So are we supposed to call him Trader Brad now?
You know what, let’s do it, at least for today. And let’s do it without a hint of the misguided cynicism that often came with applying the wheeler-and-dealer designation to Brad Stevens’s predecessor as the Celtics president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge.
Since Stevens — right, Trader Brad — ascended from the bench to the big boss role in the front office on June 2, we’ve been anticipating what his first significant move would look like. After all, no one knows the players’ strengths and weaknesses — not to mention each individual’s behind-the-scenes comportment —better than he does. Make a deal, Brad. Let us know what you really think of this roster.
He did just that Friday morning. Turns out the first deal is a doozy, the kind that makes you double-check to make sure it’s not a fake Adrian Wojnarowski account but the real blue-checkmarked Woj that’s reporting it before you’re comfortable letting out the requisite “holy smokes” or some more colorful variation.
I probably should mention the actual particulars of the trade here at some point, huh? Sorry, I’m still staggered that this actually happened. The Celtics traded Kemba Walker and his untrustworthy knee, the No. 16 overall pick in the 2021 draft, and a 2025 second-round draft pick to Oklahoma City for old friend Al Horford, Moses Brown, and a 2023 second-round pick.
Such is the financial structure of the NBA that it must be considered an excellent deal even before actual basketball matters are considered. The Celtics get out from the two years and $73 million remaining on Walker’s deal, and pick up the $53 million left on Horford’s contract. Stevens (with a presumed assist from cap whiz Mike Zarren) created much-needed wiggle room to enhance a talented but flawed roster.
The basketball reasons make sense, too. A healthy Walker is a prolific and creative scorer — remember, he did start the All-Star Game in January 2020 after his first half-season here — and he’s an all-around terrific guy. I believe Stevens meant it wholeheartedly when he said in the press release confirming the trade that “Kemba is a true professional and a great teammate and player.” He only briefly filled Kyrie Irving’s sneakers on the court, but at least he’ll never be called a quitter or a traitor.
But it turned out that even a healthy Walker wasn’t an ideal fit alongside rising stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in the Celtics’ offense. He wasn’t a selfish player, but he had an understandable score-first skill set and mentality, and he was incapable of being the playmaking guard the Celtics really needed as Tatum blossomed into an elite scorer. Walker looks like a point guard, but he isn’t one.
And once the knee became a chronic problem, Walker’s inconsistent availability was a fundamental factor in the Celtics’ inability to develop any continuity or chemistry last season. The Celtics were cautious with him all season, resting him on the second games of back-to-backs, in the hope that he’d be a full go during the playoffs. Then he missed the final two games of the Nets series anyway.
The Celtics simply could not go through that uncertainty for another year. I hope he’s healthy and thrives in Oklahoma City. I’m glad the team I watch is no longer counting on him.
Getting back Horford at age 35 is amusing more than anything. He was a polarizing player during his first go-round with the Celtics. Informed basketball fans appreciated his contributions both obvious and subtle, while replacement-level sports-radio hosts burped into a microphone that he was overrated.
Though he’s not the player he once was, he’s someone who has already shown a willingness to go gracefully into a role player’s existence, and it feels like a victory that Stevens brought him back as part of his very first major move.
The more interesting aspect of the deal is the acquisition of 7-foot-2-inch Moses Brown for essentially the 16th pick in the upcoming draft. Stevens had the best seat in the house for Brown’s 21-point, 23-rebound game against the Celtics March 27, and clearly that performance stuck with him.
But Brown actually seems to me like a player Ainge would have fallen for, a one-time prep phenom (ESPN rated him No. 15 in the 2018 high school class) who hasn’t maximized his ability yet but still carries oodles of promise. As a potential Robert Williams III stunt double, Brown is much more appealing than whatever they would have gotten with the No. 16 pick.
Ainge often got accused of hoarding draft picks in recent years, a claim that was usually lacking in context. That made for easy jokes Friday about Stevens finally being free to ditch some mid-round picks. But I actually believe this is a deal Ainge would have made.
It reminds me quite a bit of another deal that moved a Walker out of town — the October 2003 stunner sending Antoine Walker and Tony Delk to the Mavericks for a package that included Raef LaFrentz. Ainge made that move five months after he was hired as general manager, and it was bolder than Stevens’s deal of Kemba Walker now. (’Toine, of course, came back a couple of years later, wearing No. 88. I don’t believe there will be a Celtics sequel for Kemba Walker, but I guess you never know.)
Perhaps I’m forgetting something here, but the hey-why-not-swap-Walker-for-Horford? aspect of this is the first time I can recall that a deal cooked up by Celtics fans messing around on ESPN’s Trade Machine actually came true.
It makes me wonder what else can be wished into existence. The Celtics do still need a playmaker. For the record, the trade machine approves a Tristan Thompson-for-Lonzo Ball swap with the Pelicans.
Walker is gone, Horford is coming back, and the Celtics have a little more room to navigate financially. But what comes next? We don’t know right now, only that something will.
With Trader Brad, the mildest-mannered wheeler-dealer you ever did see, running the show, it’s clear now that the team he’s building is going to look a lot different than the last one he coached.