Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge made a bold move when he replaced former head coach Doc Rivers with analytics guru Brad Stevens.
Stevens has never coached in the NBA and follows in the footsteps of former college-to-Boston head coach Rick Pitino, who held a 102-146 record from 1997-2001. There’s an immense amount of pressure on the 36-year-old coach as he takes his talent to a place where championships are expected and losing isn’t taken lightly.
Questions regarding how his schemes will fit at the NBA level and if he can mold what has suddenly become an extremely young team into a title contender will stick with him until opening night and beyond.
In a series of videos on iHoops.com, presumably filmed this year, Stevens displays his knowledge of the game and shows what he thinks undersized units have to rely on to succeed against bigger teams in the NBA.
Despite still being with Butler, Stevens' notes on offensive sets and defensive rebounding can be used right away when he takes over in Boston.
From the Indy Star in 2011:
Old Dominion, the Bulldogs' March 17 opponent in the NCAA Tournament, led the nation by rebounding 45 percent of its own missed shots. Stevens called it as "staggering a number" as he had ever seen. Keeping Old Dominion off the boards became an emphasis for Butler, which led 32-29 in rebounding and won 60-58. "Butler cares about defensive rebounding," Houston Rockets executive Sam Hinkie said.
As a meticulous stat guy, Stevens realizes even the slightest edge can make the difference in a contest. That's why he focuses on specific aspects of the game that other teams might ignore.
For example, in one of the videos, Stevens shows a quick drill on offense, moving the ball around the perimeter through a variety of screens. He then has a guard on offense pass the ball to him in the corner. Stevens explains that every defensive player on the floor must find their guy and box out once he shoots the ball. The defending point guard, however, should attack the basket and get the rebound.
Rajon Rondo’s nose for the ball and ability to rebound speaks volumes to how he will fit in Stevens’ defensive schemes.
Rondo’s defensive rebound percentage in 2013 was the highest it’s been since 2009, snagging 13.6 percent of the available boards.
Stevens also realizes just how valuable a rebounding point guard can be, as he mentions in the video linked above.
“The 2013 team was almost -4 in rebounding every game,” Stevens said as he walked around the court. “We stayed the same with regard to size on the interior, but we added a point guard that transferred to us. We added a guard that averaged six rebounds per game at the guard spot. It got out margin down as a team to -1.”
This mentality, used to take the other team out of the play by putting bodies on offensive players and allowing a point guard to attack the glass, is particularly beneficial for players like rookie Kelly Olynyk, who doesn’t carry the “good rebounder” tag with him and isn’t quite as big as NBA-caliber talent, despite towering over the competition at 7’0”.
Boston won’t have a wealth of size, with rookies Olynyk, Colton Iverson and Fab Melo as their only three 7-footers. After that, newly signed forward Vitor Faverani is the next tallest player on the roster, standing at 6’11”.
While those lanky players are certainly bigger than last year’s, only Olynyk appears ready for a rotation spot, which leaves Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass and forwards 6’8” or shorter as the likely heirs to the starting positions.
That Stevens' teams worked specifically on the glass, especially coming to a bad rebounding team, is uplifting.
Stevens breaks down the “horns” sets and ball-screen action in another video, noting those plays are much more prevalent in the NBA and smaller teams use them more often due to the amount of ball movement.
With the “horns” set, Stevens displays how the point guard uses a screen, comes around it and kicks to the forward, positioned at the top of the key, with the center rolling down to the block.
Stevens discusses that with this set, the forward can do a dribble handoff or they could run a high-low.
For those not familiar with the high-low set, the Atlanta Hawks utilized this play as their go-to possession, allowing Al Horford to hedge screens for Josh Smith. As Smoove rolled around the screen, Horford would slip to the basket for an easy two.
With a forward as athletic as Olynyk, who's also adept at ball-handling, the Celtics could run this play with Sullinger cutting to the hoop and the rookie handling. Teams wouldn’t be able to double down on Sullinger because of Olynyk’s shooting but, because Sullinger is a capable finisher around the basket, teams wouldn't be able to focus solely on Olynyk outside either.
Boston ran a good bit of misdirection and off-screens last season, giving players like Jeff Green the advantage in handoff situations.
In terms of spread offense plays, Stevens wants all guards and forwards out of the paint, literally spreading the floor and utilizing mismatches created from screens. His focus would be ball movement and a solid passing center in the middle.
The video was filmed before Stevens took the position as Celtics head coach, but it’s easy to see he has a firm grasp of how the offense and defense should run assuming Boston stays with what they have at each position.
*Note: Kris Humphries is not included in this article under the assumption that he’ll likely be traded before the season begins.
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