In eight years as Celtics coach, Brad Stevens saw his share of trade deadlines come and go — and he saw the players that came and went with them.
The deals were part of the business of improving, whether it was for a team making moves to solidify a roster fit for the postseason or one that was looking years in the future.
But those trades were never easy.
“It’s hard to trade one person,” Stevens said a year ago in an interview with NBC Sports. “It’s hard to go through that and say goodbye quickly.”
Stevens went from coach to executive when he took over for departing president of basketball operations Danny Ainge before the 2021-22 season and experienced what it was like to be the man making the decisions at the deadline. The Celtics season was at a crossroads. They had dug themselves out of a hole that had them in 10th place in the conference in January to get to 31-25 as the deadline neared in February. They realized that the season was worth not only saving but investing in.
Celtics governor Wyc Grousbeck’s message to the first-year executive was: “Go all in.”
Stevens was active. With four trades, he moved eight players out and, in Derrick White and Daniel Theis, he brought in a pair who helped the Celtics make a run to the NBA Finals, while stashing a second-round pick in this year’s draft.
Stevens not only bolstered a roster, he continued the always-working approach that has been consistent within the Celtics organization for the past decade.
Since 2013-14, the Celtics have been one of the NBA’s most active teams at the trade deadline. Their 16 trades within one month of the deadline are seventh-most in that span. They have made at least one trade leading up to the deadline in six of the last 10 seasons. They’ve acquired 19 players, 10 draft picks, a pick swap, and cash considerations while giving up 21 players and six picks, plus some cash.
The only team as active as the Celtics at last year’s deadline was the Spurs, who also made four trades. They were stockpiling picks and cash for the future.
The trade deadline usually draws in the majority of the league. Last year, all but three teams (the Bulls, Grizzlies, and Timberwolves) made at least one deal. Over the past decade, typically two-thirds of the league has been active at the deadline.
The reasons for shaking things up vary, obviously. Some teams see themselves as a piece or two away from a title run. Other teams are so far removed from a successful season that acquiring assets and playing for the future only makes sense.
Ideally, Stevens would like the team he built to have enough continuity that deadline shakeups won’t be the norm.
“You don’t want to be in a situation where you’re trading that many people, especially in the middle of the season, normally,” Stevens said last year at this time.
The crown jewel of deadline deals for the Celtics over the past decade is easily the 2015 trade that landed Isaiah Thomas from the Suns in exchange for Marcus Thornton and a protected 2016 first-round pick.
The Celtics were 20-31 as the trade deadline approached that year, 12th in the Eastern Conference.
Free from a Suns roster crowded with guards, Thomas came to Boston and averaged 19 points in 21 games off the bench. The Celtics won 20 of their last 31 games and returned to the playoffs after falling short the year before, earning the seventh seed with a 40-42 record.
Thomas emerged as an All-Star the next two seasons. By 2017, he was the centerpiece of the Celtics offense, averaging 28.9 points and lifting them to the Eastern Conference finals.
But how often have deadline deals reaped those kinds of benefits?
It’s uncommon for All-Star-caliber players to move at the deadline, and in the past decade, the Celtics haven’t generally gone big-game fishing or been willing to dangle their most talented players as bait. Thomas wasn’t an All-Star in 2015 when the Celtics traded for him. But he became one the next year.
He’s the only player in the last 10 years to become an All-Star after getting traded to Boston.
The only former All-Star the Celtics shipped out in the last 10 years was Jameer Nelson, who was six years removed from his All-Star season when the Celtics traded him for Nate Robinson in 2015.
Midseason pickups haven’t typically swung entire seasons for the Celtics over the past decade. But last year’s deal for White was one of the rare instances when a player came in, provided meaningful production, and stayed on the roster beyond the season in which he was acquired.
Of the 19 players the Celtics traded for over the past decade, 12 were traded or waived soon after the transaction or once the offseason rolled around.
White is one of just six players (along with Thomas, Jonas Jerebko, Luke Kornet, Jordan Crawford, and Jerryd Bayless) acquired by the Celtics leading up to the deadline in the past 10 years who played for them beyond the season he was brought in.
White has played 79 games for the Celtics, averaging 10.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists on 43.3/35.2/85.6 shooting in 26.9 minutes per game.
The White trade was a success story in that it helped turn around a season.
Over the past 10 years, the Celtics have had a losing record within a month of the deadline four times (2022, 2021, 2015, 2014) and put together a winning record after making a deadline deal three times (2022, 2021, 2015).
Adding White and Theis last year gave them supplementary defense and shooting that helped them get out of the Eastern Conference.
In 2021, they landed Evan Fournier in a deal with the Magic. In 16 regular-season games, he averaged 13 points on 44.8/46.3/71.4 shooting.
The Celtics lost a five-game series to Brooklyn in the first round of the playoffs, but Fournier started every game and upped his average to 15.4 points on 42.9/43.3/83.3.
This year, the Celtics are in the driver’s seat. They have the best record in the NBA, one game ahead of the Bucks in the East and a half-game up on the Western Conference-leading Nuggets as of Monday. They’re rumored to be in the market for a backup big man and possibly an end-of-the-bench wing.
They don’t need to make a seismic move, but the trend over the past decade says they’ll certainly be by the phone if a deal piques their interest.
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.