Brad Stevens spent eight years Celtics head coach before moving upstairs to his current position of President of Basketball Operations prior to the 2021-22 season. Considering his time in college, he’s spent twenty years as a coach (14 seasons as head coach) during his career and less than a year and a half as an executive. It only makes sense that Stephens’ long experience as a head coach would have a huge impact on how he approaches roster building.
In fact, Stevens has decisively reshaped the Celtics’ roster since taking over. Whereas his predecessor, Danny Aing, built an excellent foundation of talent primarily through the draft (see: Tatum, Brown, Smart, Rupp, Grant, Pritchard), Stephens emphasized the pre-existing talent base with savvy veteran acquisitions and oversaw a roster She has the most wins in the NBA (including playoffs) since the beginning of his front office tenure.
How does Stevens’ training background inform front office decision making? How does his approach differ from the famous Ainge(in) method? How Stevens’ philosophy might influence his approach to the future NBA trade deadline While seeking to push a competing list over the top?
The point here is not to discuss which executive is better. Overall, I would consider Ainge’s progression as the Celtics’ lead decision maker over nearly two decades to rank in the first quarter of the league if not higher. Likewise, Stevens has done an excellent job since taking over. Instead, let’s explore some of the key factors that differentiate Stevens from Ainge.
- Motives when making important deals: Ainge has been known to constantly try to “win” trades in terms of value extracted or assets acquired. Stevens’ three major trades to date (Horford, White, and Brogdon) have seen the Celtics give up a fair amount of assets in the form of junior players and first-round picks. Stevens’ motive when making major deals has been to identify and acquire veterans in long-term deals that complement his current core. Sheer talent and cost of acquisition seem secondary to fitness on and off the field.
- Prioritizing team chemistry and role definition: The coach is constantly thinking in terms of cycles, minutes and turns. In the NBA, regular season rotations generally include 9-10 players, while rotations can often be tightened to a higher 7 or -8. The locker room is a fragile ecosystem, and the easiest way to destroy that ecosystem is to have players on the roster who don’t accept or embrace their roles perfectly. Many GMs have a background in talent scouting or assessment and act more as talent collectors. Similarly, roster creation is often seen by fans as a talent acquisition exercise as they can move players around like pieces on a chessboard across trading machines or a 2k franchise.
However, Stevens’ coaching background makes him extremely sensitive to how moves affect role definition and chemistry throughout the entire roster. For example, while most called on Stevens to fill the back end of the roster last summer with more established veteran inferior options (or even using $17.1 million Fournier TPE before it expired), Stevens likely saw his team’s regular season and playoff game. Rotation as it is already after the Brogdon trade. Thus, he may have concluded that adding more players who might expect a regular rotating turn would provide a diminishing return on investment.
3. Prepare to Trade Picks for Veterans: Ainge has frequently kept future draft picks and assets rather than cashing them in veteran trades. He appreciated the flexibility to follow big fluctuations in the future. Stevens did not hesitate to include assets for veterans. Cumulatively, he sent three first-round picks, one pick swap, and young players such as Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith to acquire Horford, White, and Brogdon. Any coach will tell you that veteran teams are usually more willing to win than junior teams. Stevens, in both the careers and additions of Smart and Rob, targeted mostly veterans still in their prime.
Next NBA trade deadline
So how will Stephens’ coaching-centric decision-making influence his approach to the upcoming NBA trade deadline? First, I’m not expecting major fireworks on this deadline. The Celtics have a clear rotation of top 8 playoffs: Smart, Brown, Tatum, Horford, Rob, Brogdon, White, and Grant. If they were all healthy, those 8 players could potentially play every single minute of the high leverage playoffs. The Celtics advanced to Game 6 of the NBA Finals With a rotation of 7 players last year (Theis didn’t play much once Rob returned and Pritchard’s role was loose). Adding Brogdon to the mix means the supplement rotation is tighter and even deeper than last year.
Additionally, Stevens’ gamble with the back end of the roster appears to have paid off up to this point in the regular season as they have the best record in the league. Although they are all flawed players who may not have been ready for the playoff crucible, Kornet, Hauser, Pritchard and Griffin were all useful at times. It appears to be able to effectively fill those 9-12 seasonal marginal rotation points. Therefore, Stephens is unlikely to find an achievable acquisition and promotion in his current rotation. While I anticipate a quiet deadline for the Celtics, trades are fun, so let’s briefly explore some ideas that might work with Stevens’ philosophy of adding veterans who fit a role but don’t threaten the team’s chemistry and role definition.
receiving suns: Justin Jackson ($1.8 million), 2023 2nd Rd Pick
Celtics receive: Tori Craig ($5.1 million)
Separation: The Celtics will soak Craig in his $5.9 million TPE, while the Suns, which are sinking fast, are saving some fancy tax dollars and adding a second for a non-starter. Craig will boost his wing depth (arguably the thinnest position on the team) over the course of the regular season allowing Tatum and Brown to sneak in some extra relief here and there. Not only will the Celtics improve their 8-man rotation with this move, but they also won’t give up much.
Stevens hits single – Part two of Theis-like deal
Receiving Jazz: Payton Pritchard, Danilo Gallinari, and Justin Jackson ($10.8 million combined)
Celtics receive: Kelly Olynyk ($12.8 million)
Separation: The Jazz will likely be active at the trade deadline, and the move unites Ainge with his former pick, Pritchard, who has the upside as a solid backup shooting guard in the league. If the Jazz moves on from guards like Mike Conley or even Jordan Clarkson, Pritchard could be a great project for them.
Meanwhile, Oleynik will become Daniel Theis this year in terms of trade deadline who is also an ex-Celtic with whom Stephens feels very comfortable. While he likely won’t crack an 8-man Celtics playoff tournament with everyone healthy, he’ll become quality insurance in case anyone from Rob Williams, Al Horford or Grant Williams has to miss some time during the playoffs or the end of the season. regular season. Olynyk’s ability to play a 4 or 5 and shoot from the outside allows him to fit in fairly seamlessly with any of the current top Celtics players. Olynyk’s $12 million salary for next year is expensive for an insurance option, but only $3 million of it is guaranteed.
The unique nature of his deal next year will give the Celtics more peace of mind as they plot around Robb’s health concerns and the pending restricted free agency negotiations with Grant. Assuming Grant is re-signed and Rob finishes the season healthy, Olynyk may or may not be optioned to next year’s full contract. But, if the Celtics pick it up, it could be beneficial for any trades the Celtics might strike during the 2023 season or the 2024 trade deadline (just as Theis contract was key to matching salary in the Brogdon deal).
The Big Swing – Homer or Strike Out?
Falcon receive: Derek White and Grant Williams ($21.1 million total)
Celtics receive: John Collins ($23.5 million)
Separation: Full disclosure – I wouldn’t make this deal, but it’s an intriguing thought exercise. Collins has been heavily involved in trade rumors for a while now, and looks like one of the players most likely to be signed by Deadline. The Hawks could definitely use a roster change. White and Grant would be a great fit on the Hawks for the same reasons they would be a great fit on the Celtics. They are selfless players who can hit open shots, play great defense and not control the ball. The Falcons need more players like that.
If the Celtics are to bask in a deal of this nature, they’ll obviously have to believe strongly in Collins’ suitability as a starting long-term 4 alongside Smart, Brown, Tatum and Rob. Essentially, Collins would become the replacement for Horford that the Celtics would eventually need. While I think it would be too risky to make an eight-man rotation change that was as effective as the one Stephens has put together this year, Collins fits Stephens’ modus operandi in one area. He’s a young veteran who, in his prime, is signed to a long-term contract. Collins has three years and $78 million remaining on his deal after this season (his final year is a player’s option). As expensive as that contract may seem, keep in mind that White earns about $17 million a year, and Grant’s new contract will likely hit this summer in his mid-teens as well. Starting next year, Collins will be cheaper than White and Grant combined.