Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens made a point several times during a 20-minute news conference Monday to make it clear how much he liked point guard Kemba Walker, who was traded to the Thunder Friday.
But Stevens knows that in this new role he will have to separate personal feelings about a player from what he believes is best for this franchise. So in his first move, he orchestrated the deal in which Walker, the No. 16 pick in next month’s draft, and a 2025 second-round pick were sent to the Thunder in exchange for former Celtics forward Al Horford, center Moses Brown, and a 2023 second-round choice.
“We felt that one of the things we wanted was the ability to be unencumbered moving forward and kind of have a road ahead,” Stevens said. “We have a lot of things that we have to address appropriately and this is really hard. This is not the ideal first few weeks on the job, just because of the kind of person that Kemba is, the kind of professional he is, and how good of a player he is and continues to be.”
The Celtics could have waited until closer to the draft or even next season to seek a deal for Walker, when other teams could have entered the picture. But Stevens said he was motivated to act swiftly in part because he wanted to complete the deal in this league year, which keeps other avenues open. For example, the Celtics cannot trade their first-round pick in consecutive years, so by making this move in the 2020-21 season, they will have the ability to trade next year’s pick, too, if they wish.
Also, the chance to acquire a player of Horford’s caliber was too good to pass up. Horford had three productive seasons with the Celtics before signing a four-year deal with the 76ers in July 2019. He lasted just one season in Philadelphia, however, before being sent to the Thunder in a salary-clearing move.
He played in just 28 games for Oklahoma City before the team deactivated him to focus on the development of its younger core. But Stevens believes that Horford, 35, can still be impactful.
“The opportunity to add Al, who makes significantly less money [than Walker] but is a really good player, who has corporate knowledge of this environment, that’s really excited to be back in Boston and has a good feel for not only playing with our guys, but also has made them better [is important],” Stevens said.
“I think his ability to pass, his ability to play a couple of positions, but certainly stretch the floor against bigs, and his ability to guard guys that are all very good. But his impact on others and his ability to lift others is one of his great strengths.”
Stevens also spoke highly of Brown, who erupted for 21 points and 23 rebounds in Oklahoma City’s loss to the Celtics in March. The 21-year-old had his two-way contract converted to an NBA deal the next day.
“We like Moses as an upside player,” Stevens said. “Obviously, we saw the best of Moses in our game. But he’s a guy who got a bigger taste of the NBA this year. He got a great opportunity, and when he did play, he put up numbers.
“He’s a guy we’re excited to learn more about and work with, and see how he fits with our group. The ability to make our wings better is going to be a huge part of the people that will be around them.”
Horford and Brown will join a suddenly deep collection of big men that includes Robert Williams, Tristan Thompson, and perhaps even two-way contract player Tacko Fall.
“That just becomes a longer discussion, without getting into specifics, of can guys play together?” Stevens said. “Can you do the double-big thing with certain groups? Are there guys that pair better together?
“I do think, for instance, Tristan’s ability to switch and Tristan’s ability to rebound allows him to play with a spacer like Al, who also has a lot of flexibility. Rob’s ability to play in the dunker and hitting Al in the seams and playing with the lob game gives you flexibility. Those are things we’ll have to figure out.”
With this big deal complete, Stevens can turn his attention toward finding his replacement as coach. Before starting his news conference, he said that he would not address any questions related to the search for a new coach.
He did say that he has been in contact with his predecessor as president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, and that he has consulted with the team’s current players regarding personnel matters, specifically All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
“[Ainge] obviously has such a vast experience in this and is great to run everything by and he’s going to be around,” Stevens said, “and I told him to be around as much as you want to be around here, because he’s done so much for all of us and he’s really, really good at this, obviously.”