The question is, what can they do to support that goal in a season when they’re not going to win a championship?
The answer — they believe — is what they did at Thursday’s trade deadline. Nothing staggering, but interesting steps nonetheless.
Grading the moves at this stage isn’t really a valid exercise. It does seem the C’s gave up quite a bit for Derrick White, but accurately judging Brad Stevens’ first deadline requires seeing how the mix works out.
Because the Celtics are about finding the right backup singers who can step out with an occasional solo, this is largely a chemistry play. And chemistry takes time.
Celtics Can Still Make a 2021-22 Charge
Certainly the Celts aren’t punting on 2021-22. They’ve won six straight and eight of nine heading into this evening’s meeting with Denver, and the starting lineup that has been a revelation when given consistent time together of late is still intact. It would, however, take a number of unfortunate incidents to those above the C’s on the NBA food chain to find them playing basketball in June.
But the club obviously hopes the series of deals that essentially break down to acquiring White from San Antonio and Daniel Theis from Houston, jettisoning Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson and Romeo Langford, and opening the door to a few more minutes for Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith will have the warmer months on its calendar some day in the not too distant future.
It’s clear the Celts are continuing to try to complement stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — and to at the very least have a better idea how to do that by the time they finish playing this year.
“Marcus Smart’s been playing really well, but everybody says the Jays need a point guard, and I think they just got a very unselfish, hard-playing guy that will move the ball and play great defense,” one general manager told Heavy.com. “Derrick White’s a guy who will help get those guys open.”
The word from a source closer to home is that the Celts simply “need to evaluate who’s there and get in position to make other moves.”
To make their most significant move Thursday, the C’s had to include a 2022 first round draft pick (protected 1-4) and the Spurs’ right to swap first round positions in 2028 to Richardson and Langford.
“Picks are really important assets, so that means they really, really like White,” said one league exec who was involved in recent talks with the Celtics. “So they paid a little bit extra to get a guy they really like. He’s the guy that they targeted. The Celtics went after him. They ended up getting the guy they wanted. You can tell by the price they paid for him.
“I don’t think White’s a LOT better than Richardson, but he probably fits what they need better. And Ime (Udoka, the Celtic coach) knows White from when he was an assistant down there (San Antonio), so he has to have a really good read on him and how he can fit in Boston.”
Celtics Will Have Options Ahead
White figures to come off the bench or maybe play alongside Smart in the starting lineup against certain matchups. But things could get really interesting if White excels.
The coach on the other end of the phone line Friday morning paused to laugh.
“I think they’ve got to want to keep both those guys. I would. But, whoa, you’d see a feeding frenzy if White plays really well and Smart becomes available,” he said. “That would be wild to see. I’ve seen Marcus catch hell from some fans up there, but coaches love a guy who plays like that.
“Of course, Boston would probably be crazy to move him, but if someone makes you a stupid good offer. … But we’re dumb to even talk about it at this point. I’m sorry I brought it up.”
If there’s a valid point to take from the hypothetical, it’s that the Celtics could have options as they try to build a contender. That’s why the potential for Pritchard and Nesmith minutes should not be discounted. If one or both plays well, they become better choices to play or trade. For example, injuries and opportunity prevented Langford from showing more, but if he’d better hit his potential as a No. 14 pick, he might have been enough to pay for White — without the 2022 first rounder.
The bottom line is the Celtics got the guy their coach and head of basketball operations wanted. Now they have to make it work.