BOSTON — Brad Stevens has made a habit of getting deals in just under the buzzer. In 2022, he brought Daniel Theis back to the Celtics with less than 10 minutes to spare before the trade deadline. Then he did it again Thursday, acquiring Jaden Springer for a second-round pick.
The surprise in this trade wasn’t how late it came. It was the team on the other side of the deal. Why was one of their biggest competitors — holding out hope that MVP Joel Embiid would return in time for a postseason rematch — hand a player over to the top team in the Eastern Conference?
“Our evaluation was that his timetable to help a playoff team is farther out than what the second-round pick can do for us,” Sixers president Daryl Morey told reporters in Philadelphia on Friday.
But earlier that morning, Brad Stevens called Springer an athlete who can play athletically in the playoffs. He also called the 21-year-old Springer a puppy. Both can be true. But the reality is a Sixers team operating in the same title window handed their rival someone who will be useful at some point, depending on which GM you ask.
“We did it. It sucks. Jaden’s going to be really good, I think,” Morey said. “I think his timetable is a little bit pushed out. (It’s) our evaluation and if we’re wrong, we’re wrong. And then you guys can all write it. It’s fine.”
The Celtics’ evaluation is that the Sixers are wrong. But they also are operating from a different perspective. While Boston is all in on living in the second apron cap scenario, the Springer trade helped Philadelphia stay below the tax heading into the offseason and regain access to the full midlevel exception. It gives them a pick they can use to acquire more assets on draft night, then flip them for a veteran. It just allows them to go all in sooner.
“That one was pretty straightforward in that, again, we’re focused on winning the title. We had to look at what are the odds that Jaden Springer, who I think has a good future, will help our playoff rotation in the one, two-year, three-year, maybe, horizon?” Morey said. “And what are the odds the second-round pick helps us? We thought the second-round pick helped us more and that’s just the reality. It allows us to go get maybe a veteran at next year’s deadline and things like that.”
A glaring question teams face when they dive into building a championship roster is how to sustain their depth. Young players develop, their rookie deals 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 dealt Marcus Smart to bring in Kristaps Porziņģis, one of the few unknowns was how the team would retain its grit and defensive impact. Then they traded for Jrue Holiday. Problem solved.
But all of the moves they’ve made, compounded by the new collective bargaining agreement, made it hard to find quality deep-bench reserves. They spent the first few years of this decade drafting Euro stashes and major development projects, so there was nobody in line behind Williams, Payton Pritchard and Sam Hauser, the latter of whom went undrafted the same year as Springer and Celtics picked Juhann Begarin.
That meant they had to fill the back end of the roster with minimum veterans holding on to their spots in the league. While Oshae Brissett, Luke Kornet and Neemias Queta have played well, Dalano Banton and Svi Mykhailiuk hardly saw the floor and promising rookie Jordan Walsh has been in the G League most of the season.
They needed someone to bridge the gap between long-term projects like Walsh and JD Davison and players already in the rotation. When the Celtics took its first-rounder from 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 was entering the season with a few key pieces for both the short and long term. But the Celtics knew that when the trade deadline came and teams were either desperate or lost hope, they could pounce on what they needed.
Nobody entering the season could fill in confidently if Porziņģis or Al Horford got hurt in the postseason, but still be young enough to replace Horford when he retires soon.
There was nobody who could bring the defensive intensity of Pritchard with the size to guard star wings.
Time and time again, Stevens’ front office has leveraged time crunches to get good value solutions to their problems. They somehow managed to trade for Porziņģis and get firsts because the big 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 was keeping tabs on his new young wing, hoping the Sixers would need to cast him aside to maintain financial flexibility. Stevens was happy to take that on because the second apron is taking all of his flexibility away. Boston had to bring guys in now because making trades and signing free agents is going to slow to a trickle this summer.
“I think everybody’s gotta do what they think is best for their organization in that moment at that time,” Stevens said. “I think the other reality is we all have different evaluations of people, and that’s a part of it. … But ultimately, we just have to look at where are we. How can we maybe try to do things that could maybe help us improve by the margins now, but also give us a chance to hit on guys later that we otherwise can’t get, right?”
Springer was the 28th pick in the 2021 draft, the year the Celtics selected Begarin. Who knows if Begarin will ever come stateside from Europe, even though he’s the kind of athletic ball-hawking defender they could use in their development pipeline. But effectively, the Celtics have taken the 45th pick they used on Begarin, added on what would currently be the 41st pick of the upcoming draft and turned that into a 21-year-old who just locked up Stephen Curry and Luka Dončić in the past week.
But while Springer has shown he can be an assignment defender on a lot of the league’s top players, there’s a reason the Sixers let him go. Yes, head coach Joe Mazzulla could throw him into playoff action a few months from now and he will likely be electric on defense. He’ll also probably pick up a few fouls and struggle on offense.
So how does Boston not squander his potential the way they did with Aaron Nesmith, who is thriving with a consistent role in Indiana?
“I think (developing players) was a point of emphasis for us this offseason and the point was kind of building our player development staff,” Mazzulla said.
“So it’s not about a specific role, it’s all the concepts we need them to be able to do and some of the situations that they’ll be in.”
The flip side is what could have happened if the Celtics never flipped that pick in the draft and just selected Marcus Sasser 25th overall. In Detroit, he’s shooting lights out and becoming one of the few bright spots of the Pistons’ historically bad season. But like Walsh, he might have never seen the floor in Boston.
But as a GM, you can’t look back.
“For me, the Jaden thing was successful. I’m totally fine if people want to write the opposite,” Morey said. “But if you take any look at late first, end of the second round (picks), 85 percent of those players aren’t helping their team on the floor and can’t be traded for positive value that helps you get another player. Jaden did that and I have to focus on the playoff team now. So that’s our focus, right or wrong.”
Morey said it was done with optimism that Embiid will return this season. He’s also contending with the reality Embiid’s health struggles over the past few years make it a win-now situation. Springer might be playoff-ready in two years, but that’s too far for Philadelphia.
The Celtics have little to worry about. Things are as close to perfect as they’re going to get. Their challenge will be realizing and executing what a title run truly takes.
Who knows whether Morey or Stevens were right in their decisions? There’s only one way to find out.
“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 court.”
(Top photo of Jaden Springer and Derrick White: Bill Streicher / USA Today)