His team will not finish with a winning record, and it won’t make the playoffs. His offense will stay below average even with Rajon Rondo back in the fold—it's currently seventh-worst in the league, per Basketball-Reference.com—and the defense will drift between so-so and "how are they still overachieving?"
All that’s fine, though, because few coaches, if any, are doing more with less than Stevens is with these Celtics.
Through the midway point of his first NBA season, Stevens has only coached a small handful of games where his players were collectively “better” than the opposition.
The skill on Boston’s roster sans Rajon Rondo has been dreadful, with nobody averaging over 16 points, and only Jordan Crawford with more than four assists per game. Every night is an uphill climb into the wind.
In a year where victory has taken a back seat to growth and development, the Celtics don’t have the talent to form an “identity” quite yet, but they follow solid fundamental guidelines that begin to account for the nightly lack of skill.
Stevens is a master chef preparing meals that actually taste OK out of ingredients that are mostly inedible.
The team’s shortcomings are numerous, glaringly so in the frontcourt. Kris Humphries, Jared Sullinger and rookie Kelly Olynyk have all spent time out of position as undersized and overmatched centers. Vitor Faverani is turnover-prone and immobile on defense.
But much like he was applauded earlier in the season for making Crawford the starting point guard when Avery Bradley appeared to be drowning with the position’s responsibilities, Stevens has tinkered with lineups to try and keep Boston’s defense near the league average.
One popular way has been playing with size on the wing, pairing Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace along with one point guard and two bigs. This allows easier switches on pick-and-rolls but is a huge detriment to the offense (being that Wallace is no longer a functional offensive player). Per NBA.com/Stats (subscription required), units including those two are scoring just 94.7 points per 100 possessions, but holding the opposition to 101.9, which is better than the team’s overall defensive rating.
Boston is also disciplined in defending the three-point line. Stevens realizes protecting the rim is difficult given the Celtics' lack of size, so he’s made guarding the three-point line, specifically in the corner (the next best shot all offenses look for), a priority.
Opponents are averaging just 1.5 made corner threes per game against Boston. Only two defenses are better, according to NBA.com/Stats. The Celtics don’t double without good reason, especially down low (thanks to fantastic individual effort from the likes of Humphries, Brandon Bass and Sullinger), and their collective effort on closeouts is fantastic.
They’re also slightly above average in the number of mid-range attempts opponents launch per game. Next to forcing a turnover, a contested long two is exactly what the defense wants each trip down the floor.
It’s a testament to Stevens’ scheme—especially guarding the pick-and-roll, where Boston’s bigs will sag back toward the free-throw line to contain the ball-handler—and his ability to have players execute it properly.
None of this should be a surprise. Stevens did the same thing in six hugely successful seasons at Butler University. He adapts on the fly, uses analytics to influence his decision-making and puts his players in spaces where they’re comfortable.
The Celtics are rarely blown out by their opposition because they play hard through missed shots and bad calls. It’s a robotic intensity that will carry over as the talent level increases.
Was there any risk involved in hiring Stevens, apart from a six-year, $22 million contract that has no financial effect on the team’s salary cap or ability to build a championship-caliber roster? None at all.
Stevens did not have NBA experience, and the trail of head coaches who’ve failed transitioning from college to the pros is long and intimidating. But the Celtics aren’t competing for a title right now. At the very least, they gave him one whole season to get his feet wet and adjust to opposing schematic tendencies.
He was given a young, partly inexperienced team with very low expectations and complete understanding from everyone (ownership all the way down to a realistic fanbase) that winning now simply wasn’t going to happen.
In that sense, it was an opportunity for Stevens to grow with his players—to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the core guys especially, and help nurture them along without a nightly worry about where his team stood in the divisional race.
It's allowed Stevens to be patient, and his players have noticed. Rondo especially, who last month told Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald (archived) that Stevens was a fantastic communicator: "I think he’s an easy coach to play for. He’s very positive. He [sic] not a yeller. He’s always encouraging and moving on to the next play. Who wouldn’t want to play for a coach like that?"
It's a different approach than most NBA players are used to. Most coaches yell and scream and stomp their feet on the sideline. If they're doing that in public and on national television, who's to say how they act in a practice setting when nobody's watching? It's intense, and after a while players will respond by tuning out instruction until management gets the picture and looks for another coach.
Jordan Crawford succeeded under Stevens because he was finally placed in a position where he couldn't fail. Avery Bradley is now one of the finest mid-range shooters in basketball because he knows he won't be taken out of a game if he misses his first four attempts.
The move to hire Stevens was never a risk so much as it was unexpected. So far it’s all going according to plan.
Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.