The Six Trades That Turned The Boston Celtics Into A Juggernaut

The Boston Celtics are a pretty uniquely built basketball team. Yes, they’re absolutely loaded with talent, as few teams in NBA history have ever had a starting five and a sixth man quite as good as what Boston throws out there on a given night. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are All-Stars. The trio of Jrue Holiday, Kristaps Porzingis, and Derrick White all exemplify being stars in your role. Al Horford is about as ageless as they come outside of LeBron James.

Even more unique is how all six of those players ended up on the Celtics via a trade, whether that meant the team directly acquired them from another team or they did some maneuvering to get NBA Draft picks that they used to bring them to Boston. Today, we looked at how Boston’s wheeling and dealing — across two GMs, Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens — led to them putting together a group of players that is on the verge of winning the 18th championship in franchise history.

Jaylen Brown: July 12, 2013

Alright, so the Celtics didn’t directly acquire Jaylen Brown when he was — does some quick math — 16 years old. At the time, Brown was a highly-regarded prospect at Wheeler High School in Marietta, Georgia. Who knows where he was on this exact day, which is when the Celtics and the Brooklyn Nets agreed to one of the most infamous deals in NBA history.

Boston agreed to send Brooklyn two of the faces of their 2008 title-winning team, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, along with Jason Terry and reserve power forward D.J. White. In exchange, the team received a haul of players (Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph), along with a ton of draft capital: first-round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018, along with a pick swap in the 2017 NBA Draft (keep this one in mind!). The Nets ended up being horrific in the 2015-16 season — they went 21-61 in their first season without Garnett or Pierce on the roster since the trade — and as a result, Boston got the No. 3 overall pick in 2016.

After the Philadelphia 76ers took Ben Simmons and the Los Angeles Lakers took Brandon Ingram, the Celtics selected Brown, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and a first-team all-conference selection out of Cal. At the time, he wasn’t viewed as a no-brainer to go third — names like Dragan Bender and Kris Dunn were brought up in that spot — as he wasn’t the most consistent player as a college freshman and needed to take become more well-rounded instead of just a terrific athlete who played basketball. He wasn’t an especially efficient scorer (43.1/29.4/65.4 shooting splits), while having more turnovers than assists. But it’s safe to say that Boston made a pretty good pick taking the high-upside swingman and banking on their ability to develop him, as Brown has made three All-Star teams and enters Game 4 of the 2024 NBA Finals as the favorite to win Finals MVP.

Jayson Tatum: July 12, 2013 and June 19, 2017

Boston ended up taking that 2017 pick swap with Brooklyn. You might remember the 2016-17 campaign as the one where Isaiah Thomas became an all-time great fourth quarter player en route to Boston going 53-29. Brooklyn, meanwhile, was horrific, going 20-62, the worst record in the league by four games. After some ping pong balls bounced around, the Nets had the No. 1 pick, which meant the Celtics had the No. 1 pick, which meant the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference had the No. 1 pick.

There were two guys at the very top of that draft: Washington guard Markelle Fultz and UCLA guard Lonzo Ball. The latter very clearly wanted to end up on the Lakers (which he did at No. 2), while the Sixers were sitting at three thanks to a trade they made in 2015 with the Sacramento Kings and really, really wanted Fultz, an explosive combo guard who theoretically was a perfect fit next to their young duo of Joel Embiid and Simmons and could give them one hell of a big three if they all hit. And eventually, they were able to make a deal happen, as they sent the No. 3 pick and a pick that ended up being No. 14 overall in 2019 (this one will pop up again in a bit) to Boston.

Now, all the caveats apply here about how Danny Ainge went about his business with this sort of stuff, but according to Ainge, the Celtics always had their eyes on one guy: Tatum. He made the jump to the league after one year at Duke where he was a polished scorer and promising rebounder, but it wasn’t clear if he’s be able to develop into a superstar due to a lack of explosiveness in his game, questions about his ability to consistently hit threes, and his need to consistently bring it as a facilitator and a defender. It’s funny to look back on the pick and say there was some risk involved in taking Tatum, but fortunately for Boston, this all worked out, and as a result, they got the best player in that Draft.

Al Horford: June 18, 2021

Unlike the rest of the guys on this list, Horford’s original stint in Boston didn’t happen due to a trade. The Celtics famously signed him to a 4-year, $113 million deal in 2016 after his original team, the Atlanta Hawks, were hesitant to give the 30-year-old Horford a long-term deal over how his game would age and chose to sign Dwight Howard instead. Whoops!

Anyway, Horford was quite good for the Celtics for three years before hitting free agency in 2019, when the Sixers inexplicably gave him four years and $97 million because they apparently thought the only thing that would prevent them from winning a championship was their inability to do anything in the 10 minutes a game where Joel Embiid rested. The problem: Horford and the Sixers just never gelled, and after a year and a half, Philly attached a 2025 first-round pick to him and shipped him to Oklahoma City in a deal that included a few other picks and players.

Horford spent three months playing in OKC before the team shut him down with an eye on bringing along their younger guys. And then, on June 2, Brad Stevens took over for Danny Ainge in Boston’s front office. 16 days later, he made his first trade. While it cost him a pick in 2021 that eventually turned into Alperen Sengun, Stevens got Horford, Moses Brown, and a 2023 second back for Kemba Walker, the No. 16 pick in 2021, and a 2025 second-round pick. Between Horford making less money and just flat out being a better player than a physically compromised Walker at that point, it made a ton of sense at the time, even if giving up a first was a tough pill to swallow and it’s fun to imagine what this Celtics team would look like with Sengun on board if you’re assuming he’d develop into a star with them.

But even with Sengun’s involvement, this trade has been a home run. Horford’s familiarity with Boston — particularly Brown and Tatum — made him an invaluable member over their starting lineup over the last few years, while he’s aged gracefully and has accepted a new role as either a bench contributor or a spot starter during their run to the NBA Finals this year.

Derrick White: February 10, 2022

White’s basketball journey has been pretty well-documented by this point, as he went from a D-II player to a first-round pick with the San Antonio Spurs (he went 26 picks after Tatum in 2017), then turned into one of the league’s great developmental stories as he continued to get better with each passing year. His defense got him on the floor in both the G League and in the NBA, while he kept improving on offense as a scorer and a point guard.

Ahead of the 2022 trade deadline, Boston needed some backcourt reinforcements. Marcus Smart did his best, but wasn’t the most natural fit as a point guard, while free agent signing Dennis Schröder wasn’t quite right for the team despite being on the taxpayer mid-level. As such, on the same day that Boston sent Schröder (along with Enes Freedom and Bruno Fernando) to Houston for an old friend in Daniel Theis, the Celtics agreed to send Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, a pick in 2022 that turned into Blake Wesley, and the option for a 2028 pick swap to San Antonio for White. Langford, the No. 14 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was taken with the second pick the Celtics acquired in the trade that got them Tatum.

While he largely came off the bench during his first year in Boston, it was evident from the jump that White was a perfect fit, as his defense and willingness to play within the team’s system made him a valuable contributor as the team won the Eastern Conference. He became a starter during the 2022-23 campaign, showed that he developed a reliable jump shot, and has seemingly done nothing but make winning plays ever since. While he has one more year on the 4-year, $70 million deal he signed with the Spurs in December 2021, the Celtics will hope they can find a way to lock him up long-term given his incredible impact on this team.

Kristaps Porzingis: June 21, 2023

After essentially getting salary dumped by the Dallas Mavericks, Porzingis spent a year and a half with the Washington Wizards in what turned into a career reset. He didn’t do all that much winning in the nation’s capital, but Porzingis did put up the best numbers of his career as a scorer, and perhaps most importantly, showed an ability to stay on the floor that he hadn’t in the previous five years — in 2022-23, he appeared in 65 games, the most since his sophomore season in the NBA.

The fun thing about this deal is that it almost didn’t happen. Originally, Boston agreed to a three-team trade with the Wizards and the Los Angeles Clippers that would send Malcolm Brogdon to L.A., but apparently, an injury Brogdon suffered in the playoffs led to the Clippers backing out of the deal. There was, however, reporting that the Celtics really wanted to bring Porzingis on board, and as a result, they’d keep working to find a deal, even if that meant doing something with Washington directly.

Later that day, a new trade came into focus, and Boston was indeed able to get Porzingis. It happened in a three-team deal, only this time, the Memphis Grizzlies got pulled into the negotiations and acquired the heart and soul of the Celtics, Marcus Smart. The whole deal is pretty remarkable in retrospect, as Boston sent Smart to Memphis and Danilo Gallinari, Mike Muscala, and the No. 35 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft to Washington. In return, they got Porzingis and two first-round picks — one in 2023 (the 25th overall selection) and a top-4 protected 2024 pick that came from the Golden State Warriors that will get mentioned again in a moment.

Not long after, Porzingis agreed to a short-term contract extension with the Celtics. He’s missed time during both the regular season and the playoffs — his health is presumably a big reason why they got multiple firsts in the deal — but when he’s played, you see why Boston coveted him last offseason, as his shooting, rim protection, and low post scoring have been huge throughout the year.

Jrue Holiday: October 1, 2023

Four days earlier, the Milwaukee Bucks — which clearly felt the need to shake things up following an embarrassing playoff exit the year before — swung for the fences by trading for Damian Lillard in a three-team deal that included the Phoenix Suns. The package they sent to the Portland Trail Blazers was headlined by Holiday, and almost immediately, there was one prevailing thought: A lot of teams are going to want him, but boy, the Bucks better hope Boston doesn’t get him.

While the Celtics probably didn’t desperately need Holiday as badly as some of the other teams linked to him did, the front office still made it a point to pursue him. Long viewed as one of the most malleable players in the NBA, Holiday made a ton of sense as a player who could slide into the backcourt next to White, especially after the Smart trade, and wasn’t the sort of person who would need to take the ball out of Brown or Tatum’s hands. As such, Boston packaged a pair of players — Brogdon and Robert Williams — with its own unprotected 2029 first-round pick and the 2024 selection they got in the Porzingis deal.

Losing Williams was tough due to how beloved he was by teammates and fans, but from a basketball perspective, Porzingis was an upgrade, while the team had already tried to move Brogdon earlier in the offseason, which led to some apparent tension. Unsurprisingly, Holiday was an outstanding fit in Boston from the get go, to the point that the team gave him a lucrative extension back in April. In the Finals, he’s been nothing short of spectacular, and is a significant reason why Boston has a 3-0 lead — even if Jayson Tatum still isn’t sure how the rest of the league let the Celtics get him.