Boston Celtics

Feb 2, 2021; San Francisco, California: Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens talks to guard Kemba Walker (8) during the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Chase Center. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

An explosive new report suggests that there were problems between Kemba Walker and Brad Stevens, which in part led to the team’s decision to trade Walker last week. But the Celtics’ new President of Basketball Operations had a more practical explanation for the structure of the deal.

It’s clear, now, that Boston’s primary motivation for shipping Walker to the Oklahoma City Thunder was financial. Stevens referred to the team’s improved salary cap flexibility in the wake of the trade when he spoke to reporters via Zoom on Monday. But the team also needed to trade their 2021 first-round pick in order to get OKC to take on Walker’s contract in the first place. So why this year’s pick and not a future one?

Stevens wanted flexibility in future draft years, too, and was willing to sacrifice their next first-rounder in order to preserve that.

“I think we talked about several iterations of [the trade],” Stevens said. “Obviously, we felt that one of the things that we wanted was the ability to be unencumbered moving forward, and kind of have a road ahead. We have a lot of things that we have to address, appropriately. And, you know, this was really hard. This was not the ideal ‘first few weeks on the job’ move, just because of the kind of person that Kemba is and the kind of professional he is and how good of a player he is and continues to be. And so [there were] a lot of hard calls. But that part, with this year’s pick versus maybe future picks, yeah, that was a big driver in making this decision.”

Stevens repeatedly noted his admiration for Walker as a player and as a person, without addressing Jared Weiss’ recent report in The Athletic that Walker was unfairly targeted for criticism from him as the Celtics’ head coach. The need to rid themselves of Walker’s contract was, at the very least, a convenient excuse to part ways with the talented-but-oft-injured point guard.

So why Oklahoma City? In that case, the Celtics’ return on the trade speaks for itself. Stevens preferred that Al Horford would be the player coming back in the deal over other potential offers, and that seems to have been a deciding factor in the Celtics sending Walker and the first-round pick to the Thunder, rather than the Knicks or any other rumored suitors.

“It gave us the opportunity to look at a road ahead with a few more options, from a financial flexibility standpoint, that all of our future first-round picks passed this year, which again, gives you more options,” Stevens said. “And then, it was the best deal that we thought with regard to returning players. I mean, the idea or the opportunity to add Al, who makes significantly less money, that is a really good player that has corporate knowledge of this environment, that is really excited to be back in Boston and has a good feel for not only playing with our guys but also has made them better. I think that his ability to pass, his ability to play a couple of positions but certainly stretch the floor against bigs, and … his ability to lift others is one of his great strengths.”

“So to have the ability to get that in return and gain financial flexibility moving forward, that the cost was a person that you really, really like, and one first-round pick.”

It’s unclear how serious the problems between Walker and Stevens ultimately got in Boston. But his albatross of a contract made the trade a relatively easy decision, and the return of Horford made the Thunder a logical trade partner.

You can hear Stevens’ Monday press conference in the podcast below, via 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Zolak & Bertrand.

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Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @mattydsays. You can also email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.