The primary emphasis of Brad Stevens’s first official press conference since being named the Celtics’ president of basketball operations is that he understands the NBA is indeed a business.
He sees the bigger picture clearly. He cannot allow emotions to get involved with decisions, that’s why he traded Kemba Walker to the Oklahoma City Thunder two weeks into his new job.
He liked Walker. But Walker’s salary prevented the Celtics from upgrading their roster this summer. His production did not match his salary cap and Stevens knew Walker had to be moved to create more flexibility.
He got back former Celtic Al Horford, prospect Moses Brown, and a second-round pick in return. It was a necessary move but an unsavory ending to what was such a promising signing two years ago.
“This was really hard,” he said. “This was not the ideal first few weeks on the job move because of the kind of person that Kemba is and the kind of professional he is and how good of a player he is. A lot of hard [phone] calls.”
Stevens let Celtics faithful and the league know quickly he has the kind of disposition to be maneuvering, a shrewd general manager but with a more personable touch. His predecessor, Danny Ainge, was blamed in the final years for being insensitive to his players.
Many around the league have never gotten over his trade of an injured Isaiah Thomas in 2017 after the All-Star led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals on a torn up hip and played through the tragic death of his sister.
Ainge also dangled Walker this summer in trades when it was apparent the guard needed a knee procedure and wasn’t 100 percent healthy. And while these practices are not foreign around the NBA, opposing teams became wary of doing deals with Ainge while players empathized with Thomas because his dedication to the Celtics cost him millions.
“It is difficult because, for instance, I just really liked Kemba, period, end of story,” Stevens said. “He is a super-likeable person. Again, the deal was made, we had to look at with the idea of moving that first-round pick, it gave us an opportunity to look at a road ahead with a few more options from a financial flexibility standpoint. And it was the best deal that we thought with regard to returning players. [We did it because of] the opportunity to add Al, who makes significantly less money but is a really good player but has knowledge of this environment and [we] gain financial flexibility moving forward.”
Stevens is talking now like a general manager. He’s got to learn how to master the salary cap so the Celtics can improve and avoid the luxury tax at the same time. Players become numbers in his new position more than personalities.
The new coach can bond with the guys and be their mentors. Stevens, of course, will offer tips to whomever he hires but will take a less personable approach than before.
“I don’t know how good I could be at this job, that’s to be determined,” Stevens said. “I’m pouring everything into it. It’s been a lot of work in the first 17 days, it’s been nonstop. The one thing I should be good at is supporting the head coach and not being involved. My door is open but I do not want to be anything but supportive. I’ve told everybody that I’ve talked to in a weird way, kind of a messed up way, I’m looking forward to the first time we lose and I can walk in there and put my arm around him and say, ‘I’ve lost a ton here. Let’s go have a beer. It’s part of the journey.’”
Stevens will not be judged on how great of a guy he is or how highly he values the Celtics players. He will be judged on how quickly he can lift this stagnant organization back to prominence. What we have learned over the past few days is the Celtics aren’t the only Eastern Conference contender with issues.
The top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers were just ousted from the playoffs by the Atlanta Hawks and now may have to trade declining guard Ben Simmons and break up their core. The Brooklyn Nets lost in seven games to the Milwaukee Bucks because their big three couldn’t stay healthy and their $75 million shooting specialist couldn’t make shots. The Miami Heat and New York Knicks also have some roster issues to address this summer.
So Stevens is not alone. The Celtics are not that far away from returning to contender status and the Walker trade was the first step in Stevens’s quest to upgrade the roster for the next coach.
“The fair way to do this from this new role is really kind of assess everything over time and see how operationally we are and see what we need to add,” Stevens said. “We obviously have a really good foundation and have very talented young players and that’s a good place to be. And it’s about finding the right fit. Ultimately we want to be in the mix [for a championship] and there’s a lot to consider and every decision we make has to be geared toward getting better but getting into the mix at some point, hopefully in the very near future.”