After losing two wins behind a title to end a season that began in mediocrity, the Celtics appear to have stepped into the window of contention they’ve been working toward for years. But Brad Stevens recalls how quickly that door has closed for her in the past. For example: almost dropping out of the playoffs in 2021, a year after losing another Game 6 deep in a title search in 2020.
Now that they have a championship just around the corner, how much will the Stevens-led front office be pushing to change that lineup? He said on Tuesday that ownership had given the green light to take any desired steps. Narrowly avoiding the luxury tax for the 21/22 season gives them an even greater mandate to break that limit this summer as the repeater tax is now pushed further into the future.
Stevens’ transactional history last season deviated from Danny Ainge doctrine in several important respects, from his willingness to sacrifice first-round picks for veterans to his focus on complementary roleplayers versus playmakers on the ball. who became Houston’s Alperen Şengün against Al Horford worked in the immediate season, but the merits of Ainge’s approach could be validated if 19-year-old Şengün builds on the all-star potential he flashed as a rookie.
At the deadline, Stevens flipped Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, Thursday’s 25th pick and a 2028 top-one protected pick swap for Derrick White. Stevens said after the deal that the swap “is the one where you lose your sleep for a few days.” Team and league sources said the athlete that negotiations were being held up by Boston, which was pushing for a top-four protection on the swap before yielding to an unusual top-one protection.
White undoubtedly fueled the team’s rise to the top of the East and was arguably the Celtics’ MVP for the middle of the Heat series, but his influence slowly waned as the Finals progressed. Stevens sacrificed a playmaking finisher in Dennis Schroeder and a solid 3-and-D wing in Richardson to acquire the optimal clucker for his team – one that Celtics analysis department had deemed a core starter at the time. Team sources told the athlete.
The front office’s assessment of White accurately predicted the intangible improvements his quick decision-making and perseverance would bring to both sides. They felt Richardson was having a good season, but his rather sluggish style didn’t suit their style of play. Just getting rid of Schroeder, and his penchant for getting the ball on the ground, was probably worth a couple of wins. The deadline shifts were the catalyst for a mid-season culture shift on the field that was beginning to show results. They underlined how precise construction chemistry can be. Now Stevens is trying to make just the right changes to ensure continuity is a strength as he continues to develop.
“I think we have to walk a bit of a fine line. I think teams are fragile,” Stevens said. “I think the way teams collaborate and work together is fragile. And I think your identity as a team, when you find one that’s successful — which is what we’ve done on defense this year and when we’ve been best at sharing the ball offensively — those things are fragile. So just adding doesn’t mean you’re not taking something away from the group. And changing important parts in the group doesn’t mean it can’t take your identity entirely and shift it in a direction that isn’t as successful.
The Celtics have a golden opportunity to emerge from a Finals campaign with all still under contract and with the tools to make some significant additions to the rotation. The Celtics opted to part ways with Richardson and Langford rather than take advantage of Evan Fournier’s $17.1 million trade exemption, which expires July 18, preferring to save them for the summer , while ducking the 2021-22 luxury tax. So will they use it now? Stevens didn’t sound like he was chasing another Derrick White-level acquisition.
“Now if you ask me what we need, I’d like to have a little more goals – consistent goals – from the bench,” Stevens said. “I think we have some short term needs there but I believe in some of the guys who haven’t been able to play that much that they will continue to improve and will be knocking on that door soon. So we have some development opportunities within our own organization and we will continue to comb through and explore our options with our trade exceptions and blueprint and our limited resources at liberty.”
The NBA Finals showed the pressure on Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart to make it all happen when defense ramps up and wipes out Boston’s drive-and-kick flow. It took them half a season to figure out how to gracefully move the ball from the opening tip to the buzzer, then lost those good habits just when they needed them most. Stevens and Ime Udoka will now focus on getting parts to ensure their offensive principles are in place from day one and can sustain a full post-season run.
“Everyone wants to be able to score three ways,” Stevens said. “You have to be able to break down your guy when the shot clock runs out. But you have to be able to score against every single cover in the pick-and-roll. Then you have to be able to score in the movement. I think we would both prefer to play with a little more movement. “
White found a groove as a secondary playmaker, but Udoka rarely had him to run point as defense went under his screens and clogged Boston’s lanes. Payton Pritchard could barely pick and roll against the Warriors and got stuck at the other end in isolation too often.
As much as the Celtics needed to differentiate themselves from Schröder and even Richardson in order to establish the style of play they desired, padding the back end of the roster with G Leaguers bit them in the end. Part of the calculation for Richardson’s move was that there wouldn’t be enough minutes to keep him happy. The Celtics wanted to go after Orlando’s Gary Harris if he was bought out, team sources said the athlete back then, but it never came to market.
Stevens prioritizes a player that fits the Celtics’ style of play, whether it’s someone who can pick and roll or is more adept at spreading the ground and attacking closeouts.
“I think we need a bit more playmaking. I think that’s true,” said Stevrens. “I think we need more playmaking but I don’t think we can stagnate. We have to make sure we keep playing with pace. When we’re at our best we play with pace and when we get an advantage the ball lashes out and I just thought we’ve been playing pretty slow in that last series.
Playing with speed is key, but where does that come from? Can Pritchard become a more aggressive ball handler to get in the teeth of a playoff defense and see through the trees to make the right score-or-pass reads? Can Aaron Nesmith take a deep breath and carry a strong summer into the regular season? Stevens on Tuesday hoped the game will slow down for some of Boston’s recent first-round picks who are sitting on the fringes of the rotation, allowing them to step into bigger roles without disrupting what’s already working.
“Especially our group isn’t so much about recruiting talent blindly as it is about putting together a team,” he said. “We have some very, very talented guys and they are young. So it’s about how we fit together, bringing our strengths together to enhance each other.”
Game 4 of the Finals set the agenda for the offseason. The Celtics eventually had to face the Warriors in crunch time, with Rob Williams injured and untangling things. While Steph Curry took over to wrap up one of the pivotal games of his career, Boston struggled to make a good impression at the other end.
Stevens emphasized length and versatility across the board that year, building a team that knocked on the door of a championship with just nine rotational players. On Tuesday, he sounded like he wanted to add some of the missing pieces to that core identity to improve the team’s offensive versatility and add more variety to their attack, as Udoka called for after the season ended.
“Thanks to them (the Warriors) that certainly influenced us. But all things considered, we had a chance to take a 3-1 lead in Game 4 with five minutes left and maybe we feel a little bit different,” Stevens said. “But in this league, there’s no question that the more guys who can play offense, the better. And the challenge, again, is to ensure that whatever you do on the fringes of our squad, we have a unique identity and uniqueness in our size and our ability to be versatile across the board. So we have to take that into account when we strengthen our team.
“But if we can keep that and add some playmaking, no doubt you’ll want to do that.”
(Top Photo by Brad Stevens: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)