Back in early February, both the Nets and Celtics were not doing so well.
The Nets were in the midst of an 11-game losing streak. Kevin Durant was out with sprained meniscus, Kyrie Irving was still not permitted to play at home and James Harden was playing like he wanted to go elsewhere ... and fast. Rumors began to heat up that the Sixers, desperate to dump season-long holdout, would like to talk trade.
Things were a bit better in Boston, but not my much. The Celtics were playing a middling game and fans were calling for rookie coach Ime Udoka’s head. The team, despite evident star power, was not playing up to its potential, There were calls to break up the Tatum-Brown duo. Something was missing.
On Sunday, Brian Lewis in the New York Post and Adam Himmelbach in the Boston Globe write about how a series of subsequent moves that almost didn’t happen changed both franchises.
For the Nets, it was about breaking up the “Big Three.” Did Harden’s poor play, attributed at least publicly to injury, suggest he wanted out. He wasn’t direct and now Sean Marks had a very tough decision to make, as Lewis reports.
Harden, who eschews confrontation, was never as direct with the Nets as Simmons was with Philadelphia.
The veteran Harden had parted ways with agents Jason Ranne and Chafie Fields of Wasserman (whom he’d engaged to facilitate his move out of Houston) and hired his friend Lorenzo McCloud in August. And while Nets general manager Sean Marks fully expected Harden to sign an extension before opening night, it didn’t happen.
Daryl Morey, who had worked closely with Harden when the two were in Houston, saw an opportunity for a reunion in Philadelphia. It was he who approached the Nets. At the time, reports were that Marks wasn’t ready to give up on Harden. But it was just as much about the paltry package Philly was offering.
[W]hen 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey — Harden’s GM in Houston — called Marks two or three weeks before the trade deadline offering a package that included the likes of Paul Reed and Isaiah Joe, he was told the Nets had no interest in moving the former MVP.
That of course would have sent Nets fans into a deeper depression than they were already experiencing. Things then went moribund on the trade front and Harden’s play continued to drop off. Then, on February 8, two days before the deadline. Harden and his agent McCloud “intimated” to Marks that he wanted out, as Lewis reports. That wasn’t good enough for Tsai.
Marks called Tsai, who reached out directly to FaceTime with Harden. He pressed Harden on whether he wanted to be traded.
“He didn’t say directly I want out, but he basically was disgruntled, he was unhappy,” said a source familiar with the situation.
To that point, Tsai had been willing to extend Harden long term and pay him $62 million at the age of 37. But after that call, the Nets shifted focus.
The pressure now was on. With two days till the deadline and two teams with unhappy stars: Harden in Brooklyn, Simmons in Philadelphia, things needed to get done and fast. It was both teams’ last chance to rectify matters. So Marks put in a call to Morey to renew talks. But there was a problem. Morey wasn’t responding. So, as Lewis reports, things moved to a higher level, ownership, Joe Tsai and Josh Harris, Tsai’s counterpart in Philly.
“[They’re] pretty good friends, friendly with each other,” said a source, calling them “partners in this business called the NBA.”
Harris was told if the 76ers were serious about a Simmons package to make sure Morey came back with an offer that topped the one they viewed as “sub-optimal.”
By Thursday morning, the two sides were talking again with a trade centered on Harden-for-Simmons. Beyond the two big pieces, Marks wanted picks to help make up for what had been lost in the January 2021 trade that brought Harden to Brooklyn. Other names were discussed.
Thursday morning that’s exactly what happened, with the owners stepping back and both GMs haggling over backcourt pieces — Mattise Thybulle was mentioned, but the Nets instead received Curry. But the last piece included was Drummond.
Morey did not want to give up his back-up center. But he wanted Harden and he got him. Since then, Harden’s play hasn’t improved dramatically and Simmons hasn’t played at all, but the Nets and their fans are very happy they wound up with two starters in Seth Curry and Drummond as well as a pick in this year’s Draft. They also dumped another happy player, Paul Millsap, on the Sixers and cut DeAndre’ Bembry and Jevon Carter so they could balance the trade and bring on Goran Dragic.
Now, with all that, KD’s return to health and a chance in the city’s mandates, the ship has been righted, with Brooklyn winning 13 of its last 18 games and feeling good about themselves. A Simmons return would make it even sweeter.
Meanwhile, in Boston, push was coming to shove at the deadline as Himmelsbach reports for the Globe. The Celtics were at .500 and had two (finally) healthy and improving stars in Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Still, they needed help. So the Beantown brain trust got together to decide whether to go for it. As in Brooklyn, ownership took a lead role. In Boston, that’s Wyc Grousbeck.
Despite their stumbles, the Celtics had shown promise when their top players were available. There were also plenty of games left, and with the Feb. 10 trade deadline approaching, there were opportunities for alterations.
“Wyc came to us and said, ‘I think this team could be really good,’ ” vice president of basketball operations Mike Zarren recalled. “He said. ‘Let’s go for it. We’re not sellers. We’re buyers.’ And that was kind of our lodestar.”
Brad Stevens, the former Celtics head coach, was facing his first trade deadline since being elevated to the GM job. So with his owner’s endorsement, he hit the phones and things got hot in the Celtics front office. Himmelsbach notes.
[W]hen the trade deadline arrived, there was unanimous agreement that it was time to strike. Over a dizzying 24-hour period the team traded seven players and added guard Derrick White and center Daniel Theis.
Udoka told Himmelsbach, “There are a lot of similarities between the way Brad and I saw things and saw certain players that could help us. And ownership was on board to try to take a step this year.”
Udoka said that the Celtics would benefit from adding outside shooting and by solidifying their top-ranked defense with a versatile wing and a big man. He thought Dennis Schröder and Josh Richardson were key pieces, but he was unsure if they meshed perfectly in his scheme.
“We were losing some leads in games, and offensively stuff didn’t fit all the time,” Udoka said. “How could we get a group that would really help Jayson [Tatum] and Jaylen [Brown] going forward? And when D. White’s name came up, I said, ‘If possible, let’s do whatever we can to get him.’ ”
White was key to the logic of going for it. He knew some of the Celtics players from FIBA play and Boston thought he could be more valuable to the Celtics than the Spurs where he was languishing on a team that was at the time 19-34. There were hurdles here, too.
Conversations started earlier this season and the Celtics made their interest clear. But the Spurs were hardly shopping the 27-year-old guard, and it was unknown whether they would part with him.
“We had some sense what the type of price would be, and I don’t think we were very confident that there was a real discussion there until a week or two before the deadline,” Zarren said.
In this case, the final piece was the draft pick the Celtics were offering, specifically the protections. Eventually, the deal was Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford and the Celtics first, protected 1-4 in 2022 and 2023. The two also agreed to swap firsts in 2028.
At the same time, they executed two other trades, sending Denis Schroeder, Enes Freedom, and center Bruno Fernando to the Rockets in exchange for Daniel Theis who became Robert Williams back-up, and dumping Bol Bol and P.J. Dozier plus a future second-round pick and cash on the Magic for a future second.
Udoka was right about getting White. With the 6’4” guard in the lineup, the Celtics took off.
[T]he Celtics became dominant, roaring to a 20-6 finish that included 10 wins by 20 points or more. They enter their opening-round playoff series against the Nets on Sunday as title contenders, a truth that would have seemed unfathomable just two months ago.
In the end, both teams took big risks, the Nets in dumping a former MVP, three-time scoring leader and someone who helped them mightily after he arrived from Houston in 2021, the Celtics in shaking up what was a solid roster.
Who did better, at least in the short term? We are about to find out.