The Boston Celtics love taking the deadline literally. When they brought Daniel Theis back in 2022, it was well past 2 p.m. ET before they even spoke with the Houston Rockets. This year, their deal for Philadelphia 76ers wing Jaden Springer was one of the last deals to cross before the 3 p.m. finish.
The Celtics spent a pair of second-rounders to acquire big Xavier Tillman Wednesday and now are reportedly sending the Sixers a 2024 second-rounder coming from the more favorable of Chicago or New Orleans, which is likely to end up being Chicago.
The Athletic’s Jay King and Jared Weiss discussed why Brad Stevens made the move for Tillman Thursday morning, so what does Springer bring to the table?
Jay King: Defense. Energy. Athleticism. He’s averaging 2.4 steals and 1.1 blocks per 36 minutes this season, and those numbers are down from what he produced last season. He can really guard.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he will play much. I would guess he will find himself outside of the Celtics rotation. Why? Springer has some glaring offensive shortcomings. Even in the G League, his career 3-point shooting percentage is bad. In limited NBA action, he has made 10 of 42 3-point attempts (23.8 percent). It’s going to be hard for him to carve out much of a role as long as his downtown accuracy is that terrible.
Still, this seems like another smart move by the Celtics front office. Springer has the traits to become a defensive stopper if he ever gets good enough offensively to stay on the court. At 21, he’s three years younger than Dalano Banton and has a team option for next season. This probably wasn’t a rotation upgrade for Boston, but a depth move to push forward the end of the bench and bring in another young player with upside.
Jared Weiss: He’s an upgrade over Banton in that he can do something the Celtics might need in the playoffs. Springer played twice this week and his main role was to cover Stephen Curry and Luka Dončić. That was the biggest thing missing in Boston’s deep reserve, someone they could throw in the game to ensure an opposing star doesn’t lead a 12-2 run. You could see him annoying Curry and Dončić on every possession, pressing them full-court and sticking to them on or off the ball to ensure they didn’t get comfortable.
While Sam Hauser has been solid across the board defensively, he’s more of a passive point-of-attack player who can stay on balance while Springer is a high-energy pressure defender. Plus, Springer loves to run in transition going both directions and he will get them some buckets off cuts and offensive rebounds. That seems like the kind of player Joe Mazzulla might want to throw into the middle of a playoff series when he’s going to a lineup that has shown poor defensive energy.
King: Overall, it was a productive week for the Celtics. They wanted to improve their depth without risking the chemistry that has helped them play at a 63-win pace so far. They held onto everyone in the rotation, as expected, but were still able to pick up Tillman, who will give their frontcourt another layer, and Springer, who could become a helpful player if he ever learns how to toss the ball into the basket.
Weiss: There’s still some opportunity out there on the buyout market for the Celtics. Most years, teams have to decide whether they want to cut bait on some young prospects on the back of the roster to go after veteran help. Well, it doesn’t look like Banton or Svi Mykhailiuk are going to be long-term prospects for Boston.
Because the Celtics are up in the apron, they can’t sign anyone on the buyout market who was making more than $12.4 million mid-level exception this year. That takes veteran shooters like Kyle Lowry, Dāvis Bertāns and Joe Harris off the board if or when they hit the market.
The biggest buyout name to emerge Thursday is Spencer Dinwiddie, the kind of starting-caliber bargain, contenders like the Celtics would be vying for in the past. But with the new apron rules, his $18 million salary disqualifies the Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, Denver Nuggets, Suns, LA Clippers and Golden State Warriors from signing him.
In the past, you’d see quality vets who want a chance to contend get buyouts, but that doesn’t seem to happen nearly as much these days as the Play-In Tournament has given most teams hope at a playoff run.
Who do you see out there that could be a realistic Celtics target?
King: Though Springer will add to the perimeter depth, the Celtics never acquired a bigger wing, which could suggest they feel comfortable with Oshae Brissett’s recent production. Joe Mazzulla had a lot of praise for Brissett earlier this week. After speaking about the importance of the chemistry between star players and role players, Mazzulla brought up Brissett as an example.
“He’s the one in particular where it’s like he’s done a great job of earning the players’ trust, of earning the coaches’ trust, and just making winning plays,” Mazzulla said. “It started in the first game, we put him in against Miami and he changed the dynamic of the game. So he’s grown over the last week and a half in the recognition of offense, of matchup recognition, how to impact our offense.
“But the hard thing about him is he’s always playing with different lineups. Sometimes he plays with Luke (Kornet), sometimes he plays with Al (Horford), sometimes he plays with KP (Kristaps Porziņģis). But he’s done a great job of offensive rebounding. He’s done a great job of special awareness. He’s done a great job of executing our coverages defensively, and he always gives us a boost when he plays.”
The Celtics could still be active on the buyout market, as they have one open roster spot. Possible fits include Danuel House Jr., Delon Wright and Otto Porter Jr., though I’m not sure any of them would have much chance to crack the Celtics rotation. Boston could also use the final roster spot to convert Neemias Queta to a standard contract, but the Tillman addition could lower the odds of Queta getting promoted from his current two-way deal.
Weiss: You have to expect they will try to bring in a veteran and only promote Queta if they come up short. Considering how well-positioned they are for an NBA Finals run, recruiting someone looking for a ring who’s willing to be a positive back-bench leader shouldn’t be too hard.
But what’s left for them to pursue? Every year, fans will bring up shooting. Well first off, good shooters don’t really get bought out. More importantly, the Celtics don’t need shooters. The only rotation players shooting below average from deep are their three top scorers. Jrue Holiday, Derrick White, Al Horford and Sam Hauser are all over 40 percent. The Celtics are fine.
Their only remaining possible needs are a point guard who can create in the paint, a bigger scorer, a long defensive wing as you mentioned, or a powerful defensive 7-footer. They could still waive Mykhailiuk to open up another roster spot, since he hasn’t gotten in there to prove he can be that scorer at the end of the bench. Wright is the one person who is a legit 3-and-D guy and hasn’t fallen off physically like most of the other familiar names on the market. Robin Lopez could at least give them someone who can stand under the rim, but Queta may be better than him at this point. Considering House has been shooting poorly for a few years now, it’s hard to find anyone else out there who will make a real difference.
Looking around the Eastern Conference, Giannis Antetokounmpo might be the only big wing they need a defender for. Especially now that two other teams are passing Milwaukee in the standings.
King: I don’t know if the Celtics should hear footsteps behind them yet, but the Knicks continued to add quality pieces to a team that has stomped all over opponents since acquiring OG Anunoby. He hasn’t played for the past five games, but the Knicks have won four of those contests anyway, giving them 10 wins in their last 11 games overall. Anunoby is expected to miss several weeks after right elbow surgery, but should be back in time for the playoffs. They had little bench scoring after dealing Immanuel Quickley in that Anunoby trade but addressed that issue Thursday by acquiring Bojan Bogdanović and Alec Burks.
The Knicks were already very good. They got better at the deadline. They have surrounded Jalen Brunson, one of the league’s best guards, with all sorts of muscle. Coach Tom Thibodeau has a tough, stubborn team that won’t be fun for anyone to play in the postseason.
How do you view the other Eastern Conference contenders after Thursday’s deals?
Weiss: The Knicks might be the Celtics’ biggest finals threat now. I’m skeptical about Brunson carrying their offense against Derrick White and Jrue Holiday throughout a series, but their roster is so well balanced and they have a strong identity built for postseason officiating and play. I’m excited about how wild Knicks fans are going to get if their team starts making a serious run. Just remembering how roaring MSG was after the Knicks beat the Celtics in the regular season and started chanting “F— Trae Young.” I can’t imagine what it will be like in the postseason.
The Bucks can get onto that tier and the Patrick Beverley addition finally gives them someone who at least can defend with confidence. We’ll see how Doc Rivers tweaks their defensive coverages now that they have someone who can chase ballhandlers and impact them, but Beverley at least can bring the mentality and energy they need. Sometimes getting a defensive weak link like Malik Beasley out of the lineup makes a huge difference, especially with someone who is all about making noise on that end. And the Bucks haven’t been bad in the pick-and-roll, but they’ve been terrible this year defending in isolation. That’s where someone like Beverley can help change the culture. Seeing how well Beasley has shot when so many of his looks are wide-open, the Bucks can be optimistic their spacing will bring Beverley’s shot back as well.
King: Am I the only one who thought it was weird the 76ers struck trades with two other contenders in the Eastern Conference? They probably weren’t the day’s most impactful deals, but still.
On another note, Buddy Hield should do a lot for Philadelphia’s offense. If Joel Embiid can return from a knee injury at full strength, that team will be tougher to defend. I still don’t know if the 76ers have enough creators on their roster, but Hield should open things up for them.
The East became more interesting over the last month or so with the Knicks and Cavaliers both making strong bids to be considered contenders. Cleveland didn’t do anything at the deadline but has been dominant while winning 15 of its last 16 games.
One more theme from Thursday: A long list of former Celtics were traded, including Gordon Hayward and Grant Williams.
Weiss: When Gordon Hayward left Boston four years ago, he was finally finding his game again. It was the best he had looked since an ankle break ruined his career with the Celtics as soon as it started. And when he got to Charlotte, he looked great and was shooting lights out. But injuries derailed him every season in Charlotte and he’s slowly faded to obscurity, even if he continued as starter for a rapidly declining Hornets team.
But when Hayward was able to run the offense while LaMelo Ball was out, they played a more organized and effective brand of basketball. Now Hayward is returning to a winning program and could have a pathway to starting, or at least closing if they move Josh Giddey to the bench. The Thunder have been great this year, but barely had any playoff experience on their roster before Thursday. Does Hayward give them a real shot at the finals?
King: The Thunder’s statistical profile suggests they already had a shot at the finals but, of course, their young and inexperienced roster will need to prove itself in the playoffs. I have questions about whether they’ll be able to match the physicality of certain big men, especially the one in Denver. But the Hayward acquisition should boost Oklahoma City’s chances.
The Thunder needed Giddey insurance in case his combination of iffy shooting and wobbly defense turned him into a playoff problem. Hayward will provide that. He’ll give them a bit more size, too, while allowing them to keep trotting out lineups that have five guys who can make plays from all over the court. Hayward’s unselfish game will make him an easy fit. And Oklahoma City picked him up without touching their stash of future first-round picks.
Were you surprised by how Williams’ quick stint in Dallas unfolded?
Weiss: I didn’t think it would end faster than his trade exception. But his season has been reminiscent of the past few years — shooting hot early while playing good defense then getting sidetracked by injuries and losing his rhythm. Dallas wanted to swap defense for offense by bringing in P.J. Washington and frankly, this is a good situation for Williams. He’s a Charlotte native and even if his shot isn’t working, he still is a good defensive leader for a Hornets defense ranked last in the NBA.
Since Dallas brought in Daniel Gafford, their moves should make them a little better this year. But the Suns fortifying their defensive depth with Royce O’Neal was the only consequential move in the west we haven’t covered at this point. There wasn’t a move out on that side of the league that changed the balance of power, but it’s become an even bigger mystery who will reach the finals. The Celtics are fortunate to still be in the driver’s seat in the East, unless the Knicks continue to skyrocket or Joel Embiid returns in April with a cyborg knee. Can’t rule anything out.
(Top photo: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)