Brad Stevens served as head coach of the Celtics for eight years before the 2021-22 season before moving up to his current role as president of basketball operations. Considering his time in college, he spent 20 years as a coach in his career (14 seasons as head coach) and less than a year and a half as an executive. It stands to reason that Stevens’ long experience as a head coach will have a major impact on how he handles roster building.
In fact, Stevens has decisively reshaped the Celtics roster since taking over. While his predecessor, Danny Ainge, built a solid talent base primarily through the draft (see: Tatum, Brown, Smart, Rob, Grant, Pritchard), Stevens acquired through savvy veterans. Strengthened the existing talent base and oversaw a roster with the most wins in the NBA (including the playoffs) since he took the front office.
How does Stevens’ coaching background affect his decisions at the front office? How is his approach different (not) from Angie’s famously stingy one? How might Stevens’ philosophy affect his approach to the looming NBA trade deadline as he tries to push a contending team over the top?
The goal here is not to argue over which executive is better. Overall, I think Ainge is in the top quarter of the league, if not higher, as the Celtics’ primary decision-maker for nearly two decades. Likewise, Stevens has done well since taking office. Instead, let’s explore some of the key factors that differentiate Stevens from Angie.
- Motivation when making a major transaction: Angie is known for constantly trying to “win” deals in terms of value extracted or assets acquired. Stevens’ three big trades so far (Horford, White and Brogdon) cost the Celtics a considerable amount of assets, including young players and first-round picks. Stevens’ motivation when making major deals has always been to identify and acquire veterans in long-term deals to complement his existing core. Sheer talent and acquisition costs seem secondary to on-court and off-court fit.
- Prioritization and role definition for team chemistry: Coaches often think about rotations, minutes and roles. In the NBA, regular season rotations typically consist of 9-10 players, while playoff rotations can often be tightened to the top 7 or -8. The locker room is a fragile ecosystem, and the easiest way to disrupt that ecosystem is to have players on the roster who don’t accept, or ideally don’t accept, their role. Many GMs have backgrounds in scouting or talent assessment, more like talent collectors. Likewise, fans often see roster building primarily as a talent-building exercise, where they move players like pawns on a chessboard through trade machines or 2k franchises.
However, Stevens’ coaching background makes him sensitive to how a move could affect character definition and chemistry across the roster. For example, while most were calling for Stevens to fill the back end of the roster with a more established veteran minimum option last summer (or even use the massive $17.1 million Fournier TPE before it expired), Stevens Stevens might consider his team’s regular-season and playoff rotation already intact after the Brogdon trade. As such, he might conclude that adding more players who might be expected to rotate roles on a regular basis would reduce the return on investment.
3. Willing to trade draft picks for veterans: Ainge often holds on to future draft picks and assets instead of cashing them out for veteran trades. He values the flexibility to pursue big swings ahead. Stevens didn’t hesitate to include veterans’ assets. A total of 3 first-round picks have been sent out, 1 pick has been swapped, and young players such as Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith have been awarded Horford, White, and Brogdon. Any coach will tell you that experienced teams usually win more often than younger teams. Stevens was primarily targeting veterans who were still in their prime in the Smart and Rob trades and extensions.
The upcoming NBA trade deadline
So how will Stevens’ coach-centric decision-making process affect how he handles the looming NBA trade deadline? First of all, I don’t want major fireworks before this deadline. The Celtics have a clear rotation lineup for the top 8 playoffs: Smart, Brown, Tatum, Horford, Rob, Brogdon, White, Grant. If they’re all healthy, those eight players will likely be highly leveraged every minute of the playoffs. The Celtics advanced to Game 6 of the NBA Finals last year with a seven-man rotation (Theis hasn’t played much since Rob’s return and Pritchard has been in an inconsistent role). Adding Brogdon to the mix means the playoff rotation is inseparable, even deeper than last year.
Plus, Stevens’ gamble on the back end of the lineup appears to have paid off in the regular season, as they maintain the best record in the league. While they’re all flawed players who might not be ready for the test of the playoffs, Kornet, Hauser, Pritchard and Griffin have all made a difference at times. They seem capable of effectively filling those 9-12 regular-season fringe rotation spots. As such, it’s unlikely that Stevens will find an acquisition that would both fulfill and upgrade his current rotation. While I predict a quiet deadline for the Celtics, trades are interesting, so let’s briefly explore some ideas that might fit into Stevens’ philosophy of adding fit for role but not threatening team chemistry and role definition. veteran.
The sun gets: Justin Jackson ($1.8 million) and the No. 2 pick in 2023
Celtic get: Torrey Craig ($5.1 million)
break down: The Celtics will absorb Craig into their $5.9 million TPE, while the fast-sinking Suns save some luxury-tax savings and add a second spot for non-core players. Craig would add depth on the wing (arguably the thinnest position on the team) late in the regular season, allowing Tatum and Brown to sneak in extra rest here and there. The Celtics won’t be improving their eight-man playoff rotation with this move, but they won’t be giving up much either.
Stevens Hits Single – Theis-Style Deals Part Two
Jazz receive: Peyton Pritchard, Danilo Gallinari and Justin Jackson ($10.8 million combined)
Celtic get: Kelly Olynyk ($12.8 million)
break down: The Jazz could come alive at the trade deadline, and the move reunites Ainge with his former draft pick Pritchard, who has an edge as a strong shooting backup point guard in the league. Pritchard could be a good project for the Jazz if they let go of a guard like Mike Conley or even Jordan Clarkson.
Meanwhile, Olynyk will be Daniel Theis at this year’s trade deadline, a former Celtics player Stevens is happy with. While he probably won’t break out of the Celtics’ eight-man playoff rotation with everyone healthy, he’ll be a solid cover in case Rob Williams, Al Horford or Grant Williams Either of the James misses the playoffs or the end of the regular season. Olynyk’s ability to play the 4 or 5 and shoot from the perimeter allows him to blend seamlessly with any of the Celtics’ current big men. Olynyk’s $12 million salary next year is expensive for insurance options, but only $3 million is guaranteed.
The unique nature of his deal next year will give the Celtics even more peace of mind as they plan around Rob’s health concerns and pending restricted free-agent negotiations with Grant. Assuming Grant re-signs and Rob finishes the season healthy, Olynyk may or may not get his full contract for next year. However, if the Celtics do take it, it’s still useful for any deal the Celtics might make during the 2023 offseason or the 2024 trade deadline (like Theis’ contract is Same basis as matching Brogdon’s trade salary).
Big Swing – Home Run or Strikeout?
Eagles get: Derek White and Grant Williams ($21.1 million combined)
Celtic get: John Collins ($23.5 million)
break down: Full disclosure – I wouldn’t be doing this trade, but it’s an interesting thought exercise. Collins has been mired in trade rumors for some time, and he appears to be one of the players most likely to be traded before the deadline. The Hawks can certainly make lineup adjustments. White and Grant are a great fit for the Eagles for the same reasons they’re a great fit for the Celtics. They’re unselfish role players who can shoot open shots, defend well, and don’t handle the ball. The Hawks need more of those guys.
If the Celtics are going to accept a trade of this nature, they obviously have to be convinced that Collins can be a long-term starting quartet after Smart, Brown, Tatum and Rob. Essentially, Collins will be the Horford replacement the Celtics ultimately need. While I think it’s too risky to change an eight-man rotation that’s as effective as the one Stevens put together this year, Collins does fit Stevens’ modus operandi in one way. He’s a young veteran, in his prime, signed to a long-term contract. After this season, Collins has three years and $78 million remaining on his contract (his final year is a player option). While that contract might sound cost prohibitive, keep in mind that White makes about $17 million a year, and Grant’s new deal this summer could be in the mid-teens as well. Starting next year, Collins will actually be cheaper than White and Grant combined.