Brad Stevens discussed the Josh Richardson trade, Dennis Schröder signing and Enes Kanter addition, while reflecting on his transition to president this offseason. He thought about what worked and didn’t last year, learned the role quickly, then tried to stay diligent, making the right moves. Flexibility became his initial theme, then it became clear the Celtics also want to build momentum toward future deals, instead of tearing down the roster to find cap space.
Thursday’s press conference marked an unofficial end to his first busy offseason, as only ancillary moves, like finding a second two-way contract, and eventually cutting the roster down to 15 for the regular season remain — with nothing imminent.
The team projects to excel at defense and play multiple different styles, as Ime Udoka noted at Summer League. He’ll take full control of the minute and role allocation in training camp, with Stevens humbly noting one of the Celtics’ improvements could come at head coach. The still unofficial Marcus Smart extension went unaddressed, aside from giving a nod toward Smart’s role in building Boston’s winning through his tenure.
“I think that last year, with all the different injuries and the uniqueness of the season, quick turnaround, I do think that team last year was probably a little better than we played,” he said. “We improved our coaching, and we added a couple of really good players, and so I’m excited about this year’s group. I think one of the things that Danny always did a really good job of, he didn’t ever try to ever put a ceiling on us, and I would never try to do that.”
Stevens also revealed that he has approval from Celtics ownership to go deeper into the luxury tax, which is why Boston chose not to hard cap itself. The Smart extension makes the Celtics an above-the-cap team into the future, so going deeper into the tax through trade exceptions and traditional trades will be the only ways for Stevens to improve. The Schröder signing thrust the team over the luxury tax line, by just over $6-million.
The Celtics will eventually settle on 15 roster players, with 16 currently on the team entering training camp. Sam Hauser signed a two-way contract last week, leaving one more for Stevens to utilize. He said he’ll wait until other teams make cuts, as the Celtics assess a variety of candidates. Yam Madar and Juhann Begarin will play overseas next season, after Madar signed a three-year deal with Partizan Belgrade.
“I think the biggest thing that I’ve felt, as we’ve moved forward, is I want to be a team that Boston can really get behind,” Stevens said. “That plays with a great edge, that plays with a grit and toughness that’s necessary to compete at the very, very highest level. I think Ime and his staff will do a great job coaching to that and we have a lot of players that have proven themselves as competitors.”
The Celtics didn’t think Schröder would be available to them when free agency opened, without cap space or a desire to hard cap the team, and with the point guard standing among the most talented players in the class. Then, the money dried up, the Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook and Boston held some of the most opportunity in its back court that interested teams could provide.
“I think we were really fortunate,” Stevens said. “He is super edge, super competitor, is a guy who can impact the game at so many levels, and plays both ends of the court. Those guys just give us a lot of flexibility ... and Marcus, Jaylen, and Jayson, Al and Rob. We’ve got seven proven guys who have been able to play at a starter and finisher level.”
Stevens emphasized the new defensive identity Udoka and he wanted to build a team around. They got older in their core rotations and players like Schröder, Richardson and Kanter will likely provide greater reliability than younger players like Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith and Grant Williams brought at those positions in recent seasons. It also allows those players to continue to have mentorship and be challenged for minutes.
“Schröder can play above his height and is a pest when he picks up and when he gets into the ball,” Stevens said. “He’s as disruptive as you can be. So I think that obviously there’s two sides of the ball. To win a game, you’ve got to play both sides well. To be a great team, and a team that’s in the mix, you should probably be in the top five-to-six on both sides.”
The Celtics added a player that fit the team’s new theme in Richardson, who can handle the ball and defend a variety of positions. They also retained flexibility on a one-year contract, and allowed Boston to maintain the roughly $11 million remaining in the Gordon Hayward trade exception beyond the TPE’s late-August expiration date.
“(It was) our biggest opportunity, with the resources that we had going in to make sure that we solidify ourselves,” Stevens said. “Josh brings a great grit, an edge, he can defend multiple positions ... he wants to win. Winning is very important to him. The way he separated himself when he joined the league, being a mid-second round pick, he showed his competitive character out of the gate. That’s something we’re looking forward to.”
Like Udoka last week, Stevens acknowledged Richardson did not shoot well last year and believes he’ll improve on open looks. Numbers Stevens saw indicated Richardson can keep his lineups spaced enough.
The Celtics returned Kanter on a one-year, league minimum deal that will pair him with Robert Williams III, Al Horford, Grant Williams and Bruno Fernando in the front court. He signed after averaging 11.2 points and 11.0 rebounds per game in Portland last year. Kanter’s 2019-20 season in Boston ranked as one of the greatest rebounding seasons in Celtics history.
“We were very fortunate to add him, given the market,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy who brings us toughness. With his ability to rebound and score the ball, he’s good for our team.”
Evan Fournier departure
Stevens said the Celtics and Fournier shared their numbers entering free agency, before both sides decided to go in different directions. The Knicks paid Fournier a four-year, $78-million contract, and Boston acquired a $17.1-million trade exception that will last until late next summer — Stevens sending New York a second round pick as sweetener for the TPE along with a heavily protected Charlotte second.
Adding Fournier didn’t go how Boston planned, between an early playoff exit and long COVID-19 hiatus. Between that and Brown’s late-season surgery, the Celtics barely saw its core together with Fournier, who shot and scored well, but struggled to defend on the perimeter in the Nets’ 4-1 series win over Boston in the first round of the playoffs.
“We really liked Evan,” Stevens said. “Where he was, he chose a different option, but he’s a good player ... he had some really good moments ... I thought that there were just challenges. He’ll continue to have a really good career ... we just thought that being able to open up more space to be able to take in, whether it’s one salary, whether it’s several salaries, the more flexibility we have, the better.”
Summer league takeaways
Boston went 4-1 in Summer League, showing evident strides from Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith, while Romeo Langford played more sound defense. Bruno Fernando displayed some energizing shot blocking and finishing abilities on either end of the floor. Stevens watched live with Udoka. While the influx of new talent provides somewhat of an uphill battle for Boston’s young cast, there will be some wing minutes with Fournier departing.
“I was really encouraged,” Stevens said. “Joe and a lot of our staff members that we’ve added, a couple we picked up for Summer League, they really did a great job coaching that team. Then I thought the players, led by the people that have been on our roster like Carsen, Payton and Romeo and Aaron all did a really good job. I thought Bruno was obviously a great addition when he was able join the team, and gave us a different look with his ability to get to the rim. I thought Sam had some really good moments.”
Stevens added Madar gave Boston some game-changing moments on defense before he got hurt. Madar played with activity that encouraged the Celtics’ brass in their first impression of him against NBA competition. Begarin’s verticality impressed too. He’ll likely return to Europe. Hauser will spend some time in Maine working on his defense.
Boston’s aversion to the hard cap, ability to take on salary and new-found depth signals two things. The Celtics will not clear the deck next summer to sign a player like Bradley Beal. Their next attempt at a star acquisition, Beal or otherwise, will come through a trade.
Adding more valuable players in-season by trading first round picks could be the next step in that direction, improving the Celtics immediately in 2021-22 and having bird rights on players like Richardson to bring them if they contribute to winning.
Taking on full contracts without sending out salary, or minimal salary like Mo Brown’s in the Richardson trade, will also build Boston’s array of salaries toward making trades later. Increasing Smart’s average annual contract value also helps in that direction.
Flexibility was originally seen as keeping max cap space next summer. Now, for likely several reasons, the Celtics have shifted toward becoming a team with substantial trade flexibility through exceptions and medium-sized salaries. They want to compete this year, an addition like Schröder showed, and shift in a more experienced direction.
The Celtics can now build some internal momentum toward improving its current cast as a winning group to attract stars, improve the value of these players around the league, or remain competitive if the stars don’t come.
“We want to be a good team,” I think that we’ve been fortunate to add some guys that can really play, I think that’s a positive, and I think that we’re in a good from the big picture standpoint. I can’t comment on some of the stuff you said about Marcus yet, but obviously you know what Marcus has meant to winning here and I think that’s been very obvious.”