It’s hard judging an NBA head coach who only has a few talented players to direct. The easiest analogy is a master chef whose meals are awful because his only available ingredients are rotten.
It gets even harder to judge an NBA head coach when it’s his rookie season.
Brad Stevens is hailed as a wunderkind because of his open mind (particularly regarding the use of analytics), calm demeanor and unprecedented success in the NCAA. None of those statements are false.
But no human, let alone coach, in the history of civilization could guide these Boston Celtics to a championship. This year it’s nearly impossible to take this group and make the playoffs, regardless of how devastated the rest of the conference is.
The Celtics aren’t only bad, they’re on a daily verge of disintegration. Any minute, any player on the team could be traded. This isn’t a speculative remark to be taken with a grain of salt, because two productive players (Jordan Crawford and Courtney Lee) have already been dealt.
Due to injury, trades and the never-ending flow of regular season adaptation, Boston has had 14 different starting lineups so far; four of which have only played one game together. Some of the players have as much NBA experience as Stevens, and a vast majority entered training camp without ever having played basketball with one another.
Still, despite all the instability, without a rim protector and with their best watchdog (Avery Bradley) in and out of the lineup due to injury, the Celtics are still smack dab at league average on defense.
Despite Stevens installing several tenants that the players generally do a solid job following (having the big drop back to the free-throw line when guarding a pick-and-roll, switching on the perimeter when a screen is set by a relatively similarly-sized opponent, etc.), mistakes still abound.
Here's one from a recent game against the Dallas Mavericks.
Whose "fault" is it that Dallas gets a wide open corner three on this play? Is it Chris Johnson's for losing track of his man on the weak side, then failing to rotate once he realizes he needs to? Is it Rondo, for doubling Nowitzki along the sideline? Or, as overseer of the system, is it Stevens?
In reality it's Johnson's responsibility, but would you really say it's his fault? Recently signed to a fully non-guaranteed, multi-year deal, Johnson entered Stevens' rotation after working through two straight 10-day contracts.
Johnson has been fantastic, relative to his expectations, but the jury is still out on whether he's an NBA rotation player. This is the type of worker Stevens is dealing with, and he isn't the first player Boston's tried to stuff into their system while the wheels are still rolling.
Stevens isn't trying to win every game he coaches so much as he's trying to develop guys like Johnson (Phil Pressey and Kelly Olynyk are two other examples).
On offense there’s a lot of things Boston does out of necessity more than desire. Before Rajon Rondo returned from injury, the team only had one playmaker on the ball (Crawford). A few other guys, like Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green and Bradley, could get their own shot, but nobody could create for another.
Just over 22 percent of Boston’s points come from mid-range jump shots, good for third highest in the league. Bass, Bradley and Sullinger are all above-average shooters from this area, but it’s still a shot Stevens would prefer to exchange for better looks.
The Celtics do not attempt many three-pointers and are below average on trips to the free-throw line. Their half-court offense goes to the post too often, too. But these numbers hardly tell us anything new about Stevens or the Celtics. The only player shooting above 50 percent from the floor is Gerald Wallace, arguably the least effective offensive player on the team.
We know how bad some of the guys are, and Stevens is just working with what he has.
Familiar parallels to this situation exist. Boston’s last coach, Doc Rivers (arguably second best in franchise history), was also once a young head coach chosen to man a roster void of imposing talent. The Celtics went 102-144 during his first three years on the job. Things were bleak as "FIRE DOC" chants echoed throughout TD Garden on a nightly basis.
Rivers eventually figured it out once Danny Ainge threw Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen his way before the 2007-08 season. Once given the right pieces, Rivers helped turn Boston into a dominant, unified, intimidating group, not seen in the NBA in quite some time.
NBA teams can't win anything of significance without having multiple All-Star quality players on board. If in the coming years Stevens isn't given at least one more top-tier talent (in addition to already having Rondo), then serious critiques will have to wait.
The Celtics play hard for Stevens, and in turn he rewards them with offensive wrinkles to make their lives easier. But talent wins out over 48 minutes, and the Celtics don't have enough. The big picture is for Boston to put a title contending team together at some point over the next five years. Stevens is the right man to lead the way, but he needs the right players.
That said, there are still a few things we can look for. A stable rotation is one, and the propensity to lean on important lineup data is another. Guys who feed off each other should play more than guys who don't. Right now, with nothing of significance to compete for, Stevens is testing stuff like this out, configuring lineups more so than he would if the Celtics were in a legitimate playoff race.
We can also look at how Boston performs in the clutch, and how often they use the three-point line after a few more shooters come aboard. If given more talent, will Stevens strengthen his playbook, or will Boston still rely on too many post-ups and isolation plays. Will they turn it over more or less? These are all things to watch for.
He doesn’t already have a “Coach of the Year” trophy on display in his office like Rivers once did, but the path is there for Stevens to follow. All he needs are fresh ingredients.
Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.