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The Derrick White trade was a massive win for the Celtics

Adding White to the young core improves the Celtics both now and for the future.

San Antonio Spurs v Phoenix Suns Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

In his first trade deadline as President of Basketball Operations. Brad Stevens put the league on notice. He wasn’t shy about laying it all out there, and in the end, the Boston Celtics improved because of it.

Getting Daniel Theis back is one thing, but adding Derrick White is another. Theis projects to be a high-end backup center that will give Al Horford and Robert Williams some much-needed rest. But White is a player that can play big minutes for the C’s, improving their already elite defense in the process.

Now obviously, as CelticsBlog’s Neil Iyer pointed out here, there are certain drawbacks to the trade. Josh Richardson had been great for the Celtics this year, losing Romeo Langford stings a bit, and trading first-round picks is always dangerous. But the positives of the deal outweigh the negatives by a landslide.

(Also, opinions are opinions for a reason, people. Let’s remember that.)

By far the most popular argument against this trade is the fact that Boston gave up one of their best shooters in Richardson. Looking purely at three-point percentages, Richardson (39.7 percent) was the second-best shooter on the C’s, right behind Grant Williams. White, on the other hand, is only shooting 31.4 percent from deep this season. However, while this season’s numbers are important, it’s crucial to look at the bigger picture.

Richardson is a career 36.1 percent three-point shooter. White? 34.4 percent. Sure, there’s a slight drop-off, but 1.7 percent is much more palatable than 8.3 percent. Plus, it’s easy to consider this season as an outlier for both players.

Use Jayson Tatum as a prime example. He’s shooting a horrendously low 32.8 percent from three-point range this season. Tatum even missed 20 threes in a row at one point. This season has been an off-year for many players around the league, but the general consensus is that water will eventually find its level (thank you, Brad Stevens). The same can be said about both Richardson and White.

When excluding this season from each player’s career totals, here’s what their three-point numbers look like:

  • Josh Richardson: 35.8 percent, 4.4 attempts
  • Derrick White: 35.7 percent, 3.3 attempts

Has Richardson been the better shooter this season? Absolutely. Is that what the numbers tell you over the course of each player’s career? Not at all.

Plus, White’s very clearly the better ball-handler. He’s averaging 5.6 assists this season and is much more involved in San Antonio’s passing game than Richardson is in Boston’s:

  • Josh Richardson: 1.5 assists, 3.3 potential assists, 9.0 assist percentage, 28.8 passes made
  • Derrick White: 5.6 assists, 9.8 potential assists, 25.2 assist percentage, 38.5 passes made

The next point of contention in the deal is the fact that Boston gave up Langford. The third-year wing out of Indiana has shown some real flashes of defensive potential, and his three-point shot looks improved. That being said, he was rarely a regular part of the Celtics’ rotation this year.

There was one stretch from December 20 to December 31 where he played over 23 minutes a night in six straight games, starting four of them, and cracking the 30-minute mark twice. That’s the only real time he spent as a part of Ime Udoka’s go-to rotation.

Boston went 2-4 in those games, in large part due to injuries. However, the real statistic of note is Langford’s three-point percentage. He shot 3-of-19 (15.8 percent) over that stretch. If that doesn’t scream inconsistency, nothing does.

So, if the main complaint regarding the White trade is about losing three-point shooting, then trading away Langford shouldn’t be a major issue. It’s understandable that some are upset about the C’s giving up on a player with potential, but in three years, Langford hasn’t been able to stay on the court long enough to turn that potential into meaningful production.

In a league where superstars come and go on a yearly basis (hello, James Harden), making those players happy is priority #1. In the case of the Celtics, keeping Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown happy is at the top of their to-do list. Continuously banking on the “untapped potential” of a third-year player is much further down that list.

Another topic of debate is White’s defense. After the deal was completed, a lot of fans started dreaming about a defensive lineup of Marcus Smart, White, Brown, Tatum, and Robert Williams. However, now that the dust has settled, a common argument is that White’s defense really isn’t that much better than Richardson’s.

The primary claim in that debate is that Richardson is able to defend wings more often than White is, thus limiting Boston’s defensive versatility. But that’s simply not the case.

White may be an inch shorter than Richardson, but he’s spent plenty of time guarding opposing wings in San Antonio. According to Basketball Index, here’s how much time each player has spent guarding each position so far this season. (The number in parentheses is the percentage of time spent guarding that position this year):

  • Josh Richardson: PG (20.1), SG (35.5), SF (21.8), PF (13.1), C (9.2)
  • Derrick White: PG (25.2), SG (34.0), SF (19.5), (11.7), C (9.6)

(Thanks to Hoops Empire for pointing out this statistic.)

Does Richardson guard more wings than White? Yes. But does a roughly two percent difference at the shooting guard and small forward positions outweigh a five percent difference at the point guard spot? Probably not. If anything, this just shows that White is a more versatile defender than Richardson, capable of guarding positions one through three more often.

In addition, Basketball Index uses a formula to calculate matchup difficulty. White scored an 89.8, while Richardson clocked in at a 55.9. Not only is White guarding a wider variety of opponents, but he’s been forced to guard better players, too. White has recorded a defensive rating (DRTG) of 106.7 on a team with a DRTG of 110.5. Meanwhile, Richardson’s put up a DRTG of 106.3 on a team with a DRTG of 105.3. That context is crucial. And for what it’s worth, Basketball Index classifies Richardson’s defensive role as “helper,” while White’s is listed as “wing stopper.” Make of that what you will.

Another jab at White was that “there’s no dynamic quality to his game.” While there’s definitely an argument to be made there, there’s also a clear argument that he’s simply playing his role. No one in San Antonio ever asked him to be a dynamic player - but that doesn’t mean he never showed those types of flashes.

One very obvious example is the 2019 first-round playoff series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Denver Nuggets. White averaged 15.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists that series, exploding for some big-time moments, including a 36-point explosion in Game 3.

Just because White isn’t the most exciting player in the league doesn’t mean he isn’t dynamic. He just isn’t always asked to play that role. And plus, with Tatum and Brown leading the charge, Boston should be adding players that can play their role and complement them or as Stevens repeatedly said today, “accentuate” them. If White wants to put up 36 points every once in a while, that would simply be an added bonus.

White’s injury history has also been brought up as a flaw. Throughout his career, he’s dealt with a few notable ailments. He tore a ligament in his heel in October of 2018, had toe surgery in August of 2020, and sprained his ankle in April of 2021. While the pattern of foot issues may cause concern, it doesn’t seem to be having any lingering effects.

The Colorado product played in 49 of the Spurs’ 55 games this season. He missed five due to health and safety protocols and one due to rest. And for what it’s worth, the Spurs were 0-6 in those games.

Some fans are upset that Boston included potentially two first-rounders in this deal, the Celtics’ 2022 and a possible swap in 2028. That’s a totally fair criticism. Trading picks is always dangerous, and it’s impossible to know what players could be available with those picks. (Just ask the Brooklyn Nets.)

However, the easy counterpoint to that argument can be found with the Celtics’ recent history. As mentioned, the NBA is at a point where pleasing superstars needs to be every team’s top priority. If the Celtics keep their pick in favor of adding more young talent, there’s always the chance they run into another dud.

With every Robert Williams comes a Carsen Edwards. Every Payton Pritchard comes with a James Young. Terry Rozier vs. RJ Hunter. Grant Williams vs. Guerschon Yabusele. You get the picture.

Desperately holding onto picks in hopes of hitting on a young, potential-filled prospect is one of the main criticisms of Danny Ainge’s tenure in Boston. But now that Stevens is taking the opposite philosophy, he’s receiving just as much backlash. It’s a lose-lose scenario when it comes to fan complaints, but with Brown and Tatum coming up on contract years, Stevens took the approach of putting proven talent around them.

Moving on, another jab that’s been taken at the move is that White is overpaid. He’s set to make roughly $15.2 million this year as a part of a four-year, $70 million contract that has him under contract through the 2024-25 season.

Meanwhile, Richardson was on the books for $11.6 million this year and $12.1 million next year. Romeo Langford makes $3.8 million this year and $5.6 million next year.

Subjectively, paying White around $3.6 million for extra defensive versatility and improved passing is ideal, but taking the opposite stance is totally justifiable as well. However, the real kicker with White is not the number on the contract, but the longevity.

Once again, let’s go back to the point of making superstars happy. With Richardson, the Celtics would have the rest of this season and half of next season (before the trade deadline) to iron out kinks and figure out a plan for him. But White is under contract for three more years after this season. That gives Stevens plenty of time to figure things out, and it also puts a consistent supporting cast alongside Tatum and Brown - something they haven’t had much of.

In fact, both of the trades Boston made ensure this sort of flexibility. Theis is on the books through the 2024-25 season as well. And one thing’s for sure - there will always be teams looking for defensive-minded guards and floor-spacing bigs. Even if things don’t work out with White and Theis, Boston has plenty of time to work out trades.

Lastly, the most underrated part of Boston’s trade deadline moves is giving Tatum and Brown a sense of comfort and familiarity. In fact, everything Stevens has done since taking the reigns as POBO has done just that.

He brought back Horford, brought back Theis, and now he brings in White - a former teammate of the Jays and Smart from Team USA. Friday morning, Tatum spoke about his new teammate:

“A really high IQ basketball player, very gifted offensively, a great defender, and just somebody you love to have on your team.”

In addition, Stevens commented on the move as well, saying that White “only cares about winning.”

“We’ve thought for years that Derrick would be a fit with our very best players. He makes the right plays on offense over and over and over. He only cares about winning.”

Besides being former teammates with most of Boston’s current core, White also has plenty of experience playing under Udoka in San Antonio. Udoka was an assistant coach for the Spurs during White’s rookie and sophomore seasons. He was even a part of the coaching staff for Team USA in 2019 where Smart, Tatum, Brown, and White all played alongside one another. So it’s safe to say he should be pretty comfortable with his current roster.

It’s totally fair to dislike the trade. Everyone is completely entitled to their own opinions. But adding White to the mix improves this team both right now and for the future. Looking at the surface, trading Richardson, Langford, and picks might seem like a lot. But when you dig a little deeper, this trade was a clear win for Stevens and the Celtics.