Celtics

Here’s why Brad Stevens made the Kemba Walker trade for Al Horford

"Ultimately, we want to be in the mix."

Kemba Walker
Brad Stevens expressed admiration for Kemba Walker in a press conference on Monday. AP Photo/Mary Schwalm

In his first conversation with the media since trading Kemba Walker to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Al Horford, the Celtics’ new President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens wanted to make one thing clear.

“I just really liked Kemba,” Stevens said. “Period, end of story. He is a super-likable person.”

But Stevens is no longer the coach, and therefore can no longer make decisions based exclusively on whether he (or other players on the roster) likes someone. Stevens is now entrusted with building a competitive roster — a roster that, as he put it, can get “into the mix at some point, hopefully in the very near future.”

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To do that, Stevens needed financial flexibility. Walker’s four-year, $140 million contract — which will pay him $36 and $37 million over the next two seasons respectively — is significantly more onerous than Horford’s four-year $109 million deal, which will pay him roughly $27 over the next two seasons.

So Stevens pulled the trigger on his first trade at the helm of the Celtics — Walker and a first-round pick for Horford, Moses Brown and a heavily protected second.

“We had to look at with the idea of moving that first-round pick this year, it gave us the opportunity to look at a road a head with a few more options, from the financial flexibility standpoint, with the picks, all of our future first-round picks past this year, which, again, give you more options,” Stevens said. “And then it was the best deal that we thought with regard to returning players, right? The opportunity to add Al, who makes significantly less money but is a really good player who has corporate knowledge of this environment that’s really excited to be back in Boston and has a good feel for not only playing with our guys but also has made them better.”

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Those themes came back several times. The Celtics are focused on two things primarily: Financial flexibility and making Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown better. In addition, Stevens believes Horford can still move the needle significantly.

“The ability to space, pass, play in different ways and play in different coverages at the other end, and be able to play with other bigs or as the lone five I think is something that he just has a wealth of experience,” Stevens said. “That played a role.

“Again, I think the first thing was it was really important to create a clear road ahead from the standpoint of financial flexibility. And then when you have the opportunity to bring back a player, person the caliber of Al Horford, whose really excited to be here, it was something that we needed to move on.”

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How the Celtics use that flexibility will be the first truly defining moment of Stevens’s tenure as President of Basketball Operations. As much as the organization talked about Walker’s impact as a player and as a person, they needed to clear the salary space he occupied. The price to do so was a first-round pick, and the Thunder — whose organizational strategy over the next few years is clearly to hoard as many picks as possible — were a natural fit. Getting back Horford almost made the move gimme.

So what do the Celtics plan to do next? First up is hiring a coach (Stevens started his press conference by noting that he didn’t want to talk about the coaching search to be fair to the candidates). After that, Stevens — lamenting how few hours there are in a day — said he might create a more “robust” front-office staff.

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But the Celtics still have on-court needs to be addressed, especially given their stated goal of being a contender sooner rather than later.

“There’s so many things that impact how a team functions together, and how well it plays together,” Stevens said. “We obviously have a really good foundation, and have very talented young players. That’s a good place to be, and then it’s about finding the right fit.

“There are near-term decisions that can help you improve, and there are longer term decisions that you have to make with the idea of being in the mix. Ultimately, we want to be in the mix.”

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