What has been established this offseason is the Celtics’ sense of urgency. They are not going to be outshone by the Milwaukee Bucks or any contender. They proved that again Sunday by pulling off a masterful deal for All-Star Jrue Holiday.
Inasmuch as president of basketball operations Brad Stevens and coach Joe Mazzulla tried convincing the faithful that Derrick White was a more-than-adequate replacement for the traded Marcus Smart, there was a better upgrade on the market and he emerged when the Bucks dealt Holiday to the Portland Trail Blazers in the Damian Lillard deal.
It wasn’t as dramatic as the Celtics throwing in all their chips for this season in acquiring Holiday. Instead, the Celtics made an astute trade where they moved an unhappy Malcolm Brogdon, who had been on the trade block all summer, gifted but oft-injured center Robert Williams, and two first-round picks.
Holiday earns $36.1 million this season and has a player option for $38.6 million next season, meaning this could be a two-year commitment, unless Holiday feels he can demand more on the open market in free agency.
For now, a motivated Holiday is headed to Boston. He’s one of the best two-way players in the game; a relentless defensive ball hawk, solid shooter, and floor leader. Holiday has spent years menacing the Celtics, including that pivotal steal of Smart in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2022.
Holiday replaces Smart, giving the Celtics the most talented starting lineup in the NBA with Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Kristaps Porzingis, and either Al Horford or White, depending on whether Mazzulla wants to go small or big.
It also gives the Celtics a more consistent playmaker and a better 3-point shooter. Holiday averaged 39.5 percent from beyond the arc in his three seasons with the Bucks and is at 36.6 percent for his career. By comparison, Smart shot 32.3 percent in his nine seasons.
Holiday is steadier and more consistent than Smart, and he won a championship in 2021 with the Bucks. Just days before his trade to the Trail Blazers, Holiday said he wanted to remain a Buck for the rest of his career. He is now a Celtic and will be Lillard’s primary defender when the Celtics and Bucks meet in the regular season ― and in the playoffs.
This is a good trade, and one that had to be done. Brogdon was salty after nearly being traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in July and the fit in Boston became uncomfortable. He won Sixth Man of Year award but his defense and ability to finish at the rim slipped considerably.
New Bleav in #Celtics @GwashburnGlobe & I discuss a Brogdon for Jrue Holiday swap— Warren Shaw 🇯🇲 (@ShawSportsNBA) September 28, 2023
"If you put Jrue Holiday on that damn team, they are a championship team...you have your Marcus Smart replacement"https://t.co/jOi1IPjweA@BleavSports @BleavNetwork pic.twitter.com/ZnfRpVFZyO
When the Celtics traded Smart to the Memphis Grizzlies, it created a void at point guard and on the bench. Mazzulla and Stevens were adamant that White, and even Tatum, would assume point guard duties. The Celtics were going to need Brogdon to fill a sixth man role, while playing some at point guard.
They were fully prepared for him to be on the roster next season until Holiday became available, and suddenly he was expendable again. Brogdon wants an opportunity to start and play point guard. That wasn’t going to happen in Boston. Now he’ll likely be traded again by the Blazers, perhaps to the Clippers, where he’ll get his desired opportunity.
As for Williams, it’s a bittersweet goodbye, but health was always an issue for a player who was beset by a myriad of bizarre injuries. The Celtics couldn’t depend on him to play 70 games, even as he entered his prime years. He was expected to report to camp completely healthy and was the team’s best frontcourt asset. That’s why the Celtics were able to facilitate the trade.
Portland was looking for a younger big to pair with recently acquired Deandre Ayton and Williams, 25, will blend in nicely. The Celtics were going to have to sacrifice a core piece to acquire Holiday, and they took a considerable frontcourt hit.
The team’s response was signing former Los Angeles Lakers energy forward/center Wenyen Gabriel, who should win the backup center job in training camp. The Celtics thinking is they’d rather have a healthier option in the frontcourt with lesser talent than Williams, but with Holiday on the roster.
This trade gives the Celtics plenty of roster flexibility and they’ll be able to add to their frontcourt when other clubs begin paring down rosters. The Celtics’ roster is far from complete, but they have equipped themselves with the best point guard option available on the market, an upgrade from Smart, a proven commodity, and a former champion.
This is the biggest Celtics season since 2007-08, when they acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce with all eyes on a title. It’s the same philosophy this season. Tatum and Brown are entering their primes. Porzingis is an element they’ve lacked during the Stevens era, while White is coming off a stellar season.
Stevens has been aggressive in his quest to retool. The loss to the Miami Heat last season was embarrassing. The bench was too thin. The point guard position was an issue. Now the Celtics are fully loaded, a team ready to win a championship. There are no excuses, and there’s still enough leeway to improve the roster as the trade deadline approaches.
The Jrue Holiday acquisition is a move that perhaps the Celtics were too conservative to pull off in recent years. But the clock is ticking and the time is now. So they pulled it off.