble for most of the 2020 calendar year. He went on a 12-week strengthening program for his knee after helping Boston reach the Eastern Conference finals inside the NBA’s bubble in Orlando, Florida — a plan that stretched into the start of last season when the NBA unexpectedly began earlier than he and the Celtics anticipated.
Still, when Walker returned to the court, he continued to be an effective player for the Celtics, averaging 19.3 points and 4.9 assists in 43 games for Boston. He then missed the final two games of Boston’s first-round series loss to the Brooklyn Nets with a bone bruise in that same left knee, an injury unrelated to his prior issues with it.
“It’s tough,” Walker said of having to watch playoff games after watching Boston’s season-ending 123-109 loss in Brooklyn in Game 5 of that series. “It’s been really tough, especially because over the course of my career, I’ve played so many games when I’ve been healthy.
“I came to Boston to be a part of those special runs and be a part of high-intensity games and fans going wild, and I wasn’t able to be a part of that, unfortunately. Just try to get right. I gotta get right.”
Now he’ll get the chance to do that in his hometown.