On June 18, 2021, the Boston Celtics and the Oklahoma City Thunder combined to make the first blockbuster deal in what is set to be a busy offseason. Boston dealt point guard Kemba Walker and the 16th pick in the upcoming 2021 NBA Draft in exchange for former Celtic Al Horford, young center Moses Brown, and a 2023 second-rounder. Celtic's general manager Brad Stevens stated on Walker, "Kemba is a true professional and a great teammate and player, I want to thank him for his tremendous impact, and the positive contribution he's made both to the Celtics and the City of Boston." Horford, who spent three seasons with Boston from 2016-2019, expressed his excitement to return to the franchise after a brief stint away with Philadelphia and Oklahoma City, tweeting "Celtic Pride!!!!!!".
There was some confusion in the NBA community following the trade. There was speculation as to why Boston would trade Walker, who averaged 19.3 points and 4.9 assists per game this past season, and a valuable first-rounder in exchange for a veteran player on an expensive contract and a young, unproven player. Beyond the consistent injuries concerns regarding Walker during his tenure in Boston, this trade is a perfect example of the financial consideration behind the scenes in every NBA decision.
In 2019 Kemba signed a 4-year $141 million deal with Boston in a sign-and-trade with Charlotte. After a disappointing and injury-riddled two seasons with Boston, Walker was traded. He is set to make $36 million in the 2021-22 season and $37 million in the 2022-23 season with a player option. Assuming Walker would take his player option, the Celtics would be paying out over $73 million to Walker in the next two years. After two years of the Kemba experiment in Boston, that did not look like a promising return for the front office.
On the other hand, Horford was a cheaper alternative, in the long run, not to mention he will likely take a lesser role in the game plan allowing young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to thrive. Horford's leadership experience in Boston was also an attractive feature. Now let's get into Horford's contract. Horford's deal with Boston is only guaranteed for 1-year with $27 million. For the 2022-23 season, Horford Horford is only guaranteed $14.5 million from Boston.
So for 2021-22, Boston will save $9 million from this deal alone. This space could be used to sign a valuable rotational player to help make a push this next season. But perhaps more importantly is what happens the following year. From this deal alone, Boston saves $22.5 million. All in all, Boston will only have $72,132,137 on the books in guaranteed total salary, whereas with Kemba still on the books, they would have an estimated $95 million guaranteed. Considering all this, the deal looks great for Boston, who will be set up perfectly to make a splash on a top free agent in the 2022 offseason, which is expected to be one of the most loaded in recent history. Stars like James Harden, Stephen Curry, and Bradley Beal will be on the table, to name a few.
Assuming this is the approach Brad Stevens and the Celtics take going forward, we could see a big three of 23-year old Tatum, 24-year old Brown, and 28-year old Beal. As these three young stars enter their prime, this trio, or a similar one involving a third star, would be a formidable force in the Eastern Conference, who would likely be competing for NBA Championships.
This is not to say this is the scenario that will play out, but rather that the NBA community should not assess transactions simply at face value. Moves may look odd, but 9 times out of 10, the teams believe they are improving their financial situation for the near or far future. Considering that, it may take several years to thoroughly and accurately assess who won this trade.
Until next time…