Two elements defined the 15-year period in Boston Celtics history between the retirement of Larry Joe Bird and the landing of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett: sustained mediocrity and Antoine Walker three-point attempts.
Walker came to Boston fresh off of an NCAA title with the Rick Pitino-led Kentucky Wildcats in 1996. The young forward got significant burn as a rookie, starting 68 contests and logging an impressive 36 minutes per game. In his second season, he was joined in Boston by his college coach, Pitino, and garnered the first of his three All-Star selections. Paul Pierce came aboard in Walker’s third year (1998-99), forming a tandem that seemed destined for Eastern Conference supremacy.
However, the Pierce-Walker one-two punch only led the Celtics out of the first round on two occasions in five years— a period in which Walker would develop his reputation as a big man unwilling to play down low and more than willing to settle for the outside shot.
The stats back up the common perception.
Walker’s three-point attempt rate soared during his five years with Pierce, topping out at 38.2 and 37.5 in 2001-02 and 2002-03, respectively. In 1995-96, Clifford Robinson was the first qualified player 6’8” or taller to log a season with a three-point attempt rate of 35 and a usage rate of 25. Walker, though, would tally the second, third and fourth such seasons, launching an unprecedented (for a forward) 1,830 threes in a three-year period and leading the league in attempts all three years, regardless of position.
After the 2002-03 campaign—a season that saw 582 three-point attempts from Walker and a Celtic playoff sweep at the hands of the Nets—Boston shipped him and fellow Kentucky Wildcat Tony Delk to Dallas for Raef LaFrentz, Chris Mills, Jiri Welsch and a pick that would become Delonte West. He bounced around the league a bit before settling in with Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal to play a (more appropriate) supporting role on the 2005-06 NBA Champion Miami Heat.
But he’d play just one more season in South Beach and would be out of the league before his 32nd birthday.
Poor shot selection, unfulfilled potential and financial recklessness define Walker’s legacy. But in the era of pace-and-space and stretch-4 mania, the time has come to reassess—indeed reimagine—Walker’s career.
We shouldn’t see him as a man without a shot conscience, but as one who was miscast and misunderstood. Not a profligate chucker, but a visionary who came before his time.
Consider this: Just five times in NBA history has a player 6’8” or taller nailed 200 three-pointers in a season while also registering a defensive box plus/minus of 0.5 or greater. Walker accounted for the first two of instances in 2000-01 and 2001-02.
And this as well: Prior to the first of those two years, only five players had ever shot 575 three-balls in one campaign, and Mookie Blaylock, Tim Hardaway, George McCloud, Dennis Scott and John Starks all did so during the period in the mid-’90s during which the NBA shortened the three-point arc to combat decreased scoring outputs. For even more context, four players (Stephen Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Klay Thompson) shot more than 600 last year, and the Houston Rockets alone may have four players do so this year.
Walker was a man with on-court proclivities much better suited for today’s wide-open era of small-ball lineups than the bruising time in which he played.
In 2005-06, we saw a glimpse of how he could have contributed to a modern NBA team. As a stretch big off the bench for the majority of the regular season, Walker posted the highest three-point attempt rate of his career to that point (42.7) while playing a role that suited him perfectly. For the year he shot 35.8 percent (137-of-383) from three, which matched that year’s league average.
As a gunner off the bench—think of Ryan Anderson while he was with New Orleans—or a third option in a starting unit, as he was cast during the Heat’s 2006 title run, Walker could have been a much more valuable piece than he was for much of his career. In the right system and in the age of analytics, he wouldn’t have been seen as a liability, but as an asset. Rather than being maligned and ridiculed for shooting from behind the arc, the ahead-of-his-time frontcourt sniper would be lauded for stretching defenses to their breaking point.
Just as Walker has recreated himself as a financial advisor for young athletes, it’s time for us to evaluate our mental image of the big man and reposition him as a historical forerunner to the modern NBA.
Follow Jordan on Twitter @jordanmcgillis.