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Monday, September 07, 2009

The Enigmatic Antoine Walker

This article was originally published in two parts at Suite101.com on August 4, 2005 and August 5, 2005.

"Antoine Walker is the most polarizing player in Celtics' history." Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, who has covered the Boston Celtics since 1969, said this to me before game six of the Indiana-Boston series. That game and that playoff series are an excellent microcosm of the "good, the bad and the ugly" concerning the three-time All-Star forward. First, the "good": Walker had 24 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and made several key plays down the stretch as Boston won game six on the road in overtime 92-89, staving off elimination. Boston would not have won without his performance, particularly in light of the ejection of the Celtics' other star, Paul Pierce, near the end of regulation. Walker scored five of Boston's eight points in the extra session.

The "bad": With a chance to take a 3-2 series lead, Boston lost 90-85 at home. Walker scored only 10 points while shooting 5-13 from the field and not attempting a free throw.

The "ugly": Walker bumped an official at the end of a blowout loss in game three and was suspended for game four.

The end result of this wacky series: Inexplicably, Boston followed up the dramatic road win in game six with a lackluster game seven performance at home, losing 97-70. Walker (20 points, 5 rebounds) and Pierce (19 points, 7 rebounds) were the only Celtics who showed any semblance of life.

Walker averaged 16.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.0 bpg and 3.0 tpg in the series. Jermaine O'Neal, Indiana's power forward (it should be noted that Walker and O'Neal were frequently not matched up with each other), averaged 15.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.0 apg, 2.43 bpg and 3.0 tpg. He shot .353 from the field, while Walker shot .413, including 7-19 (.368) on three pointers (O'Neal shot 0-3 on three pointers). O'Neal is an MVP candidate when he is healthy, but he was limited by injury during the series although, to his credit, he never used that as an excuse. O'Neal had a big edge in blocked shots, while Walker scored a little more and shot somewhat more accurately. Without Walker the Celtics would have lost game six, but they won game four when he was suspended. Neither played a decisive role in the final game; Indiana's Stephen Jackson (24 points, 5-6 on three pointers) starred in game seven.

Some will look at the numbers and the back story and say that Walker helped carry Boston farther than the Celtics would otherwise have gone, a very reasonable proposition considering that the team was 27-28 before Walker arrived and went 18-9 after acquiring Walker. Others will say that Walker is inconsistent, shot a poor percentage (ignoring the fact that O'Neal shot even worse) and because of an immature act was not even on the court for a hugely important game that could have seen Indiana take a 3-1 lead in the series. It seems that it is never simple to define Walker's impact; check out this discussion at the APBR Metrics website.

Sticking with the theme of the "good, the bad and the ugly," let's take a closer look at Walker's game. Again, we'll start with the "good." Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn won eight championships as a Celtics player, coached Boston to titles in 1974 and 1976 and currently is a color commentator on Celtics broadcasts. Here is what he says about Walker: "Antoine Walker is a very gifted player. He is a very knowledgeable, intelligent player. He has great passing skills and he also has the ability to score from various places on the floor. The first year that he played with the Celtics he showed that he was a terrific inside player and a terrific offensive rebounder. He was among the league leaders in offensive rebounds in his rookie season. Since then, what happened is when the coaching staff changed they relied on his passing skills and made him the guy who initiated the offense, so he played most of the game outside of the foul line. So that element--the rebounding element of his game--really just showed up on the defensive boards. Now what they are asking him to do since he came back is to play more like he played in his first year--to get on the offensive boards and to not shoot threes--or only shoot them when the clock is winding down--and to become a passer out of double teams in the post instead of initiating the offense and getting the ball to Pierce; other people can do that. That's the contribution that he has made and he is adept at adjusting to what they want."

After Walker's great game six performance, Boston Coach Doc Rivers made this assessment: "He's got a quirky game. He makes threes and misses layups and then he makes layups and misses threes. He just plays. He had his head down in the second quarter (after missing several shots) and I told him, 'Toine, the odds are on your side. Just keep playing.' He's playing his heart out, (whether) things are going well for him or they're not going well for him…More importantly, Toine helped us on the defensive end. When they went small he guarded O'Neal down the stretch and hung with him. He lasted a good eight, nine minutes with five fouls. I'm really happy with him. I'm really happy that he made a big shot for us. That was really nice to see.”

Celtics General Manger Danny Ainge has a unique perspective on Antoine Walker since Ainge traded him away, traded to get him back and now has traded him to Miami. Before game six of the Indiana-Boston series, Ainge explained why he brought Walker to Boston for the stretch run: "He gives us a swagger. Antoine's a tough, competitive kid. He gets timely baskets. Again, I think that in the last game he scored our only baskets in the last few minutes of the game. He has some intangibles--toughness, experience. I think that he brings confidence with him to the other players on the team. I think that those are the greatest qualities that he has been able to bring to us, which are very important."

In addition to the traits listed above, Walker is durable. He has played 3000-plus minutes in five of his nine seasons, leading the league in that category once, and he just missed the 3000 mark in two other seasons. He has never missed more than eight games in a season.

After describing the "good" Antoine Walker I hear some grumbling in the background, so let's proceed with no delay to the "bad": Walker has never shot better than .430 from the field for a season and is a career .657 free throw shooter. He accumulates a lot of turnovers and led the league in that category once. He is not athletic, which places him at a disadvantage in certain matchups. In the lively discussion about Walker at the APBR Metrics website, some observers contended that because of Walker's field goal percentage and turnover rate he is a very inefficient player--one person went so far as to suggest that Walker is "one of the worst starting power forwards in the league and has been for quite some time."

As for the "ugly," Walker's aforementioned suspension in the middle of a closely contested playoff series was a huge lapse in judgment (amazingly, later in the series his All-Star running mate Paul Pierce exercised equally bad judgment, the only difference being that he did not make contact with an official). When I spoke with Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, he noted that Walker has a unique playing style that not everyone likes, particularly when Walker went through a period when he was launching three pointers from all angles, leading the NBA in three pointers made and three pointers attempted in 2001. Walker was heavily criticized for this even though he was doing exactly what the coaching staff asked of him (Rick Pitino and Jim O'Brien have always been big believers in shooting a lot of three pointers). Whether or not this is good basketball strategy is a subject for another day, but it led to one of my favorite NBA quotes. Walker grew tired of being constantly questioned about his three point shooting, so one day when a reporter asked him why he shot so many threes, he replied, "Because there aren't any fours." Ryan also pointed out that Walker's mannerisms--the dancing and gyrations after big plays--irritated older fans, although Ryan acknowledged that Walker really toned this down during his second run in Boston.

The bottom line is if you go to a Boston sports bar and praise Walker half of the crowd will offer to buy you a drink and the other half will want to pour a drink over your head. Walker's critics could fairly ask why Ainge traded Walker to Miami if Walker is a good, productive player; of course, it could just as easily be asked why Pat Riley made such big roster changes and obtained Walker as opposed to keeping together a team that almost made it to the NBA Finals. Ainge provided a glimpse into his thought process when I asked him before game six why he brought Walker back. He replied simply, "Antoine’s a good player. He's a good player for the right price." Clearly, from Ainge's perspective the "price" of keeping Walker for 2005-06 was higher than the value that could be obtained in trading him.

As for Riley, once you commit to spending $100 million over five years on Shaquille O'Neal, money is no longer an object. The goal is to win now and win at all costs. When Riley coached the Lakers they acquired Bob McAdoo, a former MVP whose reputation had been damaged as he was shipped from team to team in the late 1970s; McAdoo, who ironically is now an assistant coach with the Heat, provided an indispensable spark off of the bench and Riley and Magic Johnson have both said that the Lakers would not have won the 1982 and 1985 titles without him. Walker is nowhere near the caliber of player that Hall of Famer McAdoo was, but all that matters to Riley is if Walker can accept a non-starring role like McAdoo did and help the Heat win a championship.

9/7/09 Epilogue: In the 2006 playoffs, Walker ranked second on the Heat in assists (2.4 apg) and third in scoring (13.3 ppg) as Miami captured the NBA title. Although he shot just .403 from the field and .574 from the free throw line during that postseason, Walker started all 23 playoff games and ranked second on the team in mpg (37.5), so Hall of Fame Coach Pat Riley clearly saw something positive in Walker's game despite the harsh criticisms that "stat gurus" voiced about Walker.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:34 AM

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