BOSTON – Brad Stevens has gotten used to getting deals right before the bell. In 2022, he brought Daniel Theis back to the Celtics with less than 10 minutes to spare before the trade deadline. He then did it again on Thursday, acquiring Jaden Springer in exchange for a second-round pick.
The surprise in this exchange was not how late it came. It was the team on the other side of the deal. Why would one of their biggest competitors, who was hoping MVP Joel Embiid would return in time for a postseason rematch, give up a player to the best team in the Eastern Conference?
“Our assessment was that his timeline for helping a playoff team is further away than what the second-round pick can do for us,” Sixers president Daryl Morey said. he told reporters in Philadelphia on Friday.
But that same morning, Brad Stevens called Springer an athlete who can play athletically in the playoffs. He also called Springer, 21, a puppy. Both can be true. But the reality is that a Sixers team operating in the same title window handed their rival someone who will be useful at some point, depending on which general manager you ask.
“We did it. It sucks. I think Jaden is going to be really good,” Morey said. “I think his schedule is a little behind. (It’s) our evaluation and if we’re wrong, we’re wrong. And then you all can write it down. It’s good.”
The Celtics’ assessment is that the Sixers are wrong. But they also operate from a different perspective. While Boston is totally willing to live in the second cap scenario, the Springer trade helped Philadelphia stay under the tax heading into the offseason and regain access to the full mid-level exception. He gives them an option they can use to acquire more assets on draft night and then trade them for a veteran. He simply allows them to do as much as possible before.
“That one was pretty straightforward in the sense that, again, we’re focused on winning the title. We had to look at what the odds are that Jaden Springer, who I think has a good future, will help our playoff rotation over the horizon of one, two, three years, maybe.” Morey said. “And what are the odds that the second-round pick will help us? We thought the second-round pick helped us more and that’s the reality. It allows us to get maybe a veteran at next year’s deadline and things like that.”
One obvious question teams face as they dive into building a championship roster is how to maintain their depth. Young players develop, their rookie contracts expire, and someone else pays them more than you can afford. Just look at what happened with Grant Williams.
When the Celtics let Williams go and traded Marcus Smart to bring in Kristaps Porziņģis, one of the few unknowns was how the team would retain his grit and defensive impact. Then they traded for Jrue Holiday. Problem solved.
But all the moves they’ve made, compounded by the new collective bargaining agreement, have made it difficult to find deep quality reserves. They spent the early years of this decade drafting Euro reserves and big development projects, so there was no one behind Williams, Payton Pritchard and Sam Hauser, the latter of whom went undrafted the same year Springer and the Celtics They chose Juhann Begarin.
That meant they had to fill the back end of the roster with a minimum of veterans to keep their spots in the league. While Oshae Brissett, Luke Kornet and Neemias Queta have played well, Dalano Banton and Svi Mykhailiuk barely saw the court and promising rookie Jordan Walsh has been in the G League for most of the season.
They needed someone to bridge the gap between long-term projects like Walsh and JD Davison and the players already in the rotation. When the Celtics took their first round of the Porziņģis deal and turned it into five second rounders, it was clear they were going to bide their time to answer these questions.
Boston entered the season with some key pieces both short and long term. But the Celtics knew that when the trade deadline came and teams were desperate or lost hope, they could take advantage of what they needed.
No one starting the season could confidently fill in if Porziņģis or Al Horford were injured in the postseason, but still be young enough to replace Horford when he retires soon.
There was no one who could provide Pritchard’s defensive intensity with the size to protect the Stars’ wings.
Time and time again, Stevens’ front office has taken advantage of time constraints to obtain good value solutions to their problems. Somehow they managed to trade for Porziņģis and get scoops because the big guy was going to leave the Wizards in free agency.
Ever since Stevens saw Springer look like a disruptive defender in their preseason meeting earlier this season, he’s been keeping an eye on his new young wing, hoping the Sixers would have to release him to maintain financial flexibility. Stevens was happy to take that on because the second apron is taking all the flexibility out of him. Boston had to bring in guys now because trading and signing free agents will be at a minimum this summer.
“I think everyone should do what they think is best for their organization at that time,” Stevens said. “I think the other reality is that we all have different evaluations of people, and that’s part of it. …But ultimately, we just have to look at where we are. How can we try to do things that maybe help us improve on the margins now, but also give us the opportunity to hook up with guys later that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to get, right?”
Springer was the 28th pick in the 2021 draft, the year the Celtics selected Begarin. Who knows if Begarin will ever come to the United States from Europe, although he is the type of athletic, ball-selling defender they could use in their development process. But sure enough, the Celtics took the 45th pick they used on Begarin, added what would currently be the 41st pick in the upcoming draft, and turned him into a 21-year-old who just locked up Stephen Curry and Luka Dončić in the past. week.
But while Springer has shown that he can be an assignment defender for many of the league’s best players, there’s a reason the Sixers let him go. Yes, head coach Joe Mazzulla could throw him into playoff action in a few months and he will likely be electric on defense. He’ll probably also commit some fouls and struggle offensively.
So how does Boston not waste his potential like it did with Aaron Nesmith, who is thriving with a consistent role in Indiana?
“I think (player development) was a point of emphasis for us this offseason and the point was to build our player development staff,” Mazzulla said.
“So it’s not about a specific role, but about all the concepts that we need them to be able to play and some of the situations that they will find themselves in.”
The other side of the coin is what could have happened if the Celtics never traded that pick in the draft and simply selected Marcus Sasser 25th overall. In Detroit, he’s shooting lights out and becoming one of the few bright spots in the Pistons’ historically poor season. But like Walsh, he may have never seen the court in Boston.
But as a GM, you can’t look back.
“For me, Jaden was a success. “I totally agree if people want to write otherwise,” Morey said. “But if you look at the final first and second round picks, 85 percent of those players are not helping their team on the court and cannot be traded for positive value that will help you get another player. Jaden did that and now I have to focus on the playoff team. So that’s our approach, for better or worse.”
Morey said it was done with optimism that Embiid will return this season. He’s also dealing with the reality that Embiid’s health issues in recent years make it a win-now situation. Springer could be playoff ready in two years, but that’s too much for Philadelphia.
The Celtics have little to worry about. Things are as close to perfection as they can be. Your challenge will be to realize and execute what a title race really requires.
Who knows if Morey or Stevens were right in their decisions? There’s only one way to know.
“This is a high-level competition with a lot of good teams,” Stevens said. “Nothing is done on paper. “Everything will be done on the field.”
(Top photo of Jaden Springer and Derrick White: Bill Streicher/USA Today)