Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Finals will be played on Thursday, June
2. Remarkably, that date is the exact one-year anniversary of the
Boston Celtics' announcing Brad Stevens had stepped away from head
coaching duties to assume the role of president of basketball
operations in place of the departing Danny Ainge.
Let's have a look back at what has been an extraordinary and
almost unimaginable 12 months…
During his eight seasons on the sidelines in Boston, Stevens was
viewed as one of the league's better head coaches. He was regarded
as an elite tactician and considered an important part of the
Celtics' sustained success. Under his stewardship, Boston advanced
to the Eastern Conference Finals three times in four years.
So when the club announced that its long-time top executive in
Ainge was retiring and that Stevens would be promoted to team
president last June, it came as a shock to most. Would Stevens be
able to replicate the regular-season success he enjoyed as head
coach? Could Boston get over the hump and advance all the way to
the NBA Finals?
Although Ainge left a roster stocked with a budding superstar in
Jayson Tatum, his All-Star caliber sidekick in Jaylen Brown,
veteran stalwart Marcus Smart and a few promising youngsters,
Stevens took control at a precarious juncture. Boston entered last
summer capped out (with a directive from ownership not to incur a
costly luxury tax bill) and lacking excess draft capital.
Stevens' first order of business was parting ways with Kemba
Walker and his cumbersome contract. With two years and $73 million
remaining on his deal, Walker was the team's highest-paid player.
When healthy, the four-time All-Star Walker was highly productive
on the offensive end for the C's, but his balky left knee had
robbed him of his quickness. Some suggested the Celtics sit tight,
hoping that an entire offseason of rest would allow Kemba to
re-establish himself as a quality starter. If Boston wanted to
trade Walker, Stevens would have to get creative.
The week before the 2021 NBA Draft, Stevens dealt Boston's
first-round pick (16th overall) and a 2025 second-round draft pick
to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Al Horford and a 2023
At the time, Stevens' first significant move as team president
was considered highly questionable.
Following the 2019-20 season, when Horford posted career-worst
numbers for the Philadelphia 76ers after signing a monstrous
four-year, $109 million pact, the veteran big man's contract was
viewed as one of the worst in the league. In December 2020, the
Sixers were forced to attach a future first-round pick and the
draft rights to Vasilije Micic (who just won his second EuroLeague
Final Four MVP) in a trade with OKC just to get out from under
During his lone season in Oklahoma City, Horford appeared in
just 28 games for the Thunder. After the trade deadline passed in
February 2021, the Thunder shut him down for the rest of the
season. At the time, it felt like Stevens was trading for a
potentially washed-up 35-year-old center with two years and $53.5
million left on his contract ($41 million of it guaranteed).
But after struggling at times to find his groove in the regular
season, Horford has been a crucial cog in the Celtics' run to the
Finals. During these playoffs, he is averaging 11.9 points, 9.6
rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.9 three-pointers,1.6 blocks and 0.9 steals
per game, all while shooting 50.0% from the floor, a scorching
43.2% from downtown, and 83.3% from the free-throw line.
Per Basketball-Reference, Horford is just the third player in
NBA history (joining Draymond Green and Rasheed Wallace) to average
more than 1.5 blocks and more than 1.5 made treys in a postseason
(minimum 15 games played). Horford is also the first player ever
over the age of 35 to tally more than 25 blocks and more than 25
three-pointers in a single postseason.
To say the Walker/Horford trade has worked out well for Boston
would be a dramatic understatement.
After acquiring Horford, Stevens' next critical decision would
be choosing a new head coach. After interviewing several
candidates, Stevens zeroed in on Ime Udoka and officially hired him
in late June. Udoka was a bit of a gamble, as he had never been a
head coach, having spent the previous nine seasons as an assistant
with San Antonio (2012-13 to 2018-19), Philadelphia (2019-20) and
Udoka's job was made that much more difficult when the C's
stumbled out of the gates this season. By the turn of the new year,
there was some finger-pointing in the locker room with the Celtics
losing too many winnable games. Three weeks into January, Boston
was still below .500 with a 23-24 record.
However, Udoka remained stoically stern, providing a calm and
reassuring presence in the locker room and on the sideline. His
ability to outcoach opponents and his command of the X's and O's
gained him the trust of his team. Over the second half of the
season, Boston ranked in the top three in Defensive Efficiency, and
led the league in Offensive Efficiency (122.6) and Net Rating
(plus-12.7) by a wide margin.
Udoka earned Coach of the Month honors on multiple occasions,
and would go on to finish fourth in the NBA Coach of the Year
voting. The league-wide respect he's garnered has only increased as
he's helped guide his team to the championship series.
When the free agency frenzy commenced in July 2021, Stevens had
to decide what to do with shooting guard Evan Fournier. Ultimately,
Boston opted to let Fournier leave for New York.
The Celtics' only free-agent addition of note last summer was
inking Dennis Schroder to a team-friendly, one-year deal for $5.9
million. However, Stevens signed Marcus Smart (four years, $76.5
million) and Robert Williams III (four years, $48 million) to
The Smart signing, in particular, looks genius in
It had been rumored that Ainge was seriously considering trading
away Smart in different deals in years past. However, Stevens made
it clear that he was committing to Smart for the long term. Just as
importantly, Stevens let it be known he would entrust Smart with
the team's primary point guard duties. This may seem like an easy
decision with the benefit of hindsight, but it's important to point
out that entering this season, Smart had started in just 228 of the
449 games he had appeared in. And a large percentage of those
starts were alongside point guards such as Kemba Walker, Kyrie
Irving and Isaiah Thomas.
The C's flourished with Smart installed as the floor general,
especially on the defensive end. Smart, as we know, would be named
NBA Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the first guard to win
the award since Gary Payton in 1996.
Starting in each of the 71 regular-season games he played, Smart
finished the season ranked seventh in the NBA in steals per game
(1.68), ranked fifth among all guards with a Defensive Rating of
105.2, and led the NBA with 1.1 loose balls recovered per contest.
He was also near the top of the league in deflections, charges
drawn and defensive rebounds. On the offensive end, he averaged a
career-high 5.9 assists per game and posted an Effective Field Goal
percentage above 50% for the first time.
Had Stevens not locked up Smart last summer, he would
undoubtedly have been one of the most highly sought-after players
on the free-agent market next month.
Before being sidelined by a knee injury late in the season,
Williams had also been enjoying a breakout 2021-22 campaign,
averaging career-highs in points (10.0), rebounds (9.6), blocks
(2.2), steals (0.9), field-goal percentage (73.6%) and free-throw
percentage (72.2%). Like Smart, Williams' value now exceeds his
In February, Stevens recognized Boston's backcourt needed an
upgrade. Hence, he sent Josh Richardson and Romeo Langford and a
top-four-protected 2022 first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs
in exchange for Derrick White at the trade deadline. Udoka, who was
familiar with White having spent time as an assistant in San
Antonio, asked him to sacrifice some of his offense. White would
serve as a reserve, which meant fewer field goal attempts and fewer
minutes. White embraced the role, supplied solid defense on the
perimeter and knocked down a handful of big buckets during Boston's
run to the Finals.
Ironically, of all the trades and signing Stevens has made over
the past 12 months, arguably the most important and impactful are
the ones he did NOT agree to. It sounds outlandish now because the
C's are four wins away from the franchise's 18th championship, but
plenty of pundits and fans in New England had been calling for the
Celtics to break up the duo of Brown and Tatum.
While there was no denying their collective talent, many argued
the roster was unbalanced, and that the skill sets Tatum and Brown
brought to the table were a bit duplicitous. Thus, some folks
contended that the best path forward was trading Brown (possibly in
a package with Smart) for a pure point guard (such as Damian
Pressure and the corresponding rumors reached a fever pitch in
the dark days of December and January.
Damnit I’m holding everybody in Boston
accountable, from the front office, to the coaching staff and down
to Jaylen and Tatum. It’s time to break them up! Carry on… @FirstTakepic.twitter.com/2fNHMFavfd
As noted above, Boston was below .500 for much of the season. On
Jan. 15, the Celtics had a worse record than both the Knicks and
Washington Wizards. Boston was 11th in the East, on the outside of
the Play-in Tournament looking in.
But Stevens never budged, trusting in the roster he helped
construct. And the results speak for themselves. Twelve months
after he was hired, Stevens's squad is preparing for the NBA
Earlier this month, the NBA announced Memphis Grizzlies General
Manager Zach Kleiman as the winner of the 2021-22 Basketball
Executive of the Year Award. Stevens came in sixth, receiving only
one first-place vote. However, that award is based on
Given how well Boston has performed in the playoffs, there is
little doubt about which executive's moves have looked best in the
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