In late January, with the Celtics hovering around .500 and the season’s direction unclear, owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca called a meeting with the front office and coach Ime Udoka.
But the purpose was not to voice frustrations. Despite their stumbles, the Celtics had shown promise when their top players were available. There were also plenty of games left, and with the Feb. 10 trade deadline approaching, there were opportunities for alterations.
“Wyc came to us and said, ‘I think this team could be really good,’ ” vice president of basketball operations Mike Zarren recalled. “He said. ‘Let’s go for it. We’re not sellers. We’re buyers.’ And that was kind of our lodestar.”
The Celtics went on a mild winning streak against undermanned competition, and when the trade deadline arrived, there was unanimous agreement that it was time to strike. Over a dizzying 24-hour period the team traded seven players and added guard Derrick White and center Daniel Theis.
Then the Celtics became dominant, roaring to a 20-6 finish that included 10 wins by 20 points or more. They enter their opening-round playoff series against the Nets on Sunday as title contenders, a truth that would have seemed unfathomable just two months ago.
“I think Ime, [president of basketball operations Brad Stevens], and Wyc showed real steadiness through the early adversity, because it wasn’t fun,” assistant general manager Austin Ainge said. “We were playing worse than we thought we’d be. No one liked watching our team. Many, many organizations would’ve panicked, and the three people in charge here didn’t.”
‘Do whatever we can to get him’
In October, Grousbeck made it clear to Stevens and Udoka that he would not judge them based on a rocky start. The Celtics were coming off a frustrating .500 campaign and had restructured their front office, coaching staff, and roster. There were going to be potholes, and it wouldn’t help anyone if they made the leaders uneasy.
“And if I was quiet then, they might wonder what I was thinking,” Grousbeck said. “But I wasn’t. I was vocal, saying that I think we have the pieces here for the long-term view. And I wasn’t making any phone calls after games going, ‘What the hell is going on?’ That’s not how I operate.”
In January, Grousbeck organized a Zoom call with Udoka and Stevens that was centered on mapping a blueprint.
Grousbeck, who rowed at Princeton, asked Udoka to name a small group of players on the roster he would want in a boat with him if he was trying to cross the Atlantic Ocean. He wanted to know who Udoka trusted, who worked the hardest, and who was irreplaceable.
“The gist was, ‘Let’s agree on what we want and what we see,’ ” Grousbeck said. “And it was me really listening to Brad and Ime. I wasn’t making suggestions or directing as much as just making sure we’re on the same page. We identified some guys we definitely didn’t want to lose, and we built around that. We wanted to add to something that didn’t feel broken.”
Although Udoka had been on the job for just a few months and was primarily responsible for the product on the court, he felt empowered to share his insight.
“I think it was good for them to hear somebody else’s perspective after hearing it from Brad and the others for all these years,” Udoka said. “There are a lot of similarities between the way Brad and I saw things and saw certain players that could help us. And ownership was on board to try to take a step this year.”
Udoka said that the Celtics would benefit from adding outside shooting and by solidifying their top-ranked defense with a versatile wing and a big man. He thought Dennis Schröder and Josh Richardson were key pieces, but he was unsure if they meshed perfectly in his scheme.
“We were losing some leads in games, and offensively stuff didn’t fit all the time,” Udoka said. “How could we get a group that would really help Jayson [Tatum] and Jaylen [Brown] going forward? And when D. White’s name came up, I said, ‘If possible, let’s do whatever we can to get him.’ ”
The first domino
Although this was Stevens’s first trade deadline since replacing Danny Ainge as lead decision-maker, he was already comfortable with the general rhythm. He’d orchestrated three trades last summer, including the massive deal that sent Kemba Walker to the Thunder in exchange for Al Horford.
And during his eight seasons as head coach, he’d been involved in some deadline mayhem. He realized that in his new post it would be a year-round task.
“There’s a ton of time, a ton of thought, a ton of branches you kind of put out in your mind and as a staff to figure out what you think is worth pursuing,” Stevens said. “Yes, you have to make decisions by 3 on trade deadline day, but you’re preparing for those decisions for months in advance.”
One of the branches stretched to San Antonio. The Celtics had been interested in White since the 2017 draft. In 2019, White joined Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart on USA Basketball’s FIBA World Cup team, and Stevens became even more impressed.
After getting endorsements from Udoka and assistant coach Will Hardy, who coached White in San Antonio, the wing emerged as Boston’s prime deadline target. The Celtics thought his passing and defensive versatility, and the fact that he was under contract for the next three seasons, would make him a perfect complement to Tatum and Brown.
Conversations started earlier this season and the Celtics made their interest clear. But the Spurs were hardly shopping the 27-year-old guard, and it was unknown whether they would part with him.
“We had some sense what the type of price would be, and I don’t think we were very confident that there was a real discussion there until a week or two before the deadline,” Zarren said.
At that point the Spurs were 19-34, left with little choice but to consider a rebuild. The sides eventually came up with the framework but had to agree on protections for the 2022 first-round pick Boston was relinquishing.
Zarren has seen plenty of deals crumble during this phase, but this roadblock was cleared. The Celtics sent Richardson, Romeo Langford, and their 2022 first-round pick, protected 1-4, to the Spurs.
‘All of a sudden, things got a lot better’
The acquisition of White would make Schröder somewhat redundant, and the Celtics were still on the lookout for a versatile third-string center.
Stevens had coached Theis for 3½ seasons in Boston and loved his work ethic and the fact that he’d been in playoff battles with this team’s core. But cursory discussions with the Rockets were not promising.
The Celtics moved on and had talks involving Schröder and center Enes Freedom with other teams, but they never gained traction. Then, with less than an hour left before the deadline, the Rockets called back and asked if the offer was still on the table.
There was some question about whether it’d make sense to add a third-string center on a four-year, $35.6 million contract. But Horford’s deal for next season is just partially guaranteed, ascending big man Robert Williams has battled injuries, and Freedom was a liability on defense and limited on offense.
With less than 10 minutes left before the deadline, the Celtics agreed to send Schröder, Freedom, and center Bruno Fernando to the Rockets in exchange for Theis.
“It wasn’t the latest deal we’ve ever done,” Zarren said, “but it was close.”
Earlier in the day, the Celtics traded injured players Bol Bol and P.J. Dozier to the Magic in a salary-clearing move. In all, they’d sent out seven players and added just two. There were holes to fill, but not important ones.
Second-year guard Payton Pritchard had fallen out of the rotation, but the Celtics remained high on him, and they viewed the housecleaning as a chance for Pritchard to reclaim a key spot.
“I talked with Payton and said, ‘OK, this is what we have now. This is your role moving forward,’ ” Udoka said. “He was obviously looking forward to it.”
White, Theis, and Pritchard are now essential pieces of Udoka’s nine-man rotation. White averaged 11 points, 3.5 assists, and 3.4 rebounds per game and almost instantly appeared comfortable in his new surroundings.
Theis played well in his backup role but has been invaluable since sliding in as a starter following Williams’s knee injury three weeks ago, averaging 13.1 points and 5.9 rebounds over that span. Pritchard shook off his poor shooting start and finished the regular season as the team’s leading 3-point shooter, at 41.2 percent. All three will have a sizable impact on whatever playoff push this team makes.
Back in January, when this team was languishing in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, the idea of a long postseason run would probably have been met with snickers. But good health and subtle alterations have shifted beliefs about what could be possible.
“All of a sudden, things got a lot better,” Grousbeck said. “The chemistry we’ve had the last few months is rare. It’s insane.”