Fortunes change fast in the NBA. Three days ago, the Milwaukee Bucks were lauded (in this space and others) for upending the league with a blockbuster that vaulted them to the top of a vulnerable Eastern Conference. But then, on Sunday afternoon, in another shocking trade that should tweak most projection systems, the Boston Celtics acquired Jrue Holiday from the Portland Trail Blazers for Malcolm Brogdon, Robert Williams III, and two future first-round picks (Golden State’s top-four-protected 2024 selection and Boston’s unprotected 2029 pick).
In the aftermath of a disappointing conference finals loss and Milwaukee’s trade for Damian Lillard, the Celtics saw an opportunity to evolve a championship-ready roster that was already reshaped by June’s swap of Marcus Smart for Kristaps Porzingis, and they pounced.
It’s a hollow claim in early October, but Boston should now be considered the favorite to win it all. Some might argue this point, with the Nuggets, Suns, Warriors, and Bucks all worthy, but as of today, it’s so hard to find any meaningful holes on the Celtics roster relative to the competition.
Holiday was an All-Star last season, averaging 19.3 points, 7.4 assists, and 5.1 rebounds per game. He finished 16th in estimated wins and sixth in DARKO. He also helped guide the Bucks to a title in 2021, both brazen and brilliant on the sport’s biggest stage. Holiday’s most frustrating tendencies (overly ambitious and antsy decision-making) shouldn’t infect the Celtics team, which doesn’t need to stretch his limitations—as the Bucks were forced to do when Khris Middleton was hurt in the 2022 playoffs. Holiday was inefficient in all three of his playoff runs with the Bucks, but his hasty shot selection in the last two can at least partially be attributed to critical injuries elsewhere on Milwaukee’s squad.
He’s a good fit anywhere. Knowing that, Boston’s determination was likely fueled by the fact that making this trade prevents the Heat, Sixers, Warriors, Clippers, or any other potential playoff foes from acquiring him and getting significantly better. On the Celtics, he’s perfect. They add a reliable ball handler who can do pretty much everything Smart and Brogdon could at an even higher level, be it running the show or pushing in transition. He creates turnovers and can match up in transition with just about anyone, easing the burden when Boston’s retreating after a made shot. The Bucks have had a great transition defense for years, and Holiday helps explain why.
Solutions to slow the revamped Celtics down are few and far between. They can bully you all over the court with the switch-everything lineups that have carried their defense for the past few years or big, brutish units that shut down the paint and force offenses to settle over and over again.
Holiday can manufacture quality shots for himself, too, but he’s also damn good at capitalizing on the attention earned by others. That’s good news for the Celtics. According to Second Spectrum, Holiday generated 1.27 points per direct play as the ball handler in closeout situations last year. That was seventh best out of 202 players who logged at least 250 plays. (Porzingis finished eighth.)
Despite a turnover rate that’s a little high for a starting point guard—which he won’t really be with White and Tatum running the show—Holiday typically makes smart decisions off the bounce, forcing a rotation and finding an open man who’s either spotting up or cutting through the open paint.