Our biggest trade deadline takeaway for the Boston Celtics? Brad Stevens sure isn’t bashful.
Bartering Brad, Boston’s first-year president of basketball operations, took the Celtics' bench, carved it up like a pizza, and shipped slices south. When the crust — err, dust — settled, the Celtics had a new-look second unit headlined by the deadline acquisition of Derrick White. Boston sacrificed some flexibility in taking on future salary and dealing away a 2022 first-round pick but brought back some pieces that Stevens likely believes can help it now and in the future.
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Stevens ultimately sent out seven players — Josh Richardson, Dennis Schroder, Romeo Langford, Enes Freedom, Bruno Fernando, Bol Bol, and PJ Dozier — and brought back White and old friend Daniel Theis. The Celtics have five open roster spots but now project to finish the year under the luxury tax, one of the team’s obvious goals entering deadline day.
Are the Celtics better today than they were yesterday? Maybe. But Stevens wasn’t risk-averse.
White was the best player moved in any of Boston's dealings. He's had a down year in San Antonio, and Josh Richardson was excellent in his half-season here, but White can be a really impactful presence for a defensive-minded Celtics team. It’s telling that the Celtics were willing to sell high on Richardson and did so to acquire a player that spent two seasons with coach Ime Udoka in San Antonio. What’s more, White spent time with Boston’s core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart on Team USA in the summer of 2019.
Boston had clearly come to peace with moving on from Schroder and his sometimes maddening ways. Theis provides much-needed depth up front and will limit the wear and tear on Al Horford. The Celtics didn’t address their dearth of shooting, and probably took a step back there considering the way Richardson had shot the ball this season. Stevens might be banking that, by playing Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith more consistently, those younger players will develop more consistency than we’ve seen with their perimeter shooting.
Udoka has leaned on an eight-man rotation lately and might not go much beyond nine unless he has to the rest of the season. The starters remain intact and Udoka can deploy a bench group of White, Theis, Pritchard, and Grant Williams. Nesmith should get more opportunities, too, at a thinned wing position.
Boston's bench desperately needed a boost. The team's starters have been fantastic, putting up the best net rating in the league among high-volume 5-man units, but the bench routinely fumbled the baton.
White will get every opportunity to thrive as a sixth man with the possibility his role grows. He can provide the same two-way impact that Richardson did for much of the season but with a higher overall ceiling moving forward. The Celtics will cross their fingers that White’s 3-point shooting numbers will bounce back the way Richardson’s did with Boston this year. White is an excellent playmaker who can steady the second unit offense and generate quality looks for whoever is out there.
White is an excellent defender. He routinely takes on the challenge of defending the other team’s best players (including guarding Tatum in a late-game situation in Boston earlier this season). His size will also allow the Celtics to run him with the Core Four in some defensive-minded lineups that could really smother opponents, especially in late-game situations.
If White meshes well with this core, then the Celtics could have yet another piece of their puzzle locked in at reasonable money for multiple seasons. With the way Smart and Robert Williams have played lately, it feels like Stevens can confidently hunt for the best accentuating pieces while still having some flexibility to swing for the fence if the right player is available this summer (Horford’s salary will be key for salary matching).
Or, if White fits as well as Smart and Rob Williams have, the team can more confidently just hunt for high-level complementary pieces.
Boston’s maneuvering was not without risk. Boston sacrificed a first-round pick — currently projected at No. 18 — to acquire White. They also sent former lottery pick Romeo Langford in that deal. His injury history and inconsistencies made it OK for the team to punt but the team will forever wonder what could have been with that Kings pick (Tyler Herro went one spot earlier and Boston could have cashed it in for talent at other times).
Stevens got the team below the tax early on Thursday, redirecting PJ Dozier and Bol Bol — acquired last month in a three-team deal that delivered Juancho Hernangomez to San Antonio — along with a future second-round pick and cash to the Magic in exchange for what’s almost certainly a heavily protected, unlikely-to-convey second-round pick. Boston saved $4.1 million in the transaction and paved the way to finish the season under the luxury tax.
The Celtics are in line to collect an $11 million rebate from big-spending taxpayers like the Nets and Warriors. By staying below the tax, the Celtics would also avoid any repeater penalties until at least the 2025-26 season, which could allow them to more freely spend over the next few seasons.
Boston got one last deal in under the buzzer by shipping Schroder to Houston along with Fernando and Freedom in exchange for Theis. The Celtics will be thrilled to add another versatile big who won’t have a steep learning curve. Theis can slot right into reserve lineups and go back to sealing on Jayson Tatum drives and knocking down open 3-pointers that come his way.
Stevens’ next task is perusing the buyout market with five open roster spots. The team doesn’t have to fill them all but will need to make some acquisitions. Maybe a sturdy big that can help against Joel Embiid comes available like Robin Lopez. Maybe there’s a chance to get another shooter if someone like Ben McLemore lands on the buyout scrap heap.
But the Celtics leaned into their recent surge with hopes of making something of their 2022 progress.
All of Boston’s deadline activity is set against the backdrop of the inevitable Sixers-Nets blockbuster swap that adds a layer of intrigue to a cluttered Eastern Conference.
Are the Celtics on the level of Philadelphia with the James Harden/Embiid combo? Can Boston hang with a Nets team that adds Ben Simmons when Kevin Durant is healthy and Kyrie Irving is able to play?
Boston has feasted on weaker competition as part of a season-best six-game winning streak. Friday night starts a stretch in which they can prove it wasn’t a mirage. They’ll have a new-look bench that might be better able to sustain the strong play from the starters.
Stevens still has work to do to get Boston the level of the elite teams like Milwaukee, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia. But the Celtics are at least in the conversation now and Stevens wasn’t content to do the bare minimum at the deadline.
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Stevens and his staff took some risks. They showed faith in this core and added the sort of talent that might allow this group to take another step forward. The jury is out on just how good Stevens' moves were at the deadline.
He didn’t add roadblocks to the future to try to fuel the now. Combined with his initial tinkering after taking over the job, it’s clear that Stevens is going to be bold in his new post.