The Celtics’ weakness earlier this year was its inability to maintain a big lead or allowing a lead to balloon out of reach. It was their bench. Once the starters are taken out for a breather, their consistency of either scoring or defending against the opposition is thrown out of the window and their rivals get a shot to put the game out of reach.
So former Boston coach-turned-GM Brad Stevens did what he has to do, make the moves to correct this in two key trades:
The Celtics receive Derrick White.
They gave up Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, their first-round pick in the 2022 NBA Draft (top-four protected) and a potential first-round pick swap in 2028 to the San Antonio Spurs.
Boston gets Daniel Theis.
They gave Dennis Schroder, Enes Freedom, and Bruno Fernando to the Houston Rockets.
Many were skeptical for the “costs” the Celtics gave up. Some even went as far as to label the White trade as among the worst trades in Celtic history, along with Chauncey Billups for Kenny Anderson in 1998, and Joe Johnson for Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers in 2002.
It turned out both are excellent two-way players and are a great fit for the Celtics’ system under Coach Ime Udoka. Their names may not ring a bell to many but their arrivals put the Celtics bench to a far more than respectable level.
Yes, the picks are a hefty price to pay for White who look like bench material for the Spurs but early returns show he was more valuable to the Celtics than Richardson, Langford, and Schroder combined.
On the other hand, old friend Theis is a better alternative than Freedom or Fernando, especially on the defensive end, for the C’s and his fit into Udoka’s eight-man rotation was on point. The Celtics haven’t felt the absence of Robert Williams, who went down due to a foot injury, when he took over the center slot.
The guard-center combination the Celtics got was instrumental in hardly missing their all-defensive big man.
In fact, the Celtics have the best record since the All-Star break at 17-5. The Dallas Mavericks (17-6), Milwaukee Bucks (15-7), Memphis Grizzlies (15-7), Philadelphia 76ers (16-8), and Phoenix Suns (16-8) round up the top six.
These trades also show Stevens and Udoka knew their basketball. They understand exactly what they want and how to build a competitive team around their two-way stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The multiple players given up now looks like a genius dump move of pieces they don’t really need.
This also freed time for Payton Prichard to finally get significant action on the floor, another brilliant effect of the trades.
In essence, Stevens might have gotten White and Theis for the 2022 first-round pick and the 2028 Spurs first-round pick swap.
Look at how their new depth chart became full of superb two-way players that fit their system: Guards (Marcus Smart, White, Pritchard); Forwards (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Grant Williams); Centers (Robert Williams, Al Horford, Theis).
White combining with Smart and Brown will form a backcourt that give any team fits because of their defensive prowess along with a respectable ability to produce baskets.
Meanwhile, Theis makes the frontcourt not change a lot whenever Robert Williams or Al Horford takes a breather.
With Prichard subbing at point and Grant Williams at forward to complete the rotation, the relatively young Celtics crew looks like a solid squad which can make a deep playoff run, with a bench that looks far more formidable than it was before the trade.
Personally, I’d like to see them add another big who can dominate the paint to the mix but they are set for the next few years at least until Horford calls it quits with what they currently have.
The dividends of Stevens’ moves came earlier than expected and those who would not consider the Celtics a championship caliber team are in a surprise given defensive mindset of this team.
Many are taking the Brooklyn Nets to advance over them in the first round match-up, mainly because of the absence of Robert Williams, but I have a feeling this would not be the case.
They are 5-3 during the games Williams was sidelined, which is not pretty at first glance but a deeper look at five of these games will show why I’m high on them to advance easily.
Firstly, they routed two of the playoff bound teams the faced, 117-94 against the Chicago Bulls, and 139-110 against the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies opted to rest majority of their key players. So while this game does not reflect the true status, the bench played the entire fourth quarter and outscored their Grizzlies counterparts, 35-31. Grant Williams (20 minutes, +17), White (20 minutes, +17), Prichard (20 minutes, +17) and Luke Kornet (13 minutes, +4) all showed they can sustain a lead against another contenders’ bench.
Secondly their two of their losses were toughly fought against highly favored playoff teams while missing key personnel.
They barely lost to Toronto in overtime, 112-115, while missing Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford. They lost to Milwaukee, 121-127, while missing Jayson Tatum and Al Horford. This game also marked the return of Brook Lopez for the Bucks.
Lastly, their other loss was to top-seed Miami, 98-106. The Celtics were competitive in the first three quarters and were up by three going to the fourth. A measly 15-point output in the final quarter spelled their doom, something of a concern as Celtics had some trouble pulling out clutch baskets all season.
Their becoming a different team defensively and bench-wise since the trade deadline, however, will be too much for the Nets in this much up. The games will be competitive but it is not surprising if the Celtics advance on a 4-1 count.
By Armando Bolislis