The 2013 NBA offseason had its share of surprising moments.
But none stunned the basketball world quite like the Boston Celtics announcing that Butler’s Brad Stevens would become the franchise’s 17th head coach and replace Doc Rivers, who had just departed for a more salubrious situation with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Stevens, the coach who took Butler to consecutive NCAA title games in 2010 and 2011, has long been regarded as one of the brightest young minds in the sport, and he was rumored for nearly every high-profile coaching candidacy despite professing his commitment to the 4000-person university in Indianapolis.
The Celtics job ultimately proved to be too much to turn down, as did the opportunity to make a true mark on Boston basketball and the NBA as a whole by leading a full-scale rebuilding project for one of the league’s marquee franchises.
There is more to Stevens, though, than name recognition and an impressive 166-49 career record at Butler. Let’s take a moment to examine four of his strengths that will help lead the Celtics into a new era of success.
Preparation and Adaptation
A certain amount of learning curve is inevitable when a college coach makes the jump into the pros, but that can be mitigated to a degree if a coach is a meticulous game-planner like Stevens. Throughout his time at Butler, Stevens demonstrated that he was anything but a one-dimensional coach.
Typically, star college coaches flounder in the league when they fail to prepare for opponents and adapt on a nightly basis. Rick Pitino is a terrific college coach, but his desire to implement his fairly rigid system and employ a full-court press defense never quite translated to the league and wound up doing more harm than good for his Celtics.
Though his teams’ identities were largely built around a stout defense and a methodical offensive style designed to hide the fact that the Bulldogs generally lacked the top-shelf talent that allows teams like Kentucky to win even when they play poorly.
Whether it is his early embracing of analytics or his ability to keep his teams disciplined and focused during their deep NCAA tournament runs, Stevens has shown a willingness to change and adapt in order to gain a competitive edge, something that he will certainly need in the NBA.
The differences between the pace, floor spacing and shot clock all pale in comparison to the sheer jump in talent that occurs when a coach moves from the collegiate ranks to the league.
Stevens’ Bulldogs played some tough opponents, but even the national champion UConn and Duke teams were not exactly overflowing with elite NBA talent.
With a roster that lacks any game-changing talent save for a healthy Rajon Rondo and a very motivated Jeff Green, it is simply not possible for them to win consistently if Stevens is not on top of his game night in and night out.
For as good as Rivers is as a motivator and a defensive mind, he is far more of an old school coach than Stevens, one who seemed hesitant to embrace the advanced numbers and metrics movements currently sweeping the league.
The Celtics’ glaring holes and lack of proven veterans gives them a pretty defined ceiling, but this team is not going to fail because Stevens is unprepared.
Getting the Most Out of a Roster
Gordon Heyward notwithstanding, the Butler Bulldogs are not a program that has featured a ton of top prospects. For as good as players like Rotnei Clarke, Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack were in college, there is a pretty clear reason why Clarke and Howard went undrafted and Mack has struggled to find a meaningful role in the league.
Despite all of his acclaim, Stevens was never able to bring hoards of ESPN100 players to Indianapolis, as recruiting in the Horizon League and the Atlantic 10 is not exactly the same as hunting for talent at an ACC or Big Ten school.
Instead, Stevens went out of his way to find underrated prospects, players who he could convince to buy into a role that ultimately helped the team just as much as bringing in a top high school player who could not instantly find a spot in the rotation.
These Celtics have a number of mismatched pieces, and this is a complicated roster that could easily flounder in the hands of a coach who struggles to manage rotations and get the most out of each player.
Though the Celtics are clearly in a rebuilding period, they have a number of players like Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries who do not exactly fit with the vision Danny Ainge and Wyc Grousbeck have for Boston going forward.
In Brooklyn last season, Avery Johnson and P.J. Carlesimo failed to find a role for Humphries, and though Wallace played heavy minutes he was never put in positions to use his admittedly diminished athletic skills to help the Nets.
Balancing minutes is going to be key for the Celts if they are not willing to throw away the season, as Stevens will need to strike a mix between giving heavy burn to unproven young guys like Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger while also playing the more experienced Humphries, Wallace and Keith Bogans in part simply to keep their trade value high.
At Butler in 2012-13, Stevens had nine players logging 10.3 minutes or more, and though just three averaged double-digit points, he was able to build a workable offense around the gifted but erratic Clarke by plugging in complimentary pieces like the versatile Roosevelt Jones and the sharpshooting Kellen Dunham.
The 2013-14 Celtics look to have serious logjams at the 2-guard and power forward spots that Stevens will certainly need to address if this team is to have any shot at a playoff berth, but this is an issue Stevens has proven in his time with the Bulldogs that he can handle.
At 51 years old, Rivers had not quite reached the veteran status of a Rick Adelman or a Jerry Sloan, but he had been coaching in Boston for nine years and 13 in the league overall, meaning he was understandably unwilling to enter into the third lengthy rebuilding process of his career.
As someone who had spent the past six seasons at the helm of a championship contender with a shot at playing deep into June every year, the idea of leading a team of mismatched pieces to a 33-49 record was not exactly ideal for Rivers, particularly when compared to the Clippers job.
For the 36-year-old Stevens, who is more than a full year younger than Garnett, the option to spearhead a rebuilding project of one of the league’s most storied franchises was not a chore but an opportunity to truly make his mark in the NBA and have an organization that was clearly his own.
Due to his sheer lack of experience, the idea of Stevens coaching Garnett or Pierce would have been unfathomable, but while he is not much older than Bogans he provides this team with both a fresh, young face in the coaching ranks and someone with significant pedigree and a proven track record.
With a slew of first-round draft picks over the next few seasons, these Celtics should only get younger, and that will help as Stevens attempts to bring in players who can thrive in his pass-and-cut motion offense and his aggressive, relentless defensive schemes.
It is hard for a new coach to really reach a veteran with heavy NBA mileage, but as the Celtics shed some of their unwanted veterans and embrace a new era of basketball, they will do so with a coach who has proven he can make meaningful connections with young players.
Additionally, Stevens’ youth made the six-year contract Boston offered him not only understandable but actually quite logical.
Given the pieces in place, this team is still several seasons away from contending, but giving Stevens a two- or three-year deal would not exactly have seemed like the biggest vote of confidence.
However, the lengthy contract makes it clear that he is the C’s coach of the future and not just someone hired to oversee two seasons of tanking, meaning that players who see themselves as part of Boston’s future long-term will be more inclined to play hard for Stevens.
With so many NBA head coaching candidacies being filled by familiar faces or veteran assistants, the Celtics’ decision to bring in the relatively young and green Stevens made it clear that not only were they committing to the youth movement, but they were willing to go outside the box to gain a competitive edge.
He’s Not the Star
One of the major differences between the NBA and the NCAA is that in college the coach is the only real fixture on the team, and therefore he eventually becomes the “franchise” centerpiece. When someone thinks of Duke basketball, their first thought goes to Mike Krzyzewski long before they start thinking about who played in Cameron Indoor.
That sense of celebrity has hurt college coaches making the jump to the NBA in the past, chiefly Pitino, John Calipari and Tim Floyd, three high-profile flame-outs who never were able to step behind the curtain and let the players take center stage.
Dealing with NBA egos is far worse than dealing with college egos, but Stevens has never been the kind to willingly step into the spotlight or put himself in disadvantageous situations with the media.
In fact, he has found a way to largely skirt any sort of negative or unwanted press despite being one of the most fascinating coaches in the nation.
That fact is going to be extremely important both in 2013-14 and for the rest of his NBA coaching career.
Stevens is not one to air his grievances publicly or to pick fights, and on a team with the notoriously mercurial Rondo and the ever erratic Green, it is imperative that Stevens keeps an even keel and understands that he is not the star of the show, something it certainly seems he will be capable of doing.
It won’t necessarily win or lose Boston a lot of games, but the fact that Stevens is not chomping at the bit for more airtime is a good sign that he may be the right kind of coach the franchise was looking for.