Mired in a four-game losing streak, the Mavericks on Monday essentially admitted that their inability to replace Jalen Brunson last summer was a record-smudging mistake.
Adding 32-year-old, four-time All-Star Kemba Walker, chronic left knee issues and all, clearly is an upgrade over the departed Facundo Campazzo — which isn’t saying much since coach Jason Kidd only played Campazzo for 52 minutes, during which he shot 23%.
The question is whether Walker will be another Band-Aid or a stabilizing, decorated patch that could fortify the Mavericks enough to contend in the wide-open Western Conference.
After a 0-3 East Coast trip that culminated in Sunday night’s loss to Milwaukee, the Mavericks landed just before 2 a.m. and soon awoke to news of Walker’s impending signing. At 9-10 they began the day in 11th place, but the same number of games (four) behind first-place Phoenix as ahead of No. 15 Houston.
“We wanted to add some flexibility to our offense,” Mavericks governor Mark Cuban told The News. “Like last year at this point, we have great shot quality, particularly from the 3, but we have struggled to make enough of them.
“Kemba will give J-Kidd more offensive flexibility.”
Walker’s resume is glittering and his locker-room presence has been valued at each of his three NBA stops, but he was limited to 43 games as a Celtic in 2020-21 and 37 games as a Knick last season.
Walker is a career 19.5-point scorer, topped by his 25.6 average in his final season at Charlotte (2018-19), but left knee surgeries in 2015 and 2017 signaled gradual erosion of his health and output.
Last season the Knicks signed him to a two-year, $18 million contract, but when the Knicks pulled the plug on his season last Dec. 29 he was averaging 11.6 points and 40% shooting.
Walker comes to Dallas for the veteran-minimum salary after being waived by Detroit, whose salary-dump acquisition of Walker and a first-round pick from New York enabled the Knicks to clear enough salary cap space to woo free-agent Brunson away from Dallas.
That is merely one of multiple plot layers as the wobbled Mavericks soon will face Brunson and the Knicks in New York (Saturday) and host them in late-December.
In essence, Dallas is trying to fill the void of 26-year-old, two-time NCAA champion Brunson (Villanova) bolting for a four-year, $104 million deal with the Knicks with an older NCAA titlist (Connecticut, 2011) who hasn’t played a full season since 2018-19.
Although Kidd expressed optimism during training camp that Frank Ntilikina and Josh Green and even new big man Christian Wood would help fill the third creator role (with Spencer Dinwiddie moving to No. 2 creator behind Luka Doncic), the organization knew that a void remained.
That’s why Dallas kept a roster spot open all summer, hoping that the right replacement became available, not an easy fix with Dallas over the salary cap and only able to offer a veteran minimum (1.8 million).
Doncic mentor and fellow Slovenian Goran Dragic, 36, said he declined an offer from Dallas and signed a veteran minimum deal with Chicago because the Mavericks “wanted me to play for one game and then sit for the next five.” He’s played in all but one of Chicago’s games and is averaging 8.3 points and 43% 3-point shooting.
Meanwhile, as alluded by Cuban, the Mavericks have struggled to convert 3-point opportunities, with Doncic, Maxi Kleber, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Reggie Bullock all shooting below 31%. Kidd bemoaned that of Dallas’ 39 3-point attempts in Saturday’s loss in Toronto “25 of them were probably uncontested or lightly contested.”
A person familiar with the situation told The News the Mavericks have had Walker as a back-burner possibility for at least two weeks.
In early November Walker said on ESPN’s “The Woj Pod” that he was “making sure I’m ready for whenever somebody gives me that call,” adding “I know I can still play basketball at a high level.”
Walker is a career 36% 3-point shooter. But the Mavericks hope he also can take some of the ball-handling load off of Doncic, who is averaging 37.3 minutes per game, nearly two minutes more than last season’s career-high 35.4.
Kidd on several occasions has recently noted the glut of centers on Dallas’ roster, in response to questions about why Wood’s playing time has fluctuated despite his elite efficiency numbers on offense.
President and general manager Nico Harrison accompanied the Mavericks to the East Coast and got a courtside view of the losses to Boston, Toronto and Milwaukee.
Defeats at East powers Boston and Milwaukee were to be expected, but the Toronto game continued a pair of troubling trends: Losses to teams missing star players (also New Orleans, Orlando, Washington and Denver) and blown leads of 14 or more points (also Phoenix, Washington, Oklahoma City).
Had they not blown those leads, including 22 points in the opener at Phoenix and 16 points in the last four minutes against the Thunder, the Mavericks’ record would be 13-6, tied for the West lead entering Monday’s games.
Those losses probably hastened the addition of Walker, but they also magnified a problem that reporters and fans have known needed to be addressed since the day Brunson left.
“We have a pretty mature group,” Dinwiddie said. “I think we’re able to look at it for what it needs to be. But it’s the losses where you had a 20-point lead and you dropped to the Rockets, or Denver without their players, those are the ones that you’ve got to have.”
Certainly Walker will need some practice time and a few games before anyone can gauge how prominent a role he might play. It seems highly doubtful he’ll play Tuesday, when Dallas hosts Golden State in a rematch of last season’s Western Conference finals.
The 11-10 Warriors against 9-10 Mavs in late November, a reminder of how much the mighty have slipped, but also of how much season remains in which to climb back up.
Walker was named to four straight All-Star squads from 2017 to 2020, but left knee issues began to take a toll on his health and production. All of these procedures and absences were related to his left knee:
Jan. 2015 — Surgery to repair torn meniscus, returned to the court in March.
May 2017 — Arthroscopic surgery.
2019-20 — Played only 56 games during COVID-suspended season, but returned and helped lead Boston to East finals in the bubble.
Oct. 2020 — Stem cell injections.
2021 playoffs — Missed Games 4 and 5 of Celtics’ first-round loss to Brooklyn with left knee bone bruise.
Jan. 2022 — Missed six straight games with Knicks due to “arthritic knee.”
Feb. 2022 — Walker and Knicks agree that he would be shelved the rest of the season.
Statement from New York Knicks President Leon Rose on Kemba Walker pic.twitter.com/n0dpbJd2zl— NY_KnicksPR (@NY_KnicksPR) February 23, 2022