When the Celtics acquired guard Isaiah Thomas from the Suns on Feb. 19 for Marcus Thornton and one of their roughly 346 first-round picks that are spaced out over the next five years, it certainly wasn’t the first time Danny Ainge had won a trade. But it was the first time he made a move with the intention of improving the product on the floor with a genuine, game-changing talent rather than just clearing cap space or stockpiling assets.
Since Brad Stevens was hired on in July, 2013, the coach has watched Ainge – the NBA’s 2007-08 Executive of the Year – systematically break down the organization from a fringe playoff team to a club realistically in the hunt for the top pick in the draft, trading away the likes of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (who Stevens obviously never coached), talented role players Courtney Lee and Kris Humphries and, more recently, one-time franchise building blocks Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green.
Dating back to mid-July, Ainge has made 11 trades and removed any hope of continuity. Stevens has had 40 different players listed on his roster, tied a team-record by using 22, and nearly had a 23rd had the squad come to terms with JaVale McGee. The coach has lost his best players to trade or injury (Jared Sullinger’s out for the year with a foot fracture, and rising stars Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk have each missed games into the double-digits).
Yet, entering tonight’s game with the lowly Magic at the Garden, the Celtics are 27-36 and, more impressive, winners of seven of eight at home and 14 of 24 overall. With their surge, the C’s sit a mere game-and-a-half behind the injury-riddled Heat for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 19 games to play in the regular season.
At this point, it’s effectively a five-team race for the East’s last two postseason slots. The Pacers (7th), Heat, Hornets, Celtics, and Nets (11th) are separated by a total of 4.5 games. Boston’s hopes are high, but its road will be challenging.
The only reason the Celts even have a chance at the playoffs in the second year of this rebuild, however, is Stevens. He’s the glue-guy. And, if he finishes the job and guides his club to the second-season, he deserves Coach of the Year consideration.
No, of course, Stevens won’t win the honor. Mike Budenholzer’s efforts for the 50-14 Hawks, the only team to clinch a playoff spot to this point, will inevitably and rightfully land him the award. He’s taken a team with four All-Stars and no superstars from 38 wins to a franchise-best start with selfless play and tremendous ball movement.
First-year Warriors coach and former player, GM, and broadcaster Steve Kerr will receive serious attention for what he’s achieved after the successful but turbulent Mark Jackson experiment, but he’s taken Golden State to a league-best 51-12 record with a heck of a lot of talent.
Even first-time NBA coach David Blatt in Cleveland could garner some votes, but leading a team with LeBron James – or riding the King’s coattails to a 42-25 standing after a bumpy start – will help anyone’s case.
There will likely be others, too, but Stevens is as worthy as any of merit, and more so than most.
A reminder: this is a guy whose best player (Thomas) has been around for 10 games and is now hurt; whose most consistent and reliable player (Avery Bradley) wouldn’t start on most, if any, contending teams; whose starting power forward (Brandon Bass) has had little to no trade value in two years; and whose energetic top bench players aside from Thomas (Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko, and Gigi Datome) are other teams’ underachieving castaways.
And, again, you’ve already heard about the departures of Rondo and Green – both long before the trade deadline – and the absence of Sullinger.
That’s a group competing with teams featuring names like Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh (until recently), Mo Williams, Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, George Hill, Roy Hibbert and, maybe soon, Paul George.
So how is this unheralded bunch doing it?
“I think belief is a big thing,” Stevens said following Wednesday’s 95-92 upset of the Grizzlies, the team with the third-best record in the NBA. “We talk a lot about a lot of different character traits but, if you want to have a chance to build and grow together, I think optimism’s a key component. Creating that and sustaining it through ups and downs is important.
“We have 15 guys on the same page,” the coach added. “It’s a good deal.”
Bradley agreed in his postgame chat with reporters.
“I feel [our confidence is] at a high level,” said the guard, who’s enjoyed a largely healthy season that’s forced him to miss just four games, including three recently with an elbow injury. “We’ve really been in every game, except [a 31-point loss to] Cleveland. It shows that we’re making strides and we’re continuing to be a better team. I think it all starts with Brad. Brad is getting us all together, having us believe in one another. We’re like a family out there. We’re a lot closer than we were, and it shows on the court."
One of the key differences this season has been the Celtics’ ability to perform in the clutch.
Yes, that credit ultimately goes to the players for performing in these moments of need, but don’t overlook Stevens’ ability to draw up a nifty plan on his trusty whiteboard. Evan Turner’s alley-oop lob to Smart with less than a minute to play against the Grizzlies, which turned into a three-point play, was just the latest example.
Consider the following from ESPN Boston’s Chris Forsberg:
Since Jan. 22, the night Turner hit a late 3-pointer to beat the Portland Trail Blazers and seemingly lit the fuse on the Celtics' recent turnaround, Boston is averaging 0.947 points per play in after-timeout situations, according to Synergy Sports play-type data. If maintained, that number would rank the team third in the league behind only the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers (led by Boston's former Czar of the Whiteboard, Doc Rivers). For the season, the Celtics rank sixth overall in ATO efficiency at 0.906 points per play, according to Synergy data. The five teams in front of Boston all currently project as playoff squads, which speaks to the value of crisp execution coming out of timeouts (especially when you consider that 16.2 percent of the Celtics' total plays this season have come in those situations). Boston is 14-10 in its past 24 games, and 7-3 in its past 10. What's more, 16 of those previous 24 games have seen the Celtics within five points of their opponents in the final five minutes, and Boston owns a 9-7 mark in those games. (That .563 winning percentage ranks the Celtics in the top 10 among all NBA teams in clutch games during that span.)
A little more detail from Forsberg:
As you don’t need me to tell you if you’ve watched even one of the Celtics’ games in recent weeks (unless it was that ugly trip to Ohio), Stevens’ bunch is wildly entertaining. They’re winning games they surely would have lost last year, probably even earlier this season.
They have fans believing in a playoff pursuit, some to the point of delusional thinking the Hawks are a team ripe to be conquered. Boston isn’t equipped to beat Atlanta in a seven-game series, though it would incredibly enjoyable to watch.
Why? Because Stevens gets the most out of what he has to work with. He’s kept what’s been a constantly evolving group of personnel confident, playing hard on both ends of the floor, and unified toward one goal: a trip to the postseason.
Players past and present have lauded Stevens for his hard work, calming presence, and lead-by-example demeanor. Opposing coaches have marveled at how their intellectual counterpart has blossomed so quickly in his emergence from NCAA greatness at Butler.
Earlier this month, Stevens was nominated for the league’s Coach of the Month distinction for February after enjoying his first winning month in the NBA, going 7-4. He lost out to Frank Vogel, whose Pacers went 7-2.
In March, the C’s are 4-3 with a staggering 11 games left in 19 days. No rest for the weary. That’ll be followed by an eight-game, 15-day stretch to close out the regular season in April before what hopes to be an extension of the season in Stevens’ first foray into April Madness.
Will he win the NBA’s top coaching honor? Again, no. Matter of fact, no Celtics coach has since Bill Fitch in 1979-80. The last coach to do so with even a .500 record was his predecessor, Rivers, who was 41-41 in 1999-00 for the Magic. Stevens is currently nine games under the break-even mark.
But if the coach’s club takes advantage of its paltry conference and sneaks into the postseason, more than a few votes should be there. Of course, knowing Stevens as we have come to in the last 20 months, he won’t care less. Only the team goals matter.
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