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Brad Stevens: Celtics ‘had to’ trade Marcus Smart to balance roster

Brad Stevens explained trading Marcus Smart as a basketball decision rather than a cultural one after it became official on Friday morning.

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets - Game One Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

BOSTON — Brad Stevens arrived on the floor of the Auerbach Center shortly before 2 a.m., minutes after completing the trade call that officially ended Marcus Smart’s time with the Celtics after nearly one decade with the team. An emotional, yet stoic Stevens explained the difficult decision as a necessary one while avoiding allusions to cultural dynamics.

“It wasn’t a very long (goodbye),” Stevens said. “It was your best chance to share your gratitude to him, and I think that because of these things and the sensitivity and how many people talk about him and the wild speculation when something happens, it’s hard to digest and it’s hard to process. He actually came in this morning, so I got a chance to see him this morning. You’re not going to be around a guy that you really like every day, but you’ll always have the relationship that these teammates have, these coaches have, that everybody in the organization has that’ll be forever. Then, when you go to a new place, then you build a new one and your network doubles. That’s just sort of the way it works.”

Stevens acknowledged Smart’s contributions to the organization, stressing that he transformed it upon arrival while not growing sentimental about a move he strongly believed in. Acquiring Kristaps Porziņģis stemmed from Stevens’ desire to enhance the front court and pull from a position of strength at guard. Malcolm Brogdon remained after reports indicated an initial framework of the deal involved him moving to the Clippers, which fell apart shortly before Porziņģis’ player option deadline. Stevens wouldn’t discuss the lost LA deal, but acknowledged needing to always know all the options available.

This one proved agonizing for a portion of the fan base that deemed him an indispensable part of the team’s culture. Others deemed that impact expendable, Stevens sitting among them while thanking Smart for his service. Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, among others, can make up for Smart’s loss in a leadership-by-committee environment, Stevens indicated, while downplaying any notion the locker room needed a message or alteration.

“I don’t really look at it that way,” Stevens said. “I think everybody’s going to be asked, as they do every summer, to improve, grow, develop and be ready to contribute in the role that they’re ultimately asked to play. From our standpoint, we just looked at it as, ‘what’s our best opportunity to continue to grow and improve as a team?’ Knowing that sometimes really, really hard decisions have to be made. Like I said, not only adding Kristaps with his skill, his size and the positional versatility, we just had many more numbers and options at the smaller positions than we did at the bigs, especially as we look forward too. I thought it was good to do, but hard to do.”

Targeting Porziņģis solidified a position Stevens enjoyed seeing teams playing through, watching the Celtics court multiple centers at the same time when the team played at its best in recent years. He hadn’t met Porziņģis personally yet, who expressed excitement about the opportunity on social media after the announcement of the trade.

The Celtics hope to retain him long-term once he becomes extension-eligible on July 6 for as much as two-years, $77 million. Stevens saw a player continuing to progress through his latest stop in Washington, once a mainstay as a Knicks lottery selection before injuries and front office tinkering in New York led him to Dallas in a blockbuster trade after missing 2019. Years spent regularly on the sideline flowed into a relatively healthy 2023 with the Wizards.

“(Porziņģis is) a guy that we think could certainly be a really good player,” Stevens said. “He’s been a really good player thus far, and only has gotten better. To me, that’s the part that really stands out. Sometimes when you’re the fourth pick in the draft and you get all those accolades and all that attention and all these eyes, and you’re going through your growth process, there’s some ups-and-downs, he’s at a point where he’s starting to play at the best level I’ve seen.”

The Porziņģis trade also involved Boston acquiring the No. 25 pick from Memphis for Smart, which the Celtics methodically traded back from three times before sending the No. 39 selection to Atlanta for a 2027 second. Boston drafted Jordan Walsh, a freshman from Arkansas, No. 38 overall, allowing him to enter an expected second-round exception. Stevens and the Celtics worked him out twice ahead of the draft and he made a short list of players they’d enjoy drafting, able to recoup lost second-round draft capital and walk away with a player they liked.

Boston received a 2025 second-round selection (likely the better of GSW or WAS), a 2026 second-rounder (the best of NYK, MIN, POR, NOLA) and a 2024 Dallas second-rounder. Stevens aimed to replenish increasingly valuable second round selections, who are expected to receive an exception in the new CBA. That allowed the Celtics to keep their mid-level exception alive this summer by staying far enough below the second apron line, a tool Boston may or may not utilize, he said.

“(Walsh is) a good prospect, he’s young,” Stevens said. “We don’t expect him to come in and take the world on fire in the first couple of months, summer league, first year. He has a special ability laterally, and with his wingspan to swallow people up defensively.”

Stevens spoke about Payton Pritchard and Derrick White as a tandem capable of carrying the back court into the future beyond Smart. He included Brogdon, who’s recovering well from his right arm tear without surgery so far, but left the door open to a surgical option if Brogdon decides to address it in that way. The Celtics expect Brogdon on the floor for the season, and seemed to endorse the nonsurgical approach Boston’s doctors recommended.

Charles Lee and Sam Cassell arrived at the Celtics facility this week and began meeting their new colleagues. Other reported additions to the staff, including Phil Pressey and Amile Jefferson, await confirmation while Stevens acknowledged Ben Sullivan departed the coaching staff. He also affirmed the decisions as Joe Mazzulla’s, not his.

Jayson Tatum became Smart’s first former teammate to react to the guard’s exit before the teams announced the deal on Friday. He told Smart to never change in an Instagram post, called him irreplaceable and promised to reunite with him in the future to win a championship.

“It’s not comparing (one guard) against another, or whatever the case may be,” Stevens said. “The way that this deal materialized and the way it gave us a chance to balance our roster, as heart-wrenching as it was to part with Marcus, it was something we felt we had to do.”

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