When the Boston Celtics hired Brad Stevens as their head coach, they sent a clear signal that the rebuild in Beantown was going to be a long process. You don't hire a head coach with no NBA experience if you're after a quick turnaround.
But by engineering a surprising four-game winning streak and a remarkable shift toward unselfish play, it appears that Stevens has the reconstruction proceeding well ahead of schedule.
The most notable sign of Stevens' impact? That's easy: Jordan Crawford's out-of-nowhere transformation into an effective point guard.
Getting Through to Jordan Crawford, and Other Minor Miracles
Crawford has always had a reputation as a player who couldn't be managed. He was mouthy, arrogant and impetuous off the floor. On it, he had a track record of selfish play that led to some ugly career numbers and little team success.
Coming into the 2013-14 season, Crawford hadn't shot better than 42 percent from the field or 35 percent from long range in any year of his career. An unapologetic gunner who never saw a mid-range pull-up he didn't like, Crawford was precisely the type of player who figured to undermine the team-first message Stevens was going to preach.
But a funny thing happened over the past few days: Stevens entrusted Crawford with his team's offense, installing him as the point guard. And it's worked out like gangbusters.
On the year, Crawford is averaging 11.3 points and 4.3 assists while shooting 51 percent from the field and 40 percent from long range. He's been under control, mixing his ability to threaten defenses himself with a penchant for finding open teammates.
Over his last four games, he has put up averages of 12.3 points and 5.8 assists against just 1.3 turnovers, per NBA.com.
Those four contests have all been Boston wins, with the latest victory marked by Crawford's most impressive showing yet. In the Celtics' 120-105 trouncing of the Orlando Magic on Nov. 11, he totaled 33 minutes, 16 points, 10 assists and zero turnovers.
Jordan Crawford had 10 assists here in Boston. Breathe that in a bit.— Sean Deveney (@SeanDeveney) November 12, 2013
His recent performances—along with his surprising willingness to play within the constraints set by Stevens—is altering perceptions around the league. And to hear Crawford tell it, it's about time.
Per Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald, Crawford said:
Some people just kind of misunderstand me, you know, just because I’ve got a strong personality. People kind of get intimidated by it when it really doesn’t mean anything. It’s just me coming to work wanting to play. That’s all I want to do is hoop.
Stevens was able to look past Crawford's (earned) reputation as a tough-to-manage personality. In doing so, he found a valuable player whose skills he could use. That's a stunning achievement for a coach with no previous NBA experience.
Although the Celtics front office might not be all that surprised.
Delivering on Expectations
When Danny Ainge introduced Stevens to the media, he picked his words carefully. Stevens was in for a rough road in his first year, and the Celtics president wanted to inspire as much enthusiasm as possible while being careful to manage expectations.
Per Chris Forsberg of ESPN, Ainge said:
We all know what we are about to embark on, and he will have great support from ownership and from management. Yes, there will be transition, from the college game to the NBA game, but we will give him the support that he needs to make that transition fast. He's a very smart guy.
Turns out Ainge may have undersold us.
The Celtics are playing hard for their young coach, and the veterans have gotten over the fact that most of them don't have a future with the team. Brandon Bass, one of the players most likely to end up elsewhere at some point this season, is all in on Stevens:
Brandon Bass on Brad Stevens: "There's something special about that guy."— Boston Celtics (@celtics) November 12, 2013
Think about that for a second. Stevens has the admiration of a player who has every reason to look at this year as little more than an opportunity to audition for 29 other NBA teams. If Stevens can command that kind of respect from a player with no real stake in the franchise, how easy will it be for him to reach the personnel that Boston will eventually acquire to rebuild the team?
The fact that Stevens has connected with his team is all the more impressive considering the Celtics' 0-4 start. That rough beginning gave veterans and young players alike the chance to tune out the 37-year-old coach.
Boston struggled to move the ball in those first four games, and as a result, its assist rate still ranks just 28th in the league, per NBA.com.
But Stevens made adjustments, and during their four-game winning streak, the Celtics have increased their assist rate by about five percent and seen their offensive rating reach 106.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark that ranks fifth in the NBA during that span, according to NBA.com.
Credit Stevens for motivating his players and delivering on what Ainge said at the outset. It's amazing that a coach with so little leverage has managed to get through to difficult personalities and inspire a new attitude throughout the roster.
But let's not get carried away.
For all the praise Stevens has been getting for his bold choice to entrust the offense to Crawford, it's important to remember that he made that decision because he lacked any other options.
Avery Bradley was a disaster as a primary ball-handler, and rookie Phil Pressey simply wasn't ready for heavy minutes at the time. That left Crawford as the default option. The fact that the move has worked out is a credit to Stevens' ability to connect with his players, but it's not like the coach had another choice.
Plus, those four consecutive wins came against some pretty unimpressive competition. Granted, there's no way to detract from the win against the Miami Heat, even though it took a Jeff Green game-winner to get the job done.
But one of the victories came was over the winless Utah Jazz, while the other two came against an Orlando Magic team that won 20 games a year ago and is still trying to find its way this season.
If we take the long view of things, the Celtics still have just one player—Rajon Rondo—who profiles as a star, and there's no indication as to when he'll return. This is still a team that is almost certainly ticketed for the lottery this year, and possibly for a couple more seasons after this one.
Still, it's encouraging to see that Stevens is already showing signs of being the right coach to take the Celtics into the future. If he can continue to command the respect of his players while also showing the tactical acumen that made him such a hot commodity at Butler, he'll ensure that the rebuilding process in Boston goes smoothly.