“You just look for things that make the most sense within your group,” he said. “I think we have to walk a fine line a little bit. I think teams are fragile. I think the way teams work together and operate together are fragile. And I think your identity as a team — when you find one that’s successful, which we did this year on the defensive end of the floor and when we were at our best sharing the ball offensively — those things are fragile.
“So just to add doesn’t mean that you’re not taking something away from the group. And to change significant pieces in the group doesn’t mean that might not totally take your identity and shift it in a direction that’s not as successful. And so it’s quite a fine line.”
Stevens said the Celtics would look to add pieces where the fit seems ideal, pulling levers with their $6.3 million taxpayer’s mid-level exception, or their trade exceptions. But he stressed that some boost could come from within. This season, for example, Payton Pritchard stepped into a more significant role following some February trades and became an essential bench piece.
“I believe in a couple of the guys that didn’t get a chance to play as much, that they will continue to improve and be knocking on that door soon,” Stevens said.
Stevens did not single out second-year wing Aaron Nesmith by name, but certainly seemed to be referencing him. After promising moments as a rookie, Nesmith took a step back this season and fell out of the rotation. Still, the team values his hustle and defense and believes he can regain his shooting touch.
The trade exceptions
Trade exceptions always sound a bit juicier than they actually are. The exceptions, which expire one year after they are created, allow teams to acquire players without sending out matching salary in return.
The Celtics have a collection of them, including three notable ones valued at $17.1 million, $9.7 million, and $6.9 million. The largest exception, which was created when they traded Evan Fournier to the Knicks last summer, expires in late July.
“They’re all reasonable amounts that we can take good players in with,” Stevens said, “so you balance that on, OK, what’s the cost that you’re going to have to pay? Are you going to bring somebody in that’s going to add to [your roster]? Not necessarily take away, which you obviously don’t want to do.
“So it’s still about being prudent and thoughtful about what the deal is. But we’re going through the whole list and we’re trying to find guys that fit what we need and will fit into how we want to play and how Ime [Udoka] wants to coach and makes it so that this train can take off from the get-go next year.”
The Celtics will be a luxury-tax team next season, so even though the exceptions would allow them to trade for a player without being restrained by the salary cap, they’d still have to pay that salary and the extra tax bill it creates. Stevens said that ownership will not hold him back, though.
“We’ve got the OK to do whatever we need to do,” he said.
Confidence in Tatum
Stevens said he had one message for Jayson Tatum after his frustrating NBA Finals ended.
“I just told him to go on vacation,” said Stevens. “Go get some rest. This guy gave us everything he had.”
Tatum started in the All-Star Game, was named first-team All-NBA for the first time, and guided the Celtics to the brink of a championship. But his season concluded with a difficult series against the Warriors, and he appeared particularly down about it after the Game 6 loss last Thursday.
“I think he would be the first to say that he would like to have some of those moments back,” Stevens said. “But I thought there were other contributing factors to how he played.”
Stevens thinks fatigue from a long season, a stagnant offense, and the Warriors’ underrated defense all played a role in Tatum’s struggles.
“That’s part of the learning experience about getting to the point where you have a great idea about what it takes to get all the way through,” Stevens said.
But he does not want one quiet series to take away from everything the star forward accomplished.
“What Jayson and Jaylen [Brown] have done in the playoffs, historically at their ages, is rarefied air,” Stevens said. “I think we’re very cognizant of the fact that even though Jayson would admit he did not play his best series, there’s no chance we’re there without him and without all of his great play all the way through.
“I think back to all of the times — Game 6 in Milwaukee was one of the best games I’ve seen an individual play in my time, certainly in person and with the Celtics. Without that performance, we would have had this discussion a month and a half ago.”
Stevens said that the 18-21 start to the season probably increased the early workloads of top players such as Tatum, and the wear and tear showed later. A cleaner beginning to next year will be a point of emphasis.
Evaluating the coach
Stevens’s biggest move in this new role last summer was hiring Udoka. There were some early bumps, but like the rest of the team, Udoka found a rhythm and thrived. He finished fourth in the Coach of the year voting and gained the trust and confidence of his players along the way.
“I thought that he found a rhythm in coaching this group that obviously was really good as we went through the regular season and into the playoffs,” said Stevens, “and did a good job of maintaining his competitiveness, but also his perspective and evenness throughout the playoffs.
“I’ve told people I’m close to all along, I think his ability to bounce back after the tough losses in the playoffs was really special, and his ability to always stay humble and hungry throughout it all was really special.”
A clean bill of health
Stevens said he did not expect any Celtics to need offseason surgery. Center Robert Williams appeared hobbled at times in the playoffs as he dealt with soreness related to his March knee surgery, but improved noticeably as the Finals progressed.
“But he needs to take some time,” Stevens said. “Both our doctors and others that we have consulted with have said the same thing. There’s certainly no risk in being out there. But when it’s over, you need to take a few weeks for it to completely settle down.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at Adam.firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @The_Men_Bachelor.