LAS VEGAS — If there has been one constant during Celtics coach Brad Stevens’s tenure, it is change. Even as Boston ascended to the cusp of the NBA Finals, roster reshuffling became the norm. And this year, which ended with a disappointing loss in the conference semifinals, was followed by one of the more dramatic roster makeovers under Stevens.
Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, and Aron Baynes are all gone, replaced by a group that is headlined by Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter and four draft picks. On Tuesday night, for the first time since the season ended, Stevens talked in detail about the frustrating end to last season and the promise of what’s ahead.
The biggest shifts for the Celtics, of course, are the departures of the former All-Stars Irving and Horford to the Nets and 76ers, respectively. Stevens maintained a positive approach when talking about both players, emphasizing that they had the right as free agents to do as they pleased.
“I don’t know there’s anything anyone individually necessarily feels like they should have done or could have done [to keep Irving],” he said. “That’s part of free agency. You can go where you want at the end of the day. I enjoyed Kyrie. I like Kyrie, and I wish him nothing but health and success. I think anytime you go through a year like we went through where you don’t necessarily meet expectations, I think there’s probably going to be some change. And I don’t fault him one bit for choosing to follow whatever he wants to do. That’s his right.”
Stevens said he did not speak to Irving much after the season ended, although his departure had seemed imminent for some time. Horford’s decision was a bit more of a surprise, as negotiations with the Celtics broke down in mid-June and he ultimately decided to join a rival.
“Obviously, Al was great here,” Stevens said. “We loved Al, and we wanted him back. Again, it’s his choice. He can go do what he wants to do, and there’s a lot of factors that end up helping these guys making those decisions. But he’s a heck of a player and did a great job here in the three years he was here.”
For many organizations, losing players the caliber of Irving and Horford would be crippling. But the Celtics rebounded by signing the three-time All-Star Walker to a four-year, $141 million max contract.
Stevens watched Walker play when he was in high school, coached against him in the 2011 NCAA title game, and admired him during his time with the Hornets, too.
“Obviously, he’s a great player,” Stevens said, “and he’s been able to continue to get better and better and better as his career has gone on. He’s made himself into an excellent shooter, he’s great off pick and rolls, he’s got incredible speed, can see the game, can read the game. He’s an awfully good player, and we’re excited he decided to come to Boston.”
The Celtics’ deals with free agent big men Enes Kanter and Vincent Poirier have not been completed yet, so Stevens was unable to comment about them. But he said he has been encouraged by the play of recent draft picks Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards, and Tremont Waters.
“I think starting with Waters, obviously, all the things he does on the court, the only thing you could ever say about him is he’s too small,” Stevens said. “He’s super savvy. The game comes so easy to him on both ends. He gets his hands on every ball on defense, makes the right plays.
“Carsen has a chance to impact our team early because he obviously can make tough shots, he’s done a great job of picking the right ones, and he’s done a great job of picking up full and pressuring the ball. At Purdue, when he had as much usage as he did, he couldn’t be asked to do that, and we knew that coming in.
“And then Grant’s been just who Grant is. That’s a steady guy who impacts winning. He’s one of the few I think can change his game pretty dramatically and still impact winning.”
Still, Stevens cautioned that there remains a sizable gap between a summer league game and an actual NBA contest. The good news is that the Celtics will have plenty of veterans who know what the real thing is like.
Stevens said that Gordon Hayward has been working out in Boston for most of the summer, and that he resumed his offseason training a bit earlier than usual as he looks to recapture his All-Star form.
“You can tell he’s pretty dialed in,” Stevens said.
The high-profile departures seem to have cleared the way for the team’s two rising stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, to claim larger roles on the court and in the locker room. But Stevens made it clear that he will not press leadership responsibilities on either of them.
“We don’t need people to ascend to those things,” he said. “We just need people to be the best versions of themselves. Then, that stuff all takes care of itself. We have a lot of different players on this team capable of adding value in all those regards. We don’t need Jayson or Jaylen to put that extra burden on themselves. We just need them to get better at what they do well. They’ve been good at working on it. They’ve both been in Boston quite a bit, and they’ve both been working when they’re not. They’ll be fine.”