Celtics Insider

Forsberg: Evaluating Brad Stevens the GM after 200 days on the job

Celtics Insider

It’s been 200 days since Brad Stevens shuffled from head coach to president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics. While his heaviest lifting is ahead, the aftermath of Saturday’s visit from old friends Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier felt like a good time to look back at Stevens’ initial maneuvering. 

Plus, it allows us to temporarily ignore the COVID headaches across the league.

The Celtics are an underwhelming 15-15 through the first 30 games of President Brad’s tenure but at least one NBA roster-shaper thinks Stevens is off to a solid start.

"I think Brad’s done a great job,” Danny Ainge said earlier this month before joining the Utah Jazz front office. "I think that getting Dennis Schroder in here this summer was huge. And Josh Richardson is really playing well for the team right now, especially lately after a little bit of a slow start, but he’s playing really well.

Forsberg: As trade season begins should the Celtics be buyers or sellers?

"I think that the team -- we have seen what Aaron Nesmith and Payton [Pritchard] could do, they showed us what they could do last year. But there's just so much depth on the team, especially in those wing and outside-shooter positions, that it's tough ... 

"But the team is at its strongest when their top guys are all healthy and when Robert Williams and Al Horford and Jaylen [Brown] and Jayson [Tatum] and Marcus [Smart], Schroder, all those guys -- when everybody is healthy, the team is good."

 

Here’s a quick recap of Stevens’ decisions over the past six-plus months: 

June 18: Traded Kemba Walker for Al Horford

Walker’s near-revenge game Saturday night notwithstanding, Stevens appears to have hit a home run here. The primary goal was to promote future flexibility, which the Celtics got by swapping out the two big-money years left on Walker’s deal for Horford, who has a smaller deal and a partially guaranteed final season.

That 35-year-old Horford emerged as a starter-level contributor out of the gates of the season was a bonus, all while Walker faded from the rotation in New York.

Kemba voices frustration with Knicks after big game vs. Celtics

The lingering question is what happens from here with Horford. Do the Celtics try to move him to a surefire contender while he’s playing at a high level and completely clear the runway for their next big-splash move? Or do they ride out the year with Horford and figure out his future after the season?

As long as Horford’s salary doesn’t impede a pursuit of another star then Stevens turned a prickly situation into the best possible scenario.

June 28: Hired Ime Udoka as head coach

There’s been a whole bunch of bumps in the road early in Udoka’s tenure but he has displayed an even-keeled, Stevens-like demeanor while navigating them. One of the main themes of Udoka’s first season has been accountability: From suspending Marcus Smart for missing a flight to calling out players for on-court missteps, Udoka hasn’t been bashful in holding players to high standards.

The biggest positive for Udoka: turning around a defense that was abysmal out of the gates and getting them to perform at top-10 level since. The biggest negative: Udoka hasn’t been able to shake this team from its maddeningly inconsistent ways as evidenced by the 15-15 record and too many dips in quarter-to-quarter intensity.

After-timeout work could be more crisp (though Stevens is a tough act to follow) and we’re left wondering what Udoka can do with a less-flawed roster, but his demeanor seems ideal for this group.

July 30: Drafted Juhann Begarin

With a full roster and only a mid-second-round pick, Stevens rolled the dice on a 19-year-old freak athlete with draft-and-stash potential. Summer league confirmed Begarin is raw but physically gifted.

The Celtics can monitor his progress in France from afar and evaluate his NBA readiness in the summer of 2022, a time when the team might be eager for any cheap, serviceable bodies to fill out the roster.

July 31: Acquired Josh Richardson from Mavericks

The real headline here is that Stevens essentially elected to let Fournier walk away in free agency and used the remainder of the Gordon Hayward trade exception to land Richardson from the Mavericks (also sending out Moses Brown, who had been acquired in the Walker-Horford swap). Boston’s offense has been so anemic at times that it's fair to wonder if Fournier could have provided much-needed shooting and playmaking.

Alas, Fournier’s offensive efficiency has dipped even lower than his COVID-plagued two-month cameo with the Celtics and it sure seems like the Celtics made the right decision in letting him sign a four-year, $78 million pact with the Knicks.

 

As for Richardson, his efficiency is way up after down seasons in Philadelphia and Dallas. His 3-point percentage has spiked to 40.5 percent in recent weeks and, when healthy, he’s consistently been the first player off Udoka’s bench given his two-way impact. Is it sustainable? We’ll get to that in a bit. 

August 7: Traded Tristan Thompson for Kris Dunn, Bruno Fernando

After one underwhelming season in Boston, the Celtics were able to move Thompson’s $9.7 million salary for a tiny bit of cap relief. Dunn got flipped a month later while Fernando has played a mere 18 minutes in eight appearances this season.

Ultimately, the deal accomplished its goal: Minimizing Boston’s costs at the center spot. Alas, we still wish the Celtics had found a way to pluck Delon Wright in the swap instead of settling for Dunn.

August 13: Signed Dennis Schroder

One of the biggest steals of the offseason, the Celtics watched Schroder fall into their laps for the $5.8 million taxpayer midlevel after point guard money dried up among contenders.

Forsberg: As trade season begins, should C's be buyers or sellers?

While Schroder has his maddening moments with shot selection, it’s hard to imagine how poorly the start of the season might have gone without his scoring punch, especially while Brown was sidelined. If Stevens parlays Schroder into a future asset by moving him this season, it would further enhance the decision to add Schroder.

Stevens deserves credit for the decision because many of us were pondering if Schroder would be overly focused on his own stat line after fumbling the bag with L.A., but he’s been a good soldier to start the season.

August 13: Signed Enes Freedom

If it wasn’t for the fact that Boston sent out a first-round pick that became Desmond Bane in order to get off Freedom’s money less than one year before his return, this deal would be perfectly fine. The Celtics added veteran depth at a minimum price.

Freedom’s off-the-court activism caused some headlines but he had a nice run of play after rejoining the rotation. He has his obvious defensive warts that get highlighted a bit when Boston’s depth is eroded. But his production typically outperforms his cost.

August 13: Signed Sam Hauser to two-way deal

The 24-year-old forward has desirable height and shooting ability. He’s connecting on 43.3 percent of his nine 3-point attempts per game in the G-League. If not for a stint in health and safety protocols, we might be seeing a bit more of him now with Boston’s depth eroded by COVID woes.

August 17: Generated TPE for Fournier

The Celtics gave up a couple of second-round picks in order to generate a $17.1 million trade exception while delivering Fournier to the Knicks. That could be handy in roster construction, particularly at the start of the summer if Boston needs creative ways to add talent with all the money committed at the top of their cap sheet.

But there’s also the chance this TPE vaporizes after Boston already spent two second-round picks to generate the initial Gordon Hayward TPE with Charlotte, and that would be a less than ideal use of assets.

 

August 21: Extended Marcus Smart

Smart critics will lament tacking four years and $77 million onto his expiring deal. And while the jury is still out on whether Smart is the long-term answer at starting point guard, the early returns have been encouraging. Boston has a net rating of plus-6.2 in the 641 possessions that Smart has shared the floor with Brown and Tatum. Boston’s preferred starting 5 with Horford and Robert Williams is plus-18.3 net rating in 181 possessions.

When Smart makes defense and playmaking his priorities, the extension looks like money well spent. Ultimately, the extra years shouldn’t hinder Smart’s trade value as he would have likely fetched less value as an expiring contract. If he continues to cement himself as a piece of this core, the $19 million annual value isn’t prohibitive as Boston builds out its roster.

August 24: Extended Robert Williams

Might eventually be remembered as the best splurge of Stevens’ entire tenure (though, we are admittedly biased). And we'd feel better about saying that if Williams played with more consistency on the defensive end.

Alas, an annual value at barely more than the midlevel is insane value for a potential franchise center who is unlike any other big man the Celtics currently have on their roster.

August 24: Extended Richardson

A bit of a head-scratcher at the time given Boston’s desire to tread carefully with future cap space. If the Celtics’ go the trade route with their next big-splash move, it won’t matter and they’ll have Richardson in the fold at midlevel money.

If the Celtics ultimately desire to create cap space then the Richardson extension could be a bit more worrisome. Writing this right after Richardson exploded for a season-high 27 points and keyed a shorthanded win over the Knicks adds a dash of recency bias to those that might suggest this was a shrewd move to lock up Richardson given the bounce-back seen thus far.

September 15: Traded Dunn, Carsen Edwards for Juancho Hernangomez

It was a move designed to both consolidate roster spots and add depth at a position of need. But after dabbling as a starter to open the preseason, Hernangomez has barely gotten off the bench. He’s played only 63 minutes in 15 appearances. His $6.9 million salary would be ideal to move if the Celtics wanted to dip below the tax -- pending other maneuvering -- before the deadline.

October 18: Signed Brodric Thomas to two-way deal

October 19: Re-signed Jabari Parker

Pairing these two together because it underscores one of the most questionable early decisions by Stevens. Unable to keep Garrison Mathews with an available 2-way slot, the Celtics inked Thomas. After briefly waiving Parker, the team re-signed him a day later in a cost-savings move.

That decision has come back to bite the shooting-deprived Celtics as Mathews is averaging 12.5 points while shooting 36.8 percent on 7.4 3-pointers per game in Houston, where they just converted his 2-way deal to a four-year, $8 million pact.

Now, there’s no guarantee Mathews would have had the opportunity he’s enjoyed with rebuilding Houston, but it felt like a curious decision to keep Parker in the moment and missing out on Mathews stings a bit.

 

Final thoughts

Sift through the individual moves and it feels like it was far more hits than misses for Stevens. The biggest quibble would be that Stevens didn’t put enough of a priority on shooting, which has contributed to Boston’s early season offensive woes.

Here’s a question we can’t quite answer yet: What’s the big-picture impact of this flawed roster? If the Celtics are forced to step back a bit and embrace their status as a middling, non-contending squad, will it feel like a bit of a squandered year when there’s no guarantee how many seasons you’ll have Tatum and Brown as the core of this team? Maybe that’s a non-issue if the Celtics surge a bit into the new year.

Ultimately, much of how we judge Stevens’ initial moves will be based on how the team utilizes the flexibility generated. If Stevens lands an impact third star to place alongside the Jays -- and especially if Smart and Williams cement themselves as key pieces of this core -- then the first steps will look especially good. If the Celtics are hindered at all by the contracts of Horford and Richardson, we might view these first steps a bit more critically.