What is now obvious is Brad Stevens has been spending the past several months devising ways to undo some of his predecessor Danny Ainge’s most controversial moves.
Thursday was spent clearing out roster space, ridding the Celtics of unwanted or unproductive bench players, and upgrading coach Ime Udoka’s frontline rotation without much concern with the end of the bench.
For years the Celtics have carried players on their roster who couldn’t help short or long term. Ainge, the former president of basketball operations, was reluctant to admit he had made draft mistakes. He kept Tacko Fall and Tremont Waters on two-way contracts for two years. Neither is on an NBA roster.
Stevens made the bold move of acquiring San Antonio starting shooting guard Derrick White, who is likely to come off the bench, along with bringing back Daniel Theis in separate deals.
Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, and a protected first-round pick were sent to the Spurs for White, while Dennis Schröder, Enes Freedom, and Bruno Fernando were dealt to Houston for Theis, who was part of Ainge’s final trade a year ago.
Stevens wants the Celtics to keep an open maximum salary slot for next summer, stay below the luxury tax, and improve the roster simultaneously. His most prudent method was to move some desirable pieces, such as Richardson, and clear out the bench players.
The Celtics now have eight players on the roster with two on two-way contracts – after dealing five active players along with Bol Bol and P.J. Dozier – and he will need to add two players on 10-day or rest-of-the-season contracts by Friday’s game against Denver. The contract of two-way contract swingman Sam Hauser is also expected to be converted to a standard NBA deal.
The move of Langford is interesting considering it’s an admission that his selection as 14th overall in 2019 was a mistake. Unfortunately, Langford wasn’t physically ready for the NBA and took too long to develop, and still hadn’t earned consistent minutes in his third season.
Why have the Celtics struggled so much in recent years on support for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum? It’s draft mistakes. Langford was supposed to be a reliable piece by now and that never happened and he finishes his Celtics career averaging 3.6 points in 94 career games. The scoring average is tied for 41st amongst the 60 players drafted in 2019. He is tied with another former Celtic in Carsen Edwards, who was traded by Stevens this summer and is now in the NBA G-League.
There was a concern Stevens would be attached to the players he used to coach and there would be an attachment to players who had yet to develop. Stevens never had that problem, cleaning house with a flawed roster over the past several months, including moving younger players who just weren’t helping all that much.
And Stevens doesn’t think much of first-round picks, apparently either, now having traded the Celtics past two in separate deals. The most important thing he wanted to accomplish is keeping that maximum slot open, and it remains unaffected.
Stevens was able to acquire an NBA starter in White without having to trade an NBA starter, which is a positive. White is not a household name, a player who began his college career at Colorado-Colorado Springs before transferring to Colorado and then working his way into the first round in 2017.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s players are well coached and well developed, and the organization took time to develop White into a dependable player. The Celtics are getting the finished product, a professional who can score and defend.
Theis returns to give the Celtics depth at the center position. Freedom proved unable to play in Udoka’s system and while Fernando was a supportive cheerleader at the end of the bench, he didn’t serve much of a purpose.
Stevens is making his own impact , obviously soaking in the knowledge from years of working with Ainge but also making his own decisions. As a coach, he tried working with the players Ainge drafted and signed, and it was apparent he didn’t think much of last year’s roster that finished 36-36 and was bounced out of the first round of the playoffs by the Brooklyn Nets.
Stevens is also a close follower of college basketball, so the fact he’s passed on two mid-first-round picks over two drafts gives an indication of the lack of depth he believes will be available. He wants to add to this roster through free agency, players from the buyout market, and perhaps plucking young players who have been discarded from other teams. He will build this roster with more creative means, because quite honestly, the draft hasn’t been as effective as expected and the war chest of picks Ainge gathered in the 2013 Brooklyn trade produced Brown and Tatum but little else.
It’s now Stevens’ job to sign players over the next few days and give Udoka the most competitive roster to compete in what has been a distinctively changed Eastern Conference. The Nets added Ben Simmons. The 76ers added James Harden. The Bucks traded for Serge Ibaka. Boston entered Friday on a six-game winning streak, with a reshaped roster, and with renewed hope it can add a major player this summer.
So what we know now is Brad Stevens is not Danny Ainge, and he has spent the past several months cleaning up Ainge’s mistakes and miscues. The roster is now Stevens’s, and he appears comfortable in his new role.