In his first week as head coach of the Boston Celtics, Brad Stevens watched his team blow a 22-point advantage, lead the league in turnover percentage and lose their first four games by a total of 30 points, with two of those losses coming against teams that missed the playoffs last season.
In other words, it’s been disastrous. Or has it?
Stevens is getting his feet wet while leading a team with short and long-term goals that diverge on a nightly basis. The short-term goal is obviously to win as many games as possible by playing sound two-way basketball, executing a game plan and growing tighter every day. The long-term goal is to develop young talent at the cost of winning. The more ping pong balls the better.
It’s his first season coaching in the NBA, which makes it hard enough. But the environment Stevens has entered makes his task one of the most difficult in the league. He’s replacing Doc Rivers, one of the most beloved coaches in Boston sports history, taking over a team that fans with foresight would rather see lose than win all season long.
He’s also trying to institute a positive culture by keeping players accountable for their mistakes and establishing defensive principles. But half the players on his team won’t be around next season, and more than a few could be gone by February. The roster is not built to win now, but it possesses some talented pieces who could really help a contender.
Unfortunately for Stevens, these players also happen to be the team’s veterans, the ones capable of helping him navigate choppy regular season waters: Gerald Wallace, Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee, Rajon Rondo, Kris Humphries, Keith Bogans, Jeff Green, etc. In other words, Stevens must prepare to coach a revolving door.
Through the first four games, we’ve already seen curious coaching decisions that show winning isn’t more important than getting better. From the outside in, it would appear to complicate an already difficult job. But Stevens is more than up for the task. Nobody enjoys losing, least of all a first-year head coach who was just guaranteed $22 million by his new employer. But Stevens isn’t staring straight at the ground. He understands the big picture.
The Celtics are trying to collect as many assets as possible, and getting a high pick in the loaded 2014 draft by being one of the worst teams this regular season is the fastest ways for them to turn this dire situation around. That means sitting players who represent the difference between winning and losing.
Kris Humphries was a consistent force of nature in the season opener, a maniac on the glass who also, as an undersized center, executed Boston’s defensive game plan to near perfection. How did Stevens respond? Humphries didn’t get off the bench once in the next two games. If you’re trying to win right now, on no planet does playing Kelly Olynyk over Humphries help you do so.
But the defensively clueless rookie (as bad a rebounding seven-footer as you’ll see this side of Andrea Bargnani) remains in the rotation as Humphries sits on the sidelines. On Sunday, in the fourth quarter of a tight game against the Detroit Pistons, Stevens fastened Vitor Faverani (Boston’s only rim-protector) and Jeff Green (Boston’s closest thing to an isolation scorer) to the bench.
After the game, Stevens rationalized his decision:
Over at Masslive.com, Jay King broke down some third quarter defensive lapses that could explain why Green sat in the fourth. While this may not be enough evidence to excuse leaving your best scorer on the sideline during a winnable game early in the season, it stands as proof that Stevens is serious about promoting a culture where nobody is safe from inexcusable slip-ups. Repeat offenders will be penalized, even if it means taking a loss.
To the media, Stevens will say he played guys who gave his team the best chance of winning, but that thinking actually applies for the long-term than any one specific contest.
There's a good chance this attitude won't go over well with already-unhappy veterans. Constant losing can potentially fester into off-court trouble. So far, Wallace hasn't hesitated to speak his mind, calling out teammates for lack of effort and selfishness. It may only be a matter of time before he, or one of the other veterans upset with their situation, publicly lashes out against Stevens' rotations and/or scheme.
If, or when, that happens, Stevens needs to have thick skin, and an understanding that no matter how poor this team performs in year one, the ownership group has his back. He's guaranteed more money than everybody on the team except Rajon Rondo, Wallace and Green, and is one of the organization's most valuable commodities. If the ship capsizes and only one life preserver is available, Stevens gets to wear it.
Right now the Celtics are 0-4 with the league's third worst offense and third lowest point differential (a net rating of minus-8.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/Stats). They weren’t supposed to shred defenses or rotate on a string, but at times they look worse than awful, turning the ball over at an alarming rate, launching awful shots early in the shot clock and tightening up (in a bad way) during the fourth quarter of winnable games.
For Brad Stevens, it doesn't get any difficult than year one. Surviving it will only make him stronger. Once this season's over, the Celtics should be in a much better place.