Several weeks ago, with the Celtics scraping and clawing just to get back to .500, and the chances of missing the playoffs shifting from unfathomable to quite possible, there were questions about whether first-year president of basketball operations Brad Stevens should turn the focus toward the future.
But then they won eight of nine games and watched some of the Eastern Conference powers stumble, resetting a belief in what could be possible. And on Thursday, at his first trade deadline in his new role, Stevens orchestrated a sweeping series of moves that should make the Celtics formidable in the playoffs while maintaining future flexibility for a bigger splash.
According to multiple league sources, the Celtics traded guards Josh Richardson, Dennis Schröder, and P.J. Dozier, forwards Romeo Langford and Bol Bol, centers Bruno Fernando and Enes Freedom, and their protected 2022 first-round pick, and they acquired Spurs guard Derrick White and Rockets center Daniel Theis, a former Celtic.
These moves also pushed the Celtics about $2.5 million below the luxury-tax threshold, and they will likely make an effort to stay there as they fill out the roster.
The deals left five open spots, so more moves will follow soon. According to a league source, the Celtics will likely fill some gaps by signing free agents to 10-day deals in the short term, then explore the buyout market as players become available in the coming weeks. In the end, though, those transactions generally will just fill space.
While it seems, on the surface, that the Celtics underwent a jarring overhaul, the moves mostly involved players on the periphery. Coach Ime Udoka had whittled his rotation to eight players in recent weeks. Schröder and Richardson were the only ones from that group to be moved, and both are backups.
The Celtics did not disturb their dominant starting lineup of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams, Marcus Smart, and Al Horford. According to a league source, Celtics executives have been thrilled with the play of that unit now that it is healthy. But the chemistry of the second string had been inconsistent and sometimes clunky, and there was a push to find players who could fit better with Tatum and Brown.
Although Richardson and Schröder had played well, White is an upgrade as a sixth man, and Theis already showed during his four seasons with the Celtics from 2017-20 that he can mesh with this core.
White, 27, averaged 14.4 points and 5.6 rebounds for the Spurs this year. Udoka was an assistant in San Antonio during White’s first two seasons with the team, and a league source said that Udoka and associate head coach Will Hardy, another former Spurs assistant, vouched for White and are thrilled about his arrival.
Also, White was teammates with Tatum, Brown, and Smart at the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
A league source said that the team believes that White, who is in the first season of a four-year, $68 million contract extension he signed in December 2020, will complement Tatum and Brown with his passing and general focus on ball movement. Also, he can play point guard or shooting guard and is a good fit for the Celtics’ switch-heavy defensive scheme. He is a career 34.4 percent 3-point shooter, but has connected on 31.4 percent this year.
The Celtics traded Theis to the Bulls two years ago in a salary-clearing move, but he established himself as a sturdy and reliable option during his time in Boston and was always a Stevens favorite. He is a smart, versatile defender who is also capable of stretching the floor with his shooting, two skills that Freedom simply did not offer.
Theis is in the first year of a four-year, $35 million contract he signed last summer, with a team option in the final season. So his return does signal a slight departure from the focus on maintaining roster flexibility for now. But his contract is hardly an albatross, and Horford will become a free agent after next season, too.
A league source indicated that second-year players Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith, who have been used sparingly recently but have shown promise when given extended opportunities, are expected to vie for spots in the regular rotation again.
The Celtics agreed to trade Richardson, Langford, and the 2022 pick to the Spurs for White. The pick will convey to San Antonio this year only if it falls outside the top four, which is all but certain to happen. The Spurs also will have the option of swapping first-round picks with the Celtics in 2028.
Later in the day, the Celtics agreed to send Schröder, Freedom, and Fernando to the Rockets in the Theis deal.
Schröder, who is averaging 14.4 points and 4.2 assists, is on a $5.9 million expiring contract and the Celtics hold his Non-Bird Rights, meaning they could have offered him only about $7.2 million this summer, so his departure had seemed likely.
While he was a capable scorer, the ball tended to stop when it reached his hands, and he struggled to find a rhythm as a backup after having good stretches as a fill-in starter.
Richardson had become an integral part of Udoka’s rotation, averaging 9.7 points and 2.8 rebounds while shooting 39.7 percent from the 3-point line. He was acquired in a trade with the Mavericks last summer and signed a one-year, $12.2 million contract extension for the 2022-23 season soon after.
Langford’s Boston tenure, meanwhile, will be remembered as much for the injuries that kept him off the court as for what he did on it. The 14th overall pick of the 2019 draft played in just 94 games over his 2½ years. This season he is averaging 4.7 points and 2.4 rebounds, but he had recently fallen out of the regular rotation, along with Freedom.
The Celtics’ first move of the day was their most inconsequential. They agreed to trade Dozier and Bol and a future second-round pick to the Magic for a future second-round pick, league sources confirmed.
Dozier and Bol were acquired in a trade with the Nuggets last month and both are out indefinitely with injuries.