Kemba Walker joined the New York Knicks in free agency earlier this month, but at one point, it looked like it was going to happen earlier in his career. Walker was one of the most highly sought-after free agents in the NBA in 2019, and at that point, the Knicks had the cap space to sign multiple stars. At his introductory press conference with the Knicks, Walker revealed that he came “pretty close” to joining the Knicks in 2019, but there was one hiccup that ultimately led him to the Boston Celtics instead.
The Knicks, at that point, were heavily pursuing Kevin Durant. They had initially hoped to pair him with Kyrie Irving, but according to Marc Berman of the New York Post, they were told that he would be joining the Brooklyn Nets. As a fallback, they hoped to unite Durant with Walker, but ultimately, Durant joined the Nets. According to Berman, Walker and the Knicks agreed that it no longer made sense for him to return to his hometown team without a co-star to play with.
Walker hinted at this course of events during a 2020 podcast interview with The Ringer. “Before Boston actually came along, the Knicks were one of my top priorities,” Walker said. “I was thinking that they were actually going to get another player, but it didn’t work out. That’s pretty much all I can say though.”
Walker and the Knicks weren’t the only parties opposed to his homecoming. According to Berman, Walker’s family was opposed to Kemba returning to New York earlier in his career as well. They feared the pressure that would be put on Walker as a hometown savior. Instead, he went to Boston and competed for a championship, something that would not have been available to him in New York.
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As far as the 2021-22 Knicks are concerned, what ultimately occurred is probably the best possible outcome. Had Walker signed in New York in 2019, he’d still be on their books with a max contract. Now, the Knicks have him anyway but are paying him just under $18 million for two seasons. The Oklahoma City Thunder are paying the bulk of his salary through his buyout agreement, and the Celtics had to give up a first-round pick to move him. Ironically, the Knicks didn’t sign Walker in 2019 in part because they couldn’t put a contender around him without another star, but the fact that the Celtics gave him that max contract in 2019 has allowed the Knicks to add him to a roster that was already the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference last season.