BOSTON — Brad Stevens has made a habit of exceeding expectations. He famously guided Butler University to back-to-back national championship game appearances in 2010 and 2011 before leading the mismatched Boston Celtics roster to a surprise playoff berth last season.
At both levels, Stevens has figured out ways to extract the absolute most out of his players. As a result, the Celtics' rebuilding plan is far ahead of schedule.
For the first time in his three seasons as an NBA head coach, the 39-year-old Stevens now has a roster with both talent and stability. He has first-time All-Star Isaiah Thomas, breakout player Jae Crowder, a promising youngster in Marcus Smart and a team that's in the thick of a crowded Eastern Conference playoff race.
Bleacher Report sat down with the head coach recently to dissect Stevens' thoughts on the rebuilding process, the unforeseen realities of coaching in the NBA and...hair.
Bleacher Report: How would you gauge your team's progress to this point over the first three years of your NBA coaching career?
Brad Stevens: Although each team is totally different that you coach—you kind of always have to find the pulse of that team—I've felt like really from that first month or two when my head was spinning to start training camp, to go through that first year, I felt like we've really been on a good path of progress and getting better.
Even when things haven't gone our way in certain games. I even look at the last two months—we're in every single game with a chance to win. You're bound not to be in one occasionally, but I think the progress has been fun for me. It's been fun to be a part of that. ... Every game we coach and every month that goes by, I feel more comfortable coaching in the NBA.
Looking back on your first two years, is there anything you would have done differently?
Stevens: The one thing from that first year is not understanding how quickly those games and lack of practices are coming. You know it's that way, and you can kind of look at it before the season and say, "wow." But I think we've been much more efficient in training camp and in getting in what we need to.
Last year was unique because we basically had three different teams with a lot of turnover. Even in the first year, we were fairly competitive early, and then turnover hurt that team. This is the first time when we've had a good, consistent start as far as training camp being productive. Our team has been solid. We've had our moments when we haven't been as good, but we've also played pretty well most of the year.
I feel like we are making progress in that regard, and the lack of turnover does help that. At the end of the day, the more people that are around longer, as long as they are positive and productive people, those are the kind of guys you want to have around.
Isaiah Thomas making his first All-Star team was obviously a cool moment for him, but what did his bid mean for you and your coaching staff? What kind of pride can you personally take in that?
Stevens: It's not as much the individual honor than the growth of each player. We've only had a couple of these guys here the whole time. Avery [Bradley], Jared [Sullinger] and Kelly [Olynyk], really. I think they've all gotten better in their own ways certainly. Then Isaiah coming in and 11 months later seeing what he looks like on film from his first game in February to now. The same for Jae Crowder.
It's fun to see because when you are in it and around them every day, you don't see the leaps and bounds. You see the small, incremental gains where you see them applying something from film, but over the course of time, they are all improving, which is good.
Security is a fragile thing in coaching, as we've seen plenty of this season with a pair of conference finalist coaches in the 2015 playoffs being fired just months later. Was that kind of volatility in the coaching world something that concerned you when you made the jump to the NBA, and if so, how did you come to terms with it?
Stevens: You have to do your homework for whom you are going to work and who you are going to be around every single day. When I was in the situation I was in at Butler, which was terrific, it wasn't as easy as it was saying, "It's the Boston Celtics and you just go."
It was nine days of talking and learning. Talking about what's important to me on and off the floor. Getting a gauge for them, but also seeing their last coach was there nine years and it wasn't all roses. That's the part that stood out.
We've made great progress in my opinion, and we still have great flexibility moving forward. We haven't sacrificed our flexibility, and we've just continued to get better as a team. Our guys have committed to getting better, and it's been fun to be a part of that.
It's hard because I'm so much in the moment, I'm not thinking about the big picture. This is the first time I've probably talked about the big picture since this summer. ... If you're a coach, you can't control what goes on around you. You can't control, ultimately, whether they want to keep you or not. You just do the best you can and coach your team.
You mentioned the flexibility. You guys have to do many things going forward. With just a couple of weeks remaining before the trade deadline, do you have to prepare yourself again for a potential shift in personnel? How often are you talking to president of basketball operations Danny Ainge about trade possibilities?
Stevens: No more or less than I talk to him throughout the whole year. He comes in to talk to me—everybody always shares their opinions of players across the league. That's no different than seeing somebody at Starbucks—you're always going to hear opinions. He only comes in with real possibilities.
We don't discuss things that are rumors and pipe dreams. He might ask for my opinion in two minutes like he did for the Isaiah deal last year, or he might ask my opinion and think about it over the course of a week. We really haven't gotten into any of those this year. I'm just going to coach this team and assume this is the team we're going to have all year.
Your ability to stay calm and collected during games has been widely noted across social media. Are you really going crazy inside when you have those stoic nonreactions to everything that happens in a game?
Stevens: Almost every time, it's what's next. If something good happens in a game, "What do we have to do next?" If we go on a big run, "How do we finish it?" If something doesn't go right, "How do we correct it next?"
If we miss a game-winning shot that is a good look but just comes up this short, "What do you say in the locker room?" If we hit one, "How do we say something that gets us ready for the next game?"
I always stay in the moment, but as far as coaching, you always think about what your next message is. I really make a conscious effort not to be too emotional. Sometimes, I get emotional because I disagree with a call or whatever the case may be. But I try to re-center myself quickly.
Speaking of emotions, Celtics color commentator Tommy Heinsohn is not usually shy about sharing his candid reactions to calls during broadcasts. As a guy who is around the team a lot, do you have a favorite Tommy story?
Stevens: My favorite Tommy story was from the middle of my first year. We had lost a couple of games in a row, and he looked at me and said, "Go put your computer down, go home and get a beer." He's been there and done that. He's great because he wears his emotions on his sleeves in the broadcast, but he's got a realistic sense of how tough coaching and playing is. He's a fun guy to run things by.
If you had to swap hair styles with one of the following players, who would you choose: Olynyk, Crowder, Sullinger or Smart?
Stevens: I'm not going to touch that one, but I will say this: I like having a diverse set of hair styles. I think it adds a little flavor. I like it. I'm a big fan. I like being able to mix it up, too, especially for a guy like me who can't do a whole lot with mine. I enjoy that part of a team.
I think one of the cool things about being on a team is you have a bunch of individuals with their own authentic personalities that have to come together for a shared purpose. I think one thing that great teams do is, they don't stomp out the individualism; they lift it up. That's part of who each of these guys are.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.