Lowe: Derrick White, Josh Hart and the 'small' trades that turn good teams into title contenders

In February 2022, the Celtics' acquisition of Derrick White was a footnote to other, "larger" deals in a wild deadline. But it's these trades -- like the Knicks' deal for Josh Hart -- that bring good teams into the inner circle of title contenders. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

EARLY IN DERRICK WHITE'S second season -- but really his first, given he spent his rookie year in the G League -- the San Antonio Spurs threw him into the fire as a starter.

In one of White's first starts, on Nov. 15, 2018, against the LA Clippers, he encountered the full Patrick Beverley experience: full-court pressure, unrelenting physicality, roaring trash talk. White struggled badly. The next day, he found a note from assistant coach Chip Engelland in his locker with the date of that game and a message: This is the best thing that has happened to you. It's going to make you better. You'll be different from this day on.

(Some within the Spurs also remember a Fathead of Beverley being placed in White's locker -- some gentle ribbing -- but White does not recall that.)

White kept the note up until the Spurs traded him to the Boston Celtics four-plus years later, he said. "It was humbling," White told ESPN after Boston's comeback win over the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. "This is the NBA. Everyone has a moment like that. I just knew I was going to keep working."

White emerged in San Antonio as a reliable starter, an important developmental success story for a team trapped in purgatory after trading Kawhi Leonard.

The decision to trade White, then 27, ahead of the 2022 trade deadline was not an easy one for the Spurs, sources said -- even as higher-ups recognized the need to rebuild. White was beloved -- selfless, good at pretty much everything and willing to work hard on his weak spots. Some within the team argued that he was the kind of player the Spurs should want as an organizational exemplar for whatever young guys the coming rebuild would net.

The Spurs did not let go easily when Boston and other teams -- including the Utah Jazz, sources said -- began inquiring about White's availability before the Feb. 2022 trade deadline. One first-round pick would not be enough. White was just starting a four-year, $70-plus million extension.

His 3-point shot needed work, but the Spurs were confident it would click with some mechanical tweaks and a major boost of confidence for a player who always seemed overly deferential -- baggage from being under-recruited in high school and beginning his college career in Division II.

A lot of trade-related focus in the media and within teams coalesces around two sorts of deals: superstar megatrades, and sinking teams unloading quality veterans. In 2022, Boston's deal for White was a footnote beneath the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers swapping James Harden and Ben Simmons. Several other smaller trades made and not made at that same deadline emerged as critical pivot points for teams -- including the Pacers.

A year later, another deal made from the wreckage of the Nets -- the Phoenix Suns acquiring Kevin Durant -- buried analysis of the New York Knicks flipping one of their first-round picks to the Portland Trail Blazers for Josh Hart. The Knicks, like Boston when the Celtics struck the White deal, were barely over .500. Despite their hoarding extra first-rounders, an average New York team trading its own pick for a shaky-shooting role player seemed to some rival observers as overexuberant.

Hart, like White, was 27 at the time of the trade. He instantly became a defining Knick. New York was confident it could re-sign Hart on a long-term deal; Hart had told Portland the Knicks were his preferred destination, and the Blazers worked to send Hart there -- never opening trade talks to the entire league, sources said.

The White and Hart deals -- plus the concurrent journey of Caris LeVert in and out of Indiana -- are a reminder that between those extreme trade types, there is a huge middle-ground of smaller deals that can redefine teams that nail them.

In an environment in which most contenders were handcuffed in trading future first-round picks, the Celtics and Knicks correctly deduced that their own picks -- even ones likely to end up in the 20s -- carried greater value than usual. Identify the right players, and trades that look to some like gambles and maybe even overpays end up risk-free bargains. What would White net Boston today if they made him available?

Fittingly, the Hart deal involved another wing originally traded around the same time Boston acquired White -- a player who had once been more coveted than both of them.