In Brad Stevens' first season as head coach of the Boston Celtics, he won’t care about wins and losses.
His priority, as the season progresses, will instead be to make sure that his team and every player on it is developing in a positive way.
Throughout the season, lineups will shift, offensive and defensive schemes will be tweaked and some players will probably be replaced. Stevens must sift through his mental file cabinets full of empirical data while keeping one eye on the future. He must remember that what’s best for his team on a nightly basis might not be the same as what’s best down the road for this young and talented core of players.
There is no pressure on Stevens to win more games than he loses or to qualify for the playoffs this season. He’ll instead lose sleep over players not buying into his system, or guys in the rotation who have yet to convey their individual responsibilities.
Here are a few benchmarks that should help make things go as smooth as possible for Stevens, even though this Celtics season projects to be anything but smooth.
The Celtics are deep—but not necessarily in a good way—at several positions.
An absolute priority for Stevens in his first month will be to identify which five players should start and which four, five or six should come off the bench and contribute in a varying rotation.
Seven of Boston’s first 15 games are against teams that made the playoffs last season. They’ll also face Detroit, Portland and Minnesota—three teams that didn’t qualify last season, but should be in a much better position to do so this season.
Beginning 5-10 would be a distinct accomplishment, but what's more important here is that the Celtics players know where they stand from the onset so that the rest of the way won't be as bumpy as their first few weeks.
Boston will be a third of the way through their season after about 28 games in the books. By then, head coach Brad Stevens should know in what contexts which lineups work and who fits well with who.
Should close games end with Kelly Olynyk at the five and Brandon Bass at the 4, allowing the guards more room to operate on the perimeter? How long can Gerald Wallace and Jeff Green play beside one another and use their versatility as a weapon? Could MarShon Brooks and Jordan Crawford singlehandedly sell out the arena?
These questions, and so many more like them, will take time to answer, but they're extremely important.
Nobody knows when Rajon Rondo will return to the Celtics, if at all this season. He isn't on a timetable, and there's always the possibility that Boston chooses to go the same route the Chicago Bulls took with Derrick Rose, leaving him out the entire season.
If Rondo does come back, it's fair to say the only way it'd be worth it is if it happened before the All-Star break. If that's the case, Brad Stevens needs to assimilate his best player back in the lineup as quickly and smoothly as possible.
The most logical way would be inserting him in the starting lineup, and staggering his minutes with players he's already familiar with (Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass). The process should take some time from Rondo's first game back to his first game as an All-Star performer, but Stevens should be able to shorten it by putting the ball in his hands as quickly as possible, and letting him shake off the rust.
The NBA's trade deadline will be Feb. 20 and it will be imperative that the Celtics know who they are by then. They need an identity in place on both ends of the floor and just about anything will do, so long as Brad Stevens is consistent in preaching it.
Will Boston use its youth and speed to become a top-five team in pace? Or will they routinely slow things down, wear down the shot clock and exert maximum energy towards getting the best shot possible each time down the floor?
Will they focus on making corner threes and, on defense, stopping corner threes? Will they make up for their lack of size in the middle by flooding the paint anytime an opponent comes anywhere near the rim like the Rockets last season?
Is Stevens going to let Jared Sullinger, Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace and others attack the offensive glass when a shot goes up or will they be assigned to get back on defense?
Finding what works should take some time, but Stevens needs to instill his general team concepts and strategies in his players by the trade deadline so that the transition process will go as smooth as possible in the likely event that Boston makes a trade or two.
In a perfect world, this final box would have a checkmark in it as soon as training camp ended. But in order for every player on Boston's final roster to know his role, every slide that proceeded this one must first be taken care of by the Celtics.
A starting lineup needs to be cast and a team synergy needs to take place. The team needs to have an identity before the player can understand his own responsibility. Last season, Celtics players like Courtney Lee and Jason Terry played like they never understood their roles, which was partly a function of poor coaching by Doc Rivers.
After Rajon Rondo went down, Avery Bradley was tasked with playing point guard, but at the same time, he wasn't with Rivers instead choosing to run a lot of the offense through Paul Pierce.
This applied as well to Jeff Green, who should have been the primary scoring option most nights, but was instead strategically stuffed into the backseat.
This Celtics team is now a collection of role players and in order for them to play their absolute best, each needs to understand where he fits, where he needs to be on the floor, what type of shot he should be taking, when it's time to pass and when it's time to drive.
For everyone to be on the same page, sometimes the process takes a full 82 games. Hopefully, Brad Stevens can get there with time to spare.