The perception that the Celtics are pushing all of their chips into the middle of the table for the 2022-23 season and disregarding this season is just not true, according to president of basketball operations Brad Stevens.
That’s been the assumption since the Celtics stayed mostly quiet in free agency while their rivals snapped up players to improve quickly, including former Celtics Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker, who left for the New York Knicks.
Stevens feels good about this year’s team — returning gold medalist Jayson Tatum, a healthy Jaylen Brown, a re-signed Marcus Smart, and acquisitions Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Dennis Schroder and Enes Kanter along with three first-round picks in the past two years who are expected to help.
Stevens believes the Celtics were able to improve the roster with astute moves and maintain cap flexibility for the future. They ridded themselves of Walker’s contract — two years and $74 million remaining — garnered a $17.1 million trade exception for Fournier and then scored by getting Schroder perhaps $10 million per season less than his original asking price.
“We want to be a good team,” Stevens said Thursday. “I think we’ve been fortunate to add some guys that can really play. That’s a positive. I think we’re in a good position from a big picture standpoint.”
Stevens would not comment on Smart’s four-year, $77 million extension because it’s not official but confirmed the combo guard is part of the long-term future.
“Obviously you know what Marcus has meant to winning here and I think that’s very obvious since he’s been here we’ve been a good basketball team,” he said.
Stevens’s personality has been self-deprecating and he made an interesting statement when assessing last year’s 36-36 season. It was an injury-filled, disheartening year, one that prompted a series of changes, including the hiring of coach Ime Udoka, and one that caused Stevens to reconsider his impact on the players and whether he was the right candidate to continue coaching.
“I think that last year with all the different injuries and the uniqueness of the season, the quick turnover, that team last year was probably a little better than we played,” he said. “Obviously we improved on coaching and we added a couple of really good players and so I’m excited about this year’s group and one of the things Danny (Ainge) always did a really good job of is he didn’t ever try to put a ceiling on us and I would never try to do that with this year’s group. We certainly feel good about the group as we head into the year and also look forward to what we’re going to be able to do down the road.
“The reality is, when you’re in it, it’s really freaking hard to beat a team,” Stevens said. “I think it’s easy to look at it from the 10,000-foot view. The minute you don’t bring your A-game in this league you’re gonna get beat. Like any other year, there’s always things I would look back on and say there are things I could have done a lot better. There are things that we did pretty well and things that you wish you had done differently.”
Last year’s team was not the most popular with Celtics faithful. It was a frustrating bunch because it was so wildly inconsistent.
“I want to be a team that Boston can really get behind, that plays with a great edge, that plays with a grit and toughness that’s necessary to compete at the very, very high level,” Stevens said. “I think Ime and his staff will do a great job coaching to that.”
The Celtics acquired Richardson from the Dallas Mavericks in case Fournier signed elsewhere. He provides a staunch defender with the ability to score, but his 3-point percentage has dropped steadily the past four seasons.
“Josh brings a great grit, an edge,” Stevens said. “He can defend several positions. Last year was a little bit of an anomaly with how he shot the ball. He’s always been a good shooter.”
Schroder was one of the biggest stories in free agency because of the contract he didn’t sign. He turned down a four-year, $84 million extension from the Los Angeles Lakers, hoping for a nine-figure contract. The Lakers acquired Russell Westbrook. The Washington Wizards opted for Spencer Dinwiddie. The Miami Heat acquired Kyle Lowry. The Chicago Bulls traded for Lonzo Ball, drying up the point guard market.
Schroder reluctantly accepted the Celtics’s $5.9 million mid-level exception offer.
“Dennis, I think we were really fortunate,” Stevens said. “We obviously were very cognizant of what we had from a resource standpoint in free agency and Dennis was a guy if you would have asked me on the first day, it would probably be unlikely that we would be in play for him. He is super edge, super competitor. A guy that can impact the game at so many levels. They just give us a lot of flexibility.”
Stevens said there is no sense of urgency to add to a team with 16 players on the active roster in addition to two-way contract rookie Sam Hauser. Stevens has created flexibility and believes the team that will be more competitive than expected.
“We just thought that being able to again open up more space to be able to take in (salaries), the more flexibility we have, the better,” he said. “We have a lot of good players and that’s exciting, we want to be able to play a lot of different ways.”