BOSTON — Two seasons ago, with the belief the Boston Celtics were better than their mediocre record suggested, Brad Stevens acquired Derrick White at the NBA trade deadline. Even if it took White a little bit of time to adapt to his new team, Stevens thought the guard would complement the Celtics’ best players. He saw White as the right fit. The addition made a significant impact, of course, helping Boston engineer a stunning turnaround and reach the NBA Finals.
Heading into Thursday’s deadline, Stevens knew his options would be more limited. He didn’t have the desire to change the core of a team that leads the NBA at 39-12. Since he didn’t want to do that, he understood he wouldn’t be able to cobble together enough salary to chase after any of the most expensive players. He considered the Celtics’ chemistry worth preserving — and not just that of the starters.
“I just think the way that they play together, the understanding of how to play together,” Stevens said Friday morning. “And it goes beyond … the guys everybody talks about, I think. There’s been several games this year where I thought our starters started the game OK. And then our bench came in and just flipped it. I’ve been really encouraged by how all those groups have combined to play well together.”
Without disrupting anything, Stevens wanted to add pieces that could bolster the Celtics now and potentially in the future. As he detailed during a press conference about the team’s trade deadline activity, that mindset drove him to deals to acquire Xavier Tillman from Memphis and Jaden Springer from Philadelphia.
“We’ve got several guys that have played awfully well together,” Stevens said. “So, you want to be able to add to the depth of the group without throwing off the equilibrium of the group, necessarily.”
Stevens said the Celtics have always liked Tillman’s game. In the 25-year-old, Stevens said the team acquired a big, strong player who moves his feet well enough laterally to defend multiple positions. Stevens believes Tillman will give the Celtics more lineup flexibility with his ability to either man the center position or play next to one of the team’s other big men. More valuable than skill set alone, Stevens said Tillman plays a team-oriented style.
“He competes, he passes, thinks the game well,” Stevens said. “All the stuff that we’ve been fortunate with the guys we have around our best players, that they brought to the table. He knows how to play. So we’re excited to have him.”
Because of their salary cap situation, the Celtics, currently a second-apron team, expect to have limited ways to strengthen their roster over the coming years. Stevens considered it important to add players who could help the team beyond this season. Though in the final season of his rookie contract, Tillman could be a long-term fit, especially if the 37-year-old Al Horford doesn’t actually play forever. Tillman’s debut could be delayed, however. Though he was dressed in practice gear at shootaround Thursday morning, he said he still needs time to recover from a left knee injury that sidelined him for his final four games with the Memphis Grizzlies. He said there’s currently no timetable for his return.
Whenever Tillman does suit up for the Celtics, he will likely earn minutes in the frontcourt. Stevens hinted Springer is less likely to help in the short term. Still, like Tillman, Springer fits the mold as a young player who could stick with the Celtics long term if he pans out. Stevens said the Boston front office had an interest in Springer before the Philadelphia 76ers drafted him with the 28th pick in 2021. He went 17 spots before the Celtics selected Juhann Begarin as their lone draft choice that year. After Springer landed in Philadelphia, Stevens said he tracked the athletic guard’s development over the years. The Boston front office noticed how well he played in the G League playoffs last season and how he continued to show progress while shining against the Celtics in a preseason game.
“Whoa,” Stevens remembered thinking. “That looks like strides.”
Stevens pointed out Springer was one of the youngest prospects taken in his draft class.
“He’s still a puppy,” Stevens said. “He’s still 21 years old.”
But a puppy with some serious bark as a defender.
“He is an athlete that can play athletically in the playoffs, right?” Stevens said. “But he also has a lot of growing to get better and he’s committed to that. He’s got a long runway ahead. So we’ll see how this year shakes itself out for him. See how it all fits with the team. But he’s a guy that we believe in.”
Welcome to Boston, Jaden ☘️ pic.twitter.com/RLtQvrv1h0
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) February 9, 2024
Stevens said the Celtics’ biggest focus at the deadline was adding a big man who could handle playing center in small lineups and power forward in bigger units. Once they checked off that box with the Tillman trade, Stevens said the organization wanted to use a second-round pick to acquire an intriguing younger prospect. That goal led them to Springer. He said the Celtics had several conversations with the Philadelphia front office over the months leading up to the trade deadline to say they would be interested if Springer became available.
The Celtics still have an open roster spot after also trading Dalano Banton to the Portland Trail Blazers. Stevens said he will look to bolster his team’s depth but does not anticipate finding a player who would crack the regular rotation. Boston could also use that final roster slot to convert Neemias Queta’s two-way contract into a standard deal, but Stevens suggested nothing is imminent there.
“We have to continue to evaluate everything for that last roster spot we have opened,” Stevens said, “but Neemie’s done a great job.”
When asked about Tillman’s potential role, Stevens declined to share specifics, saying that the Celtics only have one goal.
“And that goal is to ultimately win it, to be our best that we can possibly be, as we continue to move forward,” Stevens said.
Stevens likes what the Celtics have done so far. He likes how they’ve played as a team. He was never going to make drastic changes at the deadline.
“For us, it is about how do we balance fortifying ourselves this year to give ourselves our best chance this year.” Stevens said, “and also give ourselves options moving into the future because we’re going to be limited in what we can do.”
(Photo: Maddie Malhotra / Getty Images)