SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens engaged in a question-and-answer session Friday at the Basketball Hall of Fame, where a young visitor asked him pointedly why he traded away Isaiah Thomas earlier this week.
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“That’s an excellent question,” Stevens answered after laughter dissipated from fans in attendance following the unexpected hard-hitting question. The Celtics traded Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round pick to Cleveland in exchange for Kyrie Irving on Tuesday.
“Here’s what I’ll tell you: What [Thomas] did in Boston the last 2½ years has been incredible. I said earlier what he’s meant to me, what I think of him, how great he’s been in the locker room, what kind of teammate he’s been. Those are all really, really, really hard decisions. That’s the hard part about being a professional basketball coach. I’ve stared at the wall many times and thought, ‘Man, having guys in college for four years and knowing exactly when they’re coming and going is a pretty good way of doing things.’ So that’s a tough one.”
Later, talking to a pair of reporters on hand for the event, Stevens expanded on not only Tuesday’s blockbuster trade but a summer in which the Celtics overhauled much of their roster after making the Eastern Conference finals last season.
“You get a chance in this league to coach such great players; it’s an honor to do that,” Stevens said. “Obviously, to have a guy like Kyrie that’s going to join us, it’s a great opportunity for our organization. Whenever you’re able to obtain a guy like that, there’s inherently major costs involved and those costs are both production on the basketball court but, more importantly to me, the emotional part of it, right?
“[It’s] how tied you are to Isaiah and all that he has done, how fun it’s been to be with him the last 2½ years. And Jae, who has been here just a little bit longer than that and how much fun it’s been to watch him kinda seize an opportunity and make himself one of the more reliable 3-and-D players in the entire league. I guess the hard part about these deals when you’re pursuing some of the best players in the league is that it comes at an emotional and [on-court] cost to your team. Those are really hard things. It’s been a balance for me.”
Only four players remain from last season in Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier. Stevens joked about trying to get everyone on the same page before the season tips — in Cleveland no less — on Oct. 17.
“My job is to coach the guys that are on the team and I’m learning all their names this week,” Stevens cracked. “I always write initials on the board and I’m sure to screw that up.”
Stevens noted how he coached Irving, briefly, as a teenager at a Team USA under-18 camp and said Irving has been “great” in their initial conversations this week. Stevens said that, once the emotional strain of the week begins to wear off, he can focus more on how to utilize Irving next season.
“To be quite candid, right now you’re going to go through the week and you say, ‘OK, there’s a real emotional side to that.’ And then it’s, ‘OK, how do you piece this thing together?'” Stevens said. “And, oh by the way, this is the one year the NBA decided to shorten the preseason by 10 days. We have a lot of work to do. We’ll figure out how to best put people in the right place to be successful as we learn more about them.
“I think our preseason, we’ll probably look at the first three months as a real time to learn and grow. Hopefully we can play our best basketball even further down the road. [Irving will] do some of [what Thomas did] and he’ll do stuff that fits his strength. Our goal is to put him in position to do that.”
Asked about a report that Thomas had rubbed some in the Celtics organization the wrong way during his time in Boston, the hard-to-ruffle Stevens admitted that suggestion didn’t sit well with him.
“I don’t pay attention to much of that stuff, but if I was irked by anything that would be it,” Stevens said.
Reflecting on Thomas’ time in Boston and the difficulty bidding farewell to him, Stevens added: “Isaiah was great to me. Isaiah’s been unbelievable. He and Jae both, I feel blessed to have had a chance to coach them. I learned a lot from them. I think that the players in our locker room would echo that. Easy guys to root for, easy guys to be around, really great teammates.”