What does the Celtics’ Brad Stevens have in common with title architect Theo Epstein? Getting the right guy at the right time.
The Celtics have become one of the most dominant teams in the NBA since Stevens moved to the front office before last season.
It’s certain to be a grueling journey toward June for the Celtics, and there’s no knowing now whether an NBA championship — and redemption — will be found at the end of the rainbow.
But among the many reasons (a couple of All-NBA-caliber players, enviable quality depth, a rare sort of camaraderie) to trust that their chances of collecting Banner 18 this summer are very real, there is this — well, kind of abstract thought that keeps rattling around in my mind.
The way Brad Stevens has constructed this team reminds me so much of how Theo Epstein approached roster-building with the 2003 Red Sox. And there really isn’t a higher compliment one can pay a sports executive in this region.
Now, of course the variables of building a baseball team are different from how an NBA roster is structured. Different requirements, different salary-structures, different roster sizes and team-building philosophies. That’s why I’m usually reluctant to make sport-to-sport comparisons.
But it’s irresistible here. Stevens, who after eight seasons as Celtics coach replaced the “retiring” Danny Ainge as president of basketball operations in June 2021, has had an uncanny knack for acquiring the exact kind of supporting player his team needs in a given moment.
It’s precisely what Epstein did as a 28-year-old rookie general manager heading into the ‘03 season. He looked at a top-heavy roster featuring charismatic superstars Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz, and Johnny Damon, recognized the potholes Dan Duquette never repaired (Frank Castillo and Tony Clark were among several past-their-prime types who played prominent, detrimental roles in ‘02), and went out and collected an assortment of dependable veterans: Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, and Mike Timlin in particular. They weren’t superstars, but they knew how to seize a moment and became forever-admired Red Sox.
Now think about what Stevens has done since moving to the front office a year and a half ago. On at least two occasions, perhaps three if you’re a big Mike Muscala fan, he has gone out and acquired the exact player the Celtics need.
It’s remarkable, Epsteinian, maybe even Auerbachian. At the NBA trade deadline last February, he sent Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, a 2022 first-round pick, and rights to swap first-rounders in ‘28 for guard Derrick White.
Then in July, just a few aching weeks after the Celtics lost the NBA Finals to the Warriors in six games, he acquired guard Malcolm Brodgon from the Pacers for a 2023 first-round pick and five players, at least three of whom were roster-filler: Aaron Nesmith, Daniel Theis, Nik Stauskas, Juwan Morgan, and Malik Fitts.
White and Brogdon have become more than just highly-skilled complementary players to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They are essential to this team heading into the All-Star break with the best record in the NBA (42-17) after Wednesday night’s win over the Pistons.
White, with his quick-decision-making, selflessness, and well-rounded game, was an ideal fit upon arriving last season. But he’s been so much more this year. Sometimes his confidence in his shot waned last year, and it seemed to take a little time for him to get acclimated in a locker room full of big personalities. This year, he seems much more comfortable — he’s one of the guys always joking with Blake Griffin on the bench — and have the Celtics ever benefitted.
White was nothing short of extraordinary during Marcus Smart’s recent 11-game absence with a sprained ankle. In that stretch beginning January 23 against Orlando, White averaged 20.1 points, 5.8 assists, 4.6 rebounds per game, shot 43.6 percent from 3-point territory, averaged 35.1 minutes per game, won an Eastern Conference player of the week award, dropped a career-high 33 points on the Hornets, tallied more than 20 points and 10 assists in three straight games, and put together three of the top seven single-game assist totals of his career.
And his shotblocking! He reminds me of Sonics-era Dennis Johnson in that regard. White has become a fan-favorite, and yes, this is an official call on behalf of a kid in my house for the TD Garden Pro Shop to begin stocking his jerseys.
As for Brogdon: he’s classy, crafty, capable of getting to the basket pretty much whenever he wants, probably ranks as the Celtics’ third-best pure scorer, and is reviving the franchise tradition of exceptional sixth men. When we watch him, we all have the same thought: If he were on this team last season, they would have beaten the Warriors. It’s true, too.
Oh, and Muscala isn’t a player of White or Brodgon’s magnitude, but this year’s trade deadline acquisition does fit Stevens’s Go Get What You Need approach. He’s a fine backup big with a soft shooting touch who harbors no delusions about his role in this league. He’ll have a playoff moment.
I haven’t even touched on Stevens’s best move, which also happened to be his first as Head Basketball Honcho: getting rid of Kemba Walker’s albatross of a contract and getting Al Horford — a player who would fit in some way on every great Celtics team in their history — in return. Red would have loved that one.
And don’t you think it must be by design that Stevens has assembled a roster of players who like each other? He lived the Kyrie Irving sabotage and suffered the dysfunction of some extremely talented but doomed Celtics teams as head coach. Stevens arrived here post-Ubuntu, but he knows camaraderie matters, which is a big reason Griffin is on this roster. This team is acing all chemistry tests.
One more thought on that 2003 Red Sox/Theo Epstein parallel: Yes, that team endured one more devastating heartbreak before making a couple more crucial roster moves and exorcising all ghosts the following October.
I believe that’s where these 2023 Celtics will differ. They already endured their heartbreak, delivered with smooth cruelty by Steph Curry and the Warriors last June. Their motivation now, to get back and finish the job, borders on obsession. Stevens has built the ideal roster already, no tweaks necessary.
It’s a long trip to the end of the rainbow. But these Celtics are in it together. And they know the way.
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