The National Basketball Association can be a tricky league for a head coach. With rare exception, it is arguably the one of the four major sports where coaches have the least amount of influence and say. Players, by and large, hold the power, have the ability to urge their organizations to form super-teams, and a single star player can lead to a coach’s dismissal if any aspect of the relationship or style displeases him.
In Boston, there is an outlier. Second-year coach Brad Stevens – more so than his players – is the investment.
Certainly not the All-Star point guard, recently traded away after years of speculation over his future and free agency pending. Not the promising young talents still honing their crafts in their first few years in the league.
The Celtics signed the long-time Butler bench boss to a six-year, $22 million deal on July 3, 2013, making Stevens, at 36, the youngest head coach in the NBA.
On that day, muddled by a roster filled with redundancy, some bad contracts, and an increasing number of draft picks, the first-time pro coach was given the keys to the winningest franchise in league history. Banner 18 is scheduled, or hoped, to come on his watch, though with no definitive deadline in mind.
Life for the Green is in rebuild mode; rather, as C’s president of basketball operations Danny Ainge prefers to put it, the organization is building towards its first championship since 2008.
As a rookie coach, following a .772 winning percentage in college and two trips to the NCAA championship game, Stevens guided a team destined to lose to 25 wins and a share of the fourth-worst record in the NBA. Along the way, he patiently and no doubt frustratedly led a group of proud players against superior competition nearly every night whilst their own fans rooted for them to fail in hopes of landing a top collegiate selection. Even as the term “tank” was firmly implanted in the lexicon of the season, Stevens’ club was competitive and entertaining more often than not.
But the 2013-14 Celtics were a team filled with flaws, from the lack of an offensive finisher and defensive rim-protector, to a remarkably inconsistent leading-scorer and an injury-plagued backcourt, not to mention a surplus of power forwards and a few disgruntled veterans.
Truth be told, many of those same issues still exist today for a 10-15 squad that’s more than a quarter of the way through the coach’s second season and somehow sits only a half-game out of a playoff spot in a pathetic Eastern Conference. As each day and transaction passes, however, one important detail could not be clearer:
The majority of decisions made concerning the Celts’ roster, style of play, and direction, are done so with Stevens in mind.
Think back over the last year, after Boston’s blockbuster trade with Brooklyn that was made official following Stevens’ hire but had actually been agreed upon prior to the new coach coming aboard to replace the departed Doc Rivers. In those two deals, Ainge started filling his treasure chest of picks with four first-round selections. He also acquired Keith Bogans, whose contract represented a very tradable commodity.
In December, guard Courtney Lee – brought in a year earlier to bolster the bench of what yearned to be a contender – began expressing displeasure with his playing time, just as Bogans had done previously. Bogans, the deepest man on the pine, was sent home in January, while Lee was traded for Jerryd Bayless, a talented role player with a smaller ego.
There wasn’t room on Stevens’ bench for malcontents.
Later in the month, Ainge effectively dealt Jordan Crawford, a player Stevens coached up beyond most reasonable expectations, to the Warriors for Joel Anthony’s bloated short-term contract and two more first-round picks from the Heat in a three-team deal.
All of those moves were made for either roster flexibility, the purpose of collecting assets, or improvement of the culture. None of them with the intention of enhancing last year’s on-court product.
The summer of 2014 is when things further turned in favor of the local version of The Butler Way.
After a disappointing result in the draft lottery and missing out on what would have been a lovely addition, Ainge’s slim chances at a second overnight rebuild disappeared. The Celtics moved forward and seemed not only pleased but eager to select hard-working and defensive-minded guard Marcus Smart out of Oklahoma State with the sixth overall pick in the June draft. At No. 17, the C’s went with sharp-shooting Kentucky freshman James Young.
Some were curious about the Smart selection, given Rajon Rondo’s elite-level talent and Avery Bradley’s slightly excessive new contract, but a gushing Stevens was thrilled with the choices management made during his first year in the War Room. The coach, whose fingerprints were all over these picks, said he had both new additions ranked in the top-11 on his big board. In Smart's case, it was also an early sign of what was to come.
The next month, Ainge made a three-way deal with the Cavaliers and Nets to obtain yet another future first-round selection (from Cleveland), Marcus Thornton’s expiring contract and, maybe most interesting, center Tyler Zeller.
Like Stevens, Zeller is a native of Indiana. The coach admitted he never tried to recruit the strong seven-footer early in his career with the Bulldogs – though he did attempt to lure Tyler’s brothers Luke and Cody – because he didn’t think Butler stood a chance of getting him. The skilled middle child wound up starring at North Carolina, where he was an ACC Player of the Year.
Two trades later, for a Washington trade exception and three second-round picks, Ainge signed former Sixers' star and Pacers' castoff Evan Turner to a two-year deal.
Once again, this was a player with whom Stevens enjoyed a relationship. He and Turner have known one another since the swingman was in high school in Illinois. Equally interesting, Turner’s college coach at Ohio State, Thad Matta, is the man credited with starting Stevens’ career in coaching. He hired the Celtics’ leader to his bench at Butler as the Bulldogs’ director of basketball operations in 2000 when Stevens was 23.
“He was just a hungry young kid that was desperate to get into coaching,” Matta said of Stevens a few years ago. “He had a great passion and was willing to take a risk to get into the coaching profession.”
That passion hasn’t dissipated, and Stevens’ new employers are hoping to capitalize on his drive.
But, now more than ever, the coach and his bosses have their work cut out for them. Last week, the Celtics traded their captain and the polarizing, enigmatic face of the franchise.
Ainge, however reluctantly, shipped Rondo southwest to the championship-hopeful Mavericks along with Dwight Powell in exchange for soon-to-be free agents Brandan Wright and Jae Crowder, veteran Jameer Nelson (on the books for up to one more year), two future draft picks, and a whopping $12.9 million trade exception.
The move signaled what many assumed dating back to that June night Smart heard his name called as the newest member of the Boston Celtics: if Ainge couldn't pair Rondo with another All-Star, as he failed to do this summer, the Marcus Smart Era would quickly follow.
For Stevens, eager to construct a roster with players he could mold rather than with well-established, potentially stubborn veterans, this temporary step back may have been viewed internally as a giant leap forward.
Future Flexibility and an Evolving Philosophy
To date, and amid reports the Celtics could be active trade partners, the team appears to hold as many as 17 draft picks (eight in the first-round) over the next four years. Looking ahead to what may be a substantial roster rebirth, Bradley is the only guy on the squad with a guaranteed contract (about $8.3 million) come the start of the 2016-17 season.
Free agency may not be the answer – it rarely is around here – but considerable financial flexibility awaits Ainge and C’s ownership as they look to provide Stevens with the men he can win with in what will at that point be his fourth year on the job.
For now, though, as Stevens and Ainge work to develop and evaluate their pieces to determine which players are building blocks versus trade chips, the coach will continue to work tirelessly to implement a system based on pace and space. Time and time again, you’ll hear him preach aggressiveness for his attacking, up-tempo offense; one that is defined by, on the good days, Spurs-like ball movement.
A newly healthy Rondo, recovered from his 2013 ACL tear and this summer’s mysterious hand injury, was at the center of the transition before his departure. With their nightly triple-double threat eager to run and surrounded by the young and athletic legs to accompany him down the floor, the C's ran the fastest offense in the league. That pace has slowed some in two games since, but the Celts still rank second in the league with 100.0 possessions per 48 minutes and the entertainment factor has skyrocketed.
As a result, even without that highly coveted go-to scorer, Boston is sixth in the NBA in scoring with 104.0 points a game, second with 25.7 assists, and third with 40.6 made field goals on a high of 87.9 shots. The change in philosophy and emphasis on fresh legs and ball movement – featuring an Association-leading 0.63 assists for every bucket – has resulted in a completely different dynamic offensively.
It’s been a stark contrast to last year, when Stevens wanted his players to spread the floor, but he didn’t necessarily have the healthy personnel to achieve it. His team, lacking in rhythm and consistent rotations, used 24 different starting lineups in 82 games and averaged just 96.2 points to rank 26th overall.
The Celtics, you’ll find, also show no hesitation when it comes to heaving shots from beyond the arc – they put up 22.8 treys a game, but only convert on 32.6 percent of them – because, according to Stevens’ new-school analytical mind and research team, it’s better to take a three than a long two. That same logic applies to big men like Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk. Dating back to last year and emphasized this preseason, the coach has placed great value on expanding his players’ range.
The only downside to the “pace and space” mantra has been its effect on the defense, a critical component for any Stevens-led club.
After ranking as the NBA’s top defense over eight preseason games, the Celts have taken a step back on that side of the ball while largely absent Smart – one of their premier defenders – due to a pair of early-season ailments. They remain without much bulk in the middle or a legitimate interior defender, which doesn’t help.
Whereas the C’s sat 13th last year, allowing a still hefty 100.7 points a game, this year the club is tied for 28th, permitting 104.5 points a contest. Attention to detail has suffered; defensive sets have been fluid. Kevin Garnett would be sick.
For now, defense has been sacrificed for offense. Finding that balance on both sides of the ball will be one of Stevens’ biggest challenges, but it is achievable in time as the roster continues to turn over.
“When Brad Stevens has all the players that he wants, which may be a year or two from now, I think they’ll be a defensive-minded team and defense will be their first priority,” television voice of the Celtics Mike Gorman told me last month on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Celtics at 7 program. “But, right now, I think he’s trying to coach the cards he’s been dealt, and I think he’s doing a pretty good job with that.”
He is, but it hasn’t been easy, given the frequent bouts of inconsistency. As Gorman’s long-time partner and Celtics legend Tom Heinsohn likes to say, the C’s are still learning how to win. In doing so, the players’ failure to make the big shots or pivotal stops, or play with the appropriate amount of physicality, has led to a growing collection of blown second-half leads and late-game collapses. Add in some costly turnovers in very winnable games and that absence of a closer and you have the learning curve with a steepness that is ever fluctuating.
Should Boston miss the playoffs this year – not by any means a foregone conclusion in a down East where eight-seeds are capable of qualifying in spite of records well below .500 – the club could do well to add a rim-protector in the lottery. Centers Jahlil Okafor (Duke), Karl-Anthony Towns (Kentucky), Myles Turner (Texas), and Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky) are all presently projected to go in the front-half of the 2015 draft’s opening round.
Perhaps Ainge will make a move for a quick fix sooner, if Zeller is deemed an unfit placeholder and Wright isn't a long-term solution. The important thing is for the president and his coach to be on the same page.
After last January’s trades of Lee, Crawford, and MarShon Brooks, Stevens told the Sports Hub’s Gresh and Zo, “I’m all on board with what [the front office] suggests, and they really have a great understanding of how we want to get to where we want to go.”
Now, it’s fair to say the coach has a more influential voice in the room. But he doesn’t only have Ainge’s ear; he’s commanded the respect of his players, young and old alike, including those who know they have no future in Boston. They’ve selflessly accepted their roles and bought in – no easy task in a league run by egos – and Stevens’ employers have taken notice.
“We hired Brad because we thought he was the right coach for this next phase of us building our next championship contender,” Celtics president Rich Gotham said in a phone interview. “Building the team in his image is definitely something we want to see happen.
“Brad Stevens' teams are known to be ultra prepared and ultra hard working,” he continued, “I think if you look at our team so far this season – the style of ball they’re playing, the energy they’re bringing to the court, the execution – the team performance year over year, just the way we’re playing, has really improved. You’re starting to see the effect of Brad’s coaching take with the team and we’re really happy about that.”
Just as Ainge intended, when he introduced Stevens to the media on July 6, 2013 and said, “We all know what we are about to embark on, and he will have great support from ownership and from management. Yes, there will be transition, from the college game to the NBA game, but we will give him the support that he needs to make that transition fast.”
This season, year two of the rebuild, the focus remains on development before results. But that on-the-job growth is as much for Stevens as it is his players. He didn’t stomp into the Garden like a veteran NBA coach stuck in his old ways, or like a cocky college boss eager to rock the boat while demanding the attention be on himself. The Celtics have been through that before with someone who, in retrospect, never should have walked through that door.
Instead, with their 17th coach in franchise history, the Green went with a young, impressionable mind that is already adapting and evolving with the changing landscape of the NBA.
“Brad was a good student of it all going through it last year,” Gorman observed of Stevens’ transition to the league. “I wouldn’t say he came back a different guy [in Year 2]; it’s like he’s been magnified. He’s bigger than life now. He’s confident, he understands what the NBA is all about, and he understands what he has and what he has to do to win. Brad is not one of these guys who’s going to try to force square pegs into round holes. He’s going to try to make do with what he can and bring out the strengths of the people he has.”
Until he has those people, the coach will be patient, meticulous and, as reflected in the core philosophies of The Butler Way, committed.
And yet so many wonder; is there any chance Stevens will leave, frustrated by loss after loss, season after season?
"I’ve committed to being here," Stevens said in an interview last week with SB Nation's Paul Flannery. "I’ve already left a situation once and that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to choose to do. This is something that as long as they want me to be here, this is what I want to be doing and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.
"I’m the head coach of the Boston Celtics," Stevens continued, refuting the idea of returning to the Hoosier State and leading Indiana University. "This is the job. This is where I am. This is what I want to do really well and I’m committed to being as good as I can every single day for the Celtics."
History has proven once Brad Stevens sinks his teeth in something, he doesn’t fail. Fortunately for Green Teamers everywhere, the coach has only just latched on.
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