Even Stevens: The Emergence of Boston’s New Head Coach

On July 3rd, I was walking down Commonwealth Ave. in Boston when I got a text from one of my friends. It read something like this:


For a moment I was confused. Why was my friend texting me about the Butler basketball coach? I also noticed I had some Team Stream notifications on my phone. Then it hit me. The Celtics had been looking for a replacement for Doc Rivers, and they had just found it. I let out an audible expletive in celebration. Where the hell did this come from? How had the Celtics landed one of the brightest coaches in the NCAA, and how did it go completely under the radar? Surely there would have been some kind of leak days before the hiring, or at least word that the Celtics had talked to Stevens. Nope. There was nothing. In terms of best kept secrets of 2013, it was right up there with Beyonce’s album dropping and the Breaking Bad finale.

The response around the league was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone agreed Stevens was a fantastic coach. The consensus in Boston was that the Celtics had made a brilliant move.  Fans had something to be excited about for the first time after the draft night trade that sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (and Jason Terry, too, I guess) to the Nets. That night was a heartbreaking one for Boston fans, but the signing of Stevens was a beacon of hope for the future.

But seeds of doubt had been planted before the training camp had even started. The track record of college coaches succeeding in the NBA was against the new coach, and people claimed that he and all-star point guard Rajon Rondo would not get along, their relationship doomed from the start. Claims, I might add, that were made before Stevens ever so much as picked up a phone to call Rondo.

I was at the TD Garden for the Celtics first preseason game back in October. I bought a ticket for eight dollars (yes, on purpose) and found a nice seat in the first row on the floor right at the end of the Celtics’ tunnel. I snapped this picture of the first time Stevens walked onto the court.

Still waiting for that call from SI’s photo department..
I wanted to be there that night, in that building. I wanted to be a part of ushering in the new era: The Brad Stevens Era. The Celtics lost to Toronto that night, but I spent more time watching Stevens than the actual game. His actions, his reactions, his mannerisms, everything. He just looked like he belonged.

Flash forward four months, and the Celtics are flip flopping nightly with Toronto for the Atlantic Division. (It’s funny to watch them switch back and forth from the fourth seed to the eighth seed on a daily basis.) Their record may not impress many, but it has certainly impressed the city of Boston. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year, and fans and analysts everywhere had decreed them lottery-bound before opening night. The over-under for win total was twenty-seven games.  A quarter way through the season, they have nearly half that, and that’s without Rajon Rondo as well. It is entirely possible that this Celtics team wins 40 games.

I’m not entirely sure that Danny Ainge counted on Stevens having this much success in his first year. The way the roster was put together indicates that Danny’s intention was not to make the playoffs. That doesn’t mean he is intentionally trying to lose, just that his goal is not to win. With the combination of young coaches, young players, and accumulation of assets, the goal is development. Now, nearly half way through the season, it seems development is happening far more quickly than anticipated

It’s not unfair to give most of the credit to Brad Stevens. For the most part, the players that are playing well were there last year: Crawford, Sullinger, Bradley, Green, Bass. Now, some of this increased production can be attributed to increases in minutes and opportunity. This Celtics team has a new look, so players are carving out new roles for themselves. But most of these guys are doing things they probably wouldn’t be doing under other coaches.

Jordan Crawford is playing point guard, and he’s playing it well. He is a key factor in this team’s success, and his performance so far this year has been  a revelation for a team that’s had habitual backup point guard problems. Would any other coach have made the call to play Crawford at point? It’s possible, but not probable. Stevens coached against Crawford when he as at Xavier, so he knows what he’s capable of. He trusted Crawford and Crawford rewarded him.

Jared Sullinger is shooting three pointers this season. Sullinger had an impressive rookie campaign that was cut short by back surgery, so it’s tough to say whether or not that shot would have come eventually. Given Doc Rivers’ history with bigs shooting the three, I’m going to guess no. Back in November, I remember seeing a tweet that Stevens had the entire team taking threes at the end of practice. Not even the bigs were supposed to pass up an open three. Not Vitor Faverani, not Kris Humphries, and especially not Jared Sullinger. Is he shooting it well? Not really. He’s just at 30% from the arc so far this season, but that will only improve. This is the season for him to develop that shot, and adding the three to Sully’s arsenal will make him a bona-fide scoring threat.

Avery Bradley has become a shooting machine. As a player known almost solely for his lockdown defense, this comes as a surprise. But Bradley was given the green light by Stevens, and is averaging more than 13 shots per game, the highest on the team. That’s more than offensive centerpiece Jeff Green (12.6 FGA) and the trigger-happy Jordan Crawford (11.2 FGA). What’s more is that he’s shooting it well too. He’s 46% from the field and 40% from behind the arc. Bradley has received much criticism for his lack of offense in previous years, but not this year. He’s doing it on both ends of the floor.

These are just a few highlighted examples of  major improvements guys have made. Really, the whole team is playing well, not only individually but collectively. Their defense has been surprisingly effective for a young team. Through November, Boston’s defense was ranked 8th in the league. It has since slipped in overall efficiency, but is still good enough for 12th. Not bad for a team with exactly zero rim protectors. But when the defense is on, Boston is really good. In wins, opponents average just 92 points per contest. As the season goes on, they will get more consistent and will probably hover around the top-10.

My point in all of this isn’t that Crawford, Sullinger, or Bradley wouldn’t have made their respective jumps, or that the team as a whole wouldn’t be playing as well, with anyone but Stevens. My point is that they are accomplishing all of it with him. While ultimately it is the players who go out there every night and play, the responsibility lies with the coach. After all, it’s not the players that are fired after disappointing seasons. (Okay, they can be traded, but you know what I mean). Stevens is the one who is going out there and setting these guys up to do well.

Sometimes people forget how valuable a good coach really is. But even if they do forget, they are reminded quickly. Don’t believe me? Just ask Brooklyn. They have over 101 million dollars on the books this season (For reference, the next highest is New York at just over $85 million.) For a team that spent so much on the players and has a huge “win now” mentality, they sure skimped on the coaching. Jason Kidd was still in the league last season, and is now coaching many players who still view him as their equal. They are 10-20. How the Nets organization never saw this coming is beyond me.

If you want to understand the value of a good coach, just look at what the best coaches in the NBA have accomplished in recent years. Gregg Popovich led a team of senior citizens to within 16 seconds of an NBA title. George Karl led a starless Nuggets team to 57 wins last season and won Coach of the Year (And then was promptly fired!) Doc Rivers led Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, and some D-League fillers to within 6 minutes of the NBA finals in 2012! And now Brad Stevens has a very real chance to get the Boston Celtics to the 2014 playoffs. And without any superstar talent, I’d say it takes a pretty special coach to be able to get what Stevens gets on a nightly basis.

I’m not saying Brad Stevens is Gregg Popovich, or George Karl, or even Doc Rivers. The man has coached 30 NBA games and has a losing record. But if you take the time to look past just the numbers, you can see that he is a truly special coach. He has the ability to be one of the best in the game. If the Celtics can remain patient during the rebuild, they will succeed under Stevens. He has a bright future as an NBA head coach, and I for one am just glad that he’s on my side.

Kevin Cronan is a guest contributor from Squeeze The Orange, where you can read more of his analysis on a variety of Celtics-centered topics including the Evolution of Jordan Crawford and a few entertaining game recaps.

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