If you ever traded sports cards as a kid, you’re probably familiar with a tactic meant to deceive your buddy holding the flashy rookie. You offer a pile of cards in exchange for one good card, knowing full well that you’re receiving the piece with the most value.
Anyone who was perplexed when the Celtics traded away seven players and received two in return should consider this analogy. Boston on Thursday parted ways with Josh Richardson, Dennis Schröder, Enes Freedom, Romeo Langford, Bruno Fernando, P.J. Dozier, and Bol Bol, and brought back Derrick White and Daniel Theis. But the replacement players the Celtics eventually find will end up being just as good as or better than several of the players who departed.
Richardson and Schröder were Boston’s only two from that group making significant contributions, and White is an upgrade over both of them. The sample size is tiny, but in wins over the Nuggets and Hawks — perhaps the two most impressive victories during this eight-game streak — the Celtics outscored opponents by 20.4 points per 100 possessions with White on the floor. And that is not simply a matter of being present for a battering. Starters Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown have two-game net ratings of plus-5.8 and plus-3.6, respectively.
The fit has been seamless, and unlike Schröder, who tended to dribble the paint off of the floor, White ensures that the ball is always on the move, making him a perfect complement to Brown and Jayson Tatum.
“The two games that D. White has played in, he’s made an immediate impact,” Tatum said. “Just a big guard, knows how to play basketball, high IQ, makes the right plays, great defender.”
▪ Freedom, meanwhile, had become almost unplayable. Opponents exploited him in pick-and-roll actions time and again, his rebounding numbers dipped, and he fell out of Ime Udoka’s rotation. Theis, who was acquired from Houston in exchange for Schröder, Freedom and Fernando, can easily slide in as a dependable third big man who offers defensive versatility and is capable of stretching the floor with his shooting. And he spent 3½ seasons alongside Brown, Tatum and Marcus Smart, so the familiarity should help.
On-court chemistry aside, though, it’s fair to quibble over the financial impact of Theis’s arrival. He is in the first season of a four-year, $36 million deal that includes a team option in the final season. He turns 30 in April and his play regressed with the Rockets, although that could’ve been due more to the franchise’s struggles than Theis’s own.
But Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens has been fond of Theis since coaching him. Furthermore, there weren’t many options for trading Schröder. And once the Celtics agreed to acquire White, it was even more obvious that it was time for Boston and Schröder to part ways.
▪ The Celtics also added their 2022 first-round pick and a 2028 pick swap in the deal that sent Richardson and Langford to the Spurs in exchange for White. That makes Boston’s sudden climb toward the top of the Eastern Conference even more notable, because every win decreases the value of this year’s draft pick.
It’s impossible to know what these franchises will look like in six years, but it seems more likely than not that the pick swap will not even be exercised. The Spurs (22-35) are nowhere near contention, but with solid young players such as first-time All-Star Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson, they’re also likely to need some lottery luck to add a top draft pick who could help a quick ascension. If Tatum and Brown are still Celtics in 2028, they’ll remain in their primes. Franchises’ fortunes shift suddenly in the NBA, but it seems improbable that this will turn out to be a costly decision for Boston.
▪ Langford’s Boston tenure certainly came to an unfulfilling end. The Celtics’ acquired the Kings’ 2019 first-round pick in the 2017 deal in which they sent the No. 1 overall pick that year to the 76ers in exchange for the No. 3 pick, which was used to select Tatum. Boston’s brass was confident the Kings pick would eventually land in the high lottery, but Sacramento put together a surprising 39-43 record. That left the Celtics with the 14th pick, and that turned into Langford.
Even as Langford struggled with injuries and his general adjustment to the NBA over his first two seasons, he remained a favorite of former president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. He had some value as a defender and his jump-shot showed gradual improvement, but there was enough of a sample-size to see that he was unlikely to become a difference-maker. It was time to move on.
▪ 76ers guard James Harden will miss Tuesday’s game against the Celtics as he continues to rehabilitate his left hamstring. He is expected to return after the All-Star break. Philadelphia acquired Harden from the Nets last Thursday in a blockbuster deal in which Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and Andre Drummond were sent to Brooklyn.
This continues a fortuitous stretch for the Celtics. During this eight-game winning streak, every Boston opponent besides the Magic has been missing at least one starter. The list includes Miami’s Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry; Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving; New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas; Charlotte’s Gordon Hayward; Detroit’s Cade Cunningham; Atlanta’s John Collins and Denver’s Monte Morris.