Brad Stevens picked up the phone on Sunday preparing to make a second difficult call to tell a cornerstone Celtics player they would no longer play for the team. Stevens coached Robert Williams III and watched him emerge as one of the league’s best defensive big men from his new front office role. Boston’s brass already envisioned a player they couldn’t pass on becoming available when the Bucks traded for Damian Lillard. Jrue Holiday had to go to Portland to make the money work, and in this deal Williams III provided the most value next to Malcolm Brogdon for a rebuilding Portland team reportedly asking for 4-5 first-round picks.
“(It was) really hard,” Stevens said. “I said this to our staff today … I’ll probably be like somewhere in 10 years hiding. Those are the hardest phone calls. It was such a pleasure to watch Rob grow. When he first got here, he had a long way to go, but he had a great attitude. He was a great teammate and he got a lot better over time. I know Portland’s super excited to get him, and that was hard. It was really hard. Guys like Jrue Holiday, are the only reason you ever entertain moving on from a guy like Rob. That’s really tough.”
The Celtics underwent enormous change one year ago, and while losing a head coach days before camp caused shock, pain and reorganizing that pales in comparison to this summer’s changes, Joe Mazzulla and the team’s players acknowledged a feeling-out process ahead while integrating Holiday, new big man Kristaps Porziņģis and replacing what Smart and Williams III provided to the team as its defensive backbone on the way to the 2022 NBA Finals. Mazzulla will decide the starting lineup in time, and already acknowledged the team might have to flow flexibly between smaller lineups, with Derrick White, and double-big featuring Horford.
Horford, 37 this season and thrust back into a larger role with Williams III gone, told the big man he mentored as a rookie that he’ll be fine. The tumultuous week anticipating what might occur as reports indicated Boston’s interest in Holiday, and clearly pulled numerous players into play as salary-matching to make it happen. Stevens revealed the Celtics explored various scenarios when they realized Holiday could become available, and ultimately both Horford and the team’s array of bench players, who both could’ve went in a deal alongside Brogdon, remained.
“Just a roller coaster. Just a lot going on, and now we can just focus on the season and put some of that stuff behind,” Horford said. “It’s been a lot, all this time, just waiting, and at some point we thought we were done, then obviously the news breaks yesterday. Now that we’re settled, we can move forward and prepare for the season.”
Porziņģis even acknowledged the lost charisma he noticed that Williams III provided during his two weeks so far around him and the team. Holiday arrived Sunday morning, beating Stevens to the Auerbach Center, and will undergo a physical before speaking to the media and practicing. New teammates hardly know him apart from their battles with the Bucks and Tatum’s Olympic experience two summers ago. Media day took on a serious and business-like tone, with buddies gone and bona-fide championship ceiling-raisers secured. The remaining core players seemed to understand the opportunity Holiday and Porziņģis provide them together, despite the pain of those trades’ losses.
Old on-court challenges paved way to new ones though. Mazzulla said the starting lineup remains undetermined, now stuck between acknowledging Horford’s longstanding status as a starter and White’s anointment as the team’s point guard before Holiday arrived. Going small leaves Porziņģis at center guarding the perimeter more often. Playing big returns White to the bench after a massive year in the starting lineup, while the backup center situation behind Horford and Porziņģis would become a larger determiner in Boston’s success. Stevens expressed trust in Luke Kornet, Neemias Queta and new addition Wenyen Gabriel, then teased which direction the Celtics leaned in when imagining how this new team looks.
“We’l continue to look at it, we’ll see how it all looks. We’ve had the real benefit of watching a pack gym for the last few weeks in small groups, and some open gyms that guys have played and we’ve been really encouraged and impressed by some of the people that people don’t talk about on our team,” he said. “We’ll see how that all plays itself out. We talked about the trying to balance that. I think Jrue becoming available wasn’t something that was predicted, and we thought about it not only in terms of however Joe decides to start the game, but certainly how the end of the game would look and who we can put out there and just couldn’t pass on an opportunity to get a guy like Jrue. We will continue to look at the best balance for our team. I do think that we’ll still play some, some double-bigs. The nice part is that Kristaps (and Al) can play with any of our bigs.”
Porziņģis said the plan remains to situate his defense closer to the basket, while Horford and White both expressed a willingness to work in whatever roles Mazzulla decides. He expressed some desire to mix-and-match lineups throughout the year, and while not typical for fully healthy teams, Boston will also balance rest this year. Brown and Tatum can only rest individually as all-stars under new NBA rules. Porziņģis and Horford will have to trade off any nights they take off, while Porziņģis worked out comfortably since arriving to the facility following his six-week shutdown with plantar fasciitis.
Brown and Tatum both clearly added muscle, Tatum tacking on 12 more pounds in a record lifting offseason where he spent roughly one month alongside Brown and trainer Drew Hanlen in Los Angeles. Both players downplayed the efforts as anything extraordinary, but it allowed them to have conversations with each other and Celtics legend Paul Pierce about how to win a championship, a mentor who’ll feature prominently around the team. Pierce, logging hours in the gym alongside them, lost nearly 20 pounds of retirement weight.
“We got a lot of voices that are no longer with us,” Brown said. “Blake, Grant, Smart, all very vocal guys. I think definitely hearing my voice a little more this season, J.T.’s voice a little more this season, also making sure we’re all on the same page … sometimes it can be external pressure … helping some of the newer guys and younger guys navigate that … I think chemistry-building is going to be important. You can’t just throw guys out there and expect everything to work. Our habits are going to create our future and our success. We gotta build some great habits during training camp, I’m excited about that and I’m excited about the journey.”