A few weeks into overseeing his first NBA regular season, Stevens has already demonstrated a keen ability to identify a problem and make it better, regardless of which players he has to work with.
Stevens is a chemist, mixing and matching chemicals, testing to see what creates a positive reaction and what’s combustible. His hardest task so far has been making Boston’s lackadaisical offense stronger.
With Rajon Rondo out rehabbing his torn ACL and Paul Pierce—one of the most reliable scorers in league history—and Kevin Garnett now Brooklyn Nets, the line of thinking was that Boston would be even less effective on offense than last year (when they finished the season ranked 18th in points per game), struggling in an area most had already pegged as a disaster long before Stevens even took the job.
So far those expectations have been realized.
Right now the Celtics rank 25th in offensive rating, according to basketball-reference.com. They aren’t exactly in love with threes (Boston is below average in attempts from the corner and above the break) or getting to the free-throw line (bottom 10 in free-throw attempts rate). And their crunch-time offense is dead last in the league.
Only five teams average fewer three-point attempts per game, only three are less accurate from beyond the arc and way too many of Boston’s points come from mid-range jumpers.
So, you ask, what is it Stevens is doing well? A coach can only do so much to influence a game at the NBA level, and so far Stevens has maximized his power through constant experimentation.
After starting the season 0-4, Boston was one of the league’s slowest teams, and the Celtics turned it over a ton. Stevens adapted to his inexperienced, hyperathletic personnel, swapping Gerald Wallace for Jordan Crawford and Kelly Olynyk for Vitor Faverani.
(As of Nov. 20, out of all five-man units in the league that have logged at least 50 minutes, Crawford, Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Olynyk have been the seventh-most efficient, averaging 107.7 points per 100 possessions.)
The Celtics began to pick up the pace, pushing the ball off missed shots. This is notable and appreciated because Stevens could have kept things sedated, which is how he coached to great success at Butler. Instead of being stubborn, he adapted. Quickly. An obvious juxtaposition with Rick Pitino, who was convinced a full-court press would work in the NBA because it worked at the University of Kentucky.
Stevens wasn't convinced his way would work with the players he had, so he's decided to go in the complete opposite direction. Wallace and Green have been given free reign to rip a ball off the glass and take it the other way themselves, keeping defenses on their heels and forcing mismatches in transition.
After starting the year off on a glacial march, Boston’s pace is currently at the league average, according to basketball-reference.com. Here are two examples where the Celtics are looking to attack as quickly as possible, especially when rookie backup point guard Phil Pressey is running the show.
Here, against the Houston Rockets, we see Boston look to attack as quickly as possible, off either a missed free throw or a made three from the corner. It doesn't matter, they just want the ball up the court before the Rockets can set their Dwight Howard-led defense.
The Celtics have also attacked defenses in other ways not seen too often over the past few years. One example being from the post. According to mySynergySports (subscription required), the Celtics are scoring 0.89 points per possession on post-ups, good for eighth-best in the league.
It's where 13 percent (up 6 percent from last season) of all their offensive possessions ending in a field-goal attempt, turnover or free throws occur, and guys like Bass and Jared Sullinger have shown notable improvement.
Here's Bass against Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves. He catches the ball and goes right into his move (despite poor spacing courtesy of Wallace). There's very little hesitation when this happens, which is good.
But where Stevens has the greatest influence is in play design. The Celtics never isolate or rely on "hero ball" at the end of quarters. Instead, they run formulated plays that possess counters, progression and ball movement.
This also applies to after-timeout situations and side-out-of-bounds sets. Here are two such plays from a game earlier this season against the Portland Trail Blazers. Wallace is the inbounder on both. After passing it in, he cuts off a back screen toward the rim. The first time Boston ran this, it scored an easy layup.
The second time around, Portland was ready, with Wallace's defender darting above the screen and cutting off his open passing lane. The Celtics calmly went into Plan B, which was having Courtney Lee curl off a stagger screen set by Faverani and Sullinger (no defender feels OK after fighting through those two), and sinking a wide-open jump shot.
These are all hopeful signs for a coach who only has a dozen games' worth of experience. Despite facing new obstacles each and every game, Stevens' power is evident based on how his team plays (hard) and the style it exploits.
Once the Celtics find the talent they need to be one of basketball's most competitive teams, their head coach will be ready and waiting.
Michael Pina is a writer with bylines at Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.