For Brad Stevens, it's hard to be bad.
Even after the Boston Celtics began the season with an 0-4 record, he was drawing nothing but praise from his players. Brandon Bass said, "There’s something special about that guy, man. He’s a rookie coach, but he’s very knowledgeable and he’s picking up things pretty fast," according to ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg. And he's not alone in his sentiment.
That was before the C's started to turn things around.
Since Bass' statement, Stevens has gotten Boston humming—relatively—with an 8-8 record that has them sitting pretty atop the Atlantic Division and challenging for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The veterans are buying in to what he's selling, and he's made the right rotation decisions countless times. He's cool under pressure. He stays focused. Practices are making the young members of the Celtics into better basketball players.
Everything is positive.
Well...everything except the very fact that the Celtics are winning games.
They're doing the exact thing that so much of the offseason was geared toward avoiding. And by doing so, they're taking themselves out of the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes and making it that much harder to jump-start the rebuilding process after the inevitable championship-less end to the 2013-14 season.
It's hard to pick on a guy for helping his team win, yet Stevens has left us with no choice as he continues to maximize the hand that he was dealt. Somehow, he's turned a pair of twos into pocket aces.
What's to be gained by winning in 2013-14?
The No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference is up for grabs, sure.
The Atlanta Hawks currently hold it with a 10-10 record, but it's not like they've outpaced the competition by a significant margin. The Washington Wizards are also sitting at .500, though they've played two fewer games. Beyond that, the Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Bobcats and Boston Celtics are all within two games.
So let's say that the Beantown residents manage to keep pace and eventually earn some early home-court advantage with that No. 3 seed. It's not like it actually matters.
The Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat are in a class of their own, confirming their status as contenders with hot starts to the season. To put things in perspective, they're currently on pace to go 73-9 and 64-18, respectively.
They both boast elite defenses (the Pacers are on a different level than the rest of the NBA) and solid offenses. While Miami is one of the best scoring teams in basketball, Indiana only deserves the "solid" tag.
Playing either of them in a seven-game series is a pointless endeavor. Having to go through both just to get to the NBA Finals and play the representative of the stronger conference?
So again, what's to be gained by winning 2013-14?
On the flip side, it's just as hard to be bad in the Eastern Conference as it is to dominate.
Dan Favale touched on this during my podcast with him, and he makes a very valid point. By failing to live up to the expectations, the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks are making it awfully difficult for the Celtics to successfully fall down toward the bottom.
The only way Eastern Conference teams are getting wins is by playing other bottom-feeders in the East (for the most part, of course). And because the Celtics play other teams that are actively trying to lose games or just don't have any semblance of passable talent, they're inevitably going to rack up a few too many victories.
Does this mean that Boston will fail to make the lottery?
I'd go beyond saying it's possible; it's probable. This team has already been competent thus far, and competence is currently more than enough to make the playoffs in the East.
And what happens when Rajon Rondo returns?
Boston only gets stronger once it's All-Star point guard is back in the lineup, and that doesn't bode well for their rebuilding efforts.
Weird as it is to say, Stevens has simply done too good a job with this team during the early portion of the season. And he still isn't satisfied, despite the rise to the top of the atrocious Atlantic Division, as he told NESN's Ben Watanabe:
I know, but it has no bearing on my life. Literally, none. You can take a snapshot of where you stand versus the competition, but it has nothing to do with your preparation on the next opponent, has nothing to do with getting better tomorrow, it just has what’s happened. So, yeah, I know, but I have no reason to know.
Fortunately, the first-year head coach is used to finishing at the top of a lackluster league. He did exactly that for years while he was at Butler, allowing the Bulldogs to emerge as a perennially solid mid-major team from the Horizon League.
Who knew the NBA could be so similar?
Do you actually think that Brad Stevens wants to lose games?
Tanking is an interesting strategy in the NBA, because it almost invites those on the court to clash with those in the front office. General manager Danny Ainge and the rest of the Boston brass may want to lose as many games as possible, but that philosophy doesn't translate to the sidelines.
Stevens is coaching for his job. Even if there's virtually no risk of him being fired, he's, at the very least, coaching for his reputation. He's trying to develop strategies and see what works so that he can maximize the success of his time on the NBA sidelines.
And the players are even more intent on winning.
Have you ever seen a player truly try to lose? Absolutely not. They might play poorly, but they're still putting forth effort, especially when they're playing for contracts and roles.
As Jared Sullinger told Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald, "But don’t talk about playing for the following year. I don’t believe in it, I’ll never believe in it. Just play hard every day. That’s what we’ve been doing. We’re not out of every game. In every game we’re putting up a fight..."
And he's not the only one.
MassLive.com's Jay King reported that Jordan Crawford is trying to "repay" Stevens for believing in him, giving him an opportunity and trying to motivate him. That doesn't sound much like a player who wants to lose games.
With the exception of the veterans like Gerald Wallace, the C's are a collection of young (-ish) players who are trying to prove that they belong in prominent roles. And even the older guys like Crash are attempting to stave off declines and maintain their usefulness in the NBA.
There's no quit here. And there won't be throughout the season, especially with Stevens motivating them from the sideline.
Now here's where things get really bad.
We've established that it's not a good thing to be mediocre in the Eastern Conference this season because of the utter futility of going up against the Indiana Pacers and/or Miami Heat. But the Celtics can't be bad with this current roster. Not with Brad Stevens on the sideline and certainly not given the lack of strength shown by the rest of the conference.
So, something has to give.
Stevens isn't going anywhere. And that means that we're talking about trading away one of the key parts.
Shopping Rajon Rondo doesn't actually do anything to make the team worse, as it's already proven that winning games at a mediocre rate is a realistic possibility even without the services of No. 9. So that means that Boston is left attempting to swing a deal that involves one of the currently crucial pieces.
What if the Celtics have to trade Jared Sullinger, Jordan Crawford or Avery Bradley, setting the team back both now and in the future? Worse yet, what if it's Jeff Green who gets put on the block?
Don't laugh, because that could actually become possible if Ainge decides that the cost of losing out on Green's services for the foreseeable future is outweighed by the benefit of earning a top pick in the ridiculously stacked 2014 draft.
After all, the Celtics are currently too good for their own good.
When the Boston Celtics decided to hire Brad Stevens, the announcement came out of nowhere. There wasn't even a little bit of buzz about the Butler head coach making the jump to the ranks of the NBA, yet he was given a long-term deal.
But, acknowledging that hindsight is 20/20, there were plenty of better choices:
- Jason Kidd
- Vinny Del Negro
- Your mother
- Your grandmother
- The last-place owner in your fantasy basketball league
- Kobe Bryant
- Bill Belichick (you know you want to see how he turns a hoodie into a suit)
Some of those people might have been hard to acquire, but they all would have accomplished the goal more successfully than Stevens. They'd be better at losing games.
But all kidding aside, the Celtics appear to be in good shape for the future when it comes to their head coach.
How can you not be at least a little bit excited about what Stevens could do with a real NBA roster under his control? Give him a contending team, and he'd have the analytic excellence and motivational tools necessary to coax a top seed out of the C's even when the conference is actually somewhat competitive.
The biggest keeper of all on this payroll may very well be the man who calls the shots, and that bodes well for the future, even if he's simultaneously making things harder on the C's.