CHICAGO—The Boston Celtics locker room is a bleak place these days. It's host to a team designed to lose, and Celtics players in 2014 are wont to drift from winning programs and float in the malaise of NBA hell. This is what head coach Brad Stevens has inherited.
Already strapped with a squad made with draft-lottery aims—an island of misfit ballers like the much-maligned Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace, with wildly bloated contracts Boston took from the Brooklyn Nets to begin rebuilding—the Celtics have also lost five rotation players to injuries and trades since the season started.
Whoever is left by now, following a tough game against the ever-tenacious Chicago Bulls, is either playing for a contract or somehow (miraculously) has still bought into what Stevens is preaching. This is largely because his understanding of the journey from zero to championship contender involves lots of wading in this basketball muck.
"You're defining success differently than I define success," he said to ESPN about formerly failed college-to-NBA coaches John Calipari and Rick Pitino (in the video below). "I don't look at it as failure—I look at it as part of the path to who they are."
It's hard to see this Celtics season as successful through any lens. But for as hard as it's been, you'd be surprised by how much belief still lives with the Celtics, a team playoff contenders still must take seriously as the season expires. "He's great. He's well prepared," says opposing coach Tom Thibodeau of Stevens. "They play hard, they play unselfishly, I think they've gotten better, they're in every game, and I think that's a credit to him."
The Celtics, unlike their tanking peers—the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz—don't often get blown out. As a reporter reminds Stevens before the game, they've lost 17 games by six points or less and 29 contests by single-digit deficits. Despite a talented lineup that's wanting and despite all the player flux and constant losing, the Celtics have been fighters all year.
Stevens' ability to unlock dismissed talents out of players has been essential to this silver lining of their Sisyphean campaign—which goes beyond fantasies of Andrew Wiggins in green.
Stevens had Jordan Crawford, well-known as a shoot-first gunner, running point for his team so well that general manager Danny Ainge had to trade him away before the team flirted any more with winning out in a historically weak Atlantic Division.
The Celtics started the season 12-14 before plummeting to their current 23-51 record. Crawford was sent to the Golden State Warriors in January and is thriving after being so undervalued that he was considered a borderline NBA player before the season. "He gave me the chance," Crawford later said of Stevens when talking to The Boston Globe. "He put me on display at point guard. ... I couldn't ask for much more."
Whoever's still in the locker room is also still a beneficiary of Stevens' unique eye. Consider Humphries among them. Written off as a pariah after his famous off-court sagas and steep pay rate, the veteran forward has gone under the radar as a surprisingly effective force with Stevens, collecting an 18.47 Player Efficiency Rating.
"There are very few guys in the NBA who don't have things they don't do well," Stevens told Grantland's Zach Lowe. "Some of the better players don't have very many, but everybody is here because they have a strength. So you just try to find your strengths and soar with them."
It was fair to wonder whether Stevens' extra-congenial approach, famed through his tenure at Butler University, would translate to the pros. But through a full season in the NBA, it's now clear that he communicates his mission to older, highly paid players just as exceptionally as he did to amateurs.
"He's always calm," Celtics guard Avery Bradley says. "I don't think I've ever seen him not calm before. He's a great guy. He gives guys a chance to play positions other people doubted them at. Jeff [Green] played power forward his whole career, but he's played shooting guard this year and I think the transition's been great for him."
Bradley also explains how Stevens will jump into team drills, becoming an extra rebounder and passer during practice and shootaround. "I've never seen anything like that," Bradley says.
Stevens' affability is no mystery as he fields questions from reporters. He addresses many of them by first name—a rarity, especially for a visiting coach in his first season—displaying an uncanny warmth. When feedback was scarce after a 94-80 loss to Chicago on Monday, Stevens asked: "Is that all you guys got for me?" He seems almost nonplussed, disappointed that he doesn't get to talk more basketball with the media.
And the loss, like so many in this Celtics season, was a slow-burn crack of Boston's marginal skills. "The Celtics are one of the NBA's have-nots," Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe wrote after it. "A team that is almost a sure bet to collapse down the stretch during games."
Rajon Rondo was out of action for the game, as he hasn't played back-to-backs since returning from his ACL injury, and the Celtics simply don't have enough to beat playoff teams without him—or with him, either, for what that's worth.
But that hasn't stopped Stevens' crew from putting the bolts to its foes for as many minutes as it can, before the onset of star power takes it out of the game. The Bulls headed into the fourth quarter with a one-point lead but outscored Boston 23-10 in the final period behind 10 points from Joakim Noah, as this battle of attrition gave way to the more seasoned and skilled home team.
But if Stevens can put this much determination into a team that's often getting most of its offense from Jerryd Bayless and Brandon Bass, imagine what he'll get done with a super-squad with the likes of the Big Three that Boston just said goodbye to.
Stevens is bent on perfecting the team concept. "I was at a level where people looked at [chemistry] and valued it and it was huge, huge, huge, huge," Stevens said to The Boston Globe. The Celtics are one of the NBA's many teams who've signaled an interest in trying to more accurately measure chemistry, togetherness and personalities. Stevens' mastery in these areas at the college level is bound to make waves in Boston, too.
This is the value of the Celtics' rookie coach: Stevens has his own vision. A singular leader with his sight for the unseen skill, a hugely empathetic basketball whisperer, Stevens' culture-building through season one has been more valuable to his franchise than any one winning year could be.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats accurate as of April 4, 2014.