In the midst of a rebuilding season for the Boston Celtics, highlighted by constant roster turnover, head coach Brad Stevens has proved to be a stabilizing force for the franchise. The 38-year-old has molded a group of role players and youngsters with potential into a potential playoff team, thanks to a 14-7 record in the last six weeks.
The one-time Butler University head coach still has a soft spot in his heart for college basketball and the NCAA tournament. Earlier this week, Stevens took some time to reflect on following Butler from afar, his transition to the college game and the Celtics’ recent resurgence in an exclusive phone interview with Bleacher Report.
B/R: As you watch Butler games from afar this year, do you find yourself watching as a coach sometimes or just from a fan perspective?
Stevens: I usually watch basketball with more of a coach’s eye, but I just watch them purely as a fan, and I love it. I’ve had a ton of fun. I’m glad there weren’t any cameras on my son and I when they hit the game-winner against Creighton at the game we were at because we were jumping up and down and going nuts, like we were at the dog pound.
It’s been fun to be a fan.
I know all of those guys, and I had a chance to coach the older ones. They’re just terrific guys, terrific kids, and they all achieved at a really high level. They’ve added to the Butler basketball program in a number of ways. I always used to talk about that with my players, to come in and continue to add to what the Butler program is. That’s what they have done. Hats off to all of them.
B/R: When you were at Butler, you were regarded as a leader in the college basketball analytics movement. Do you think the analytics impact at that level is evolving more lately or changing the game at all?
Stevens: It’s been evolving [on the college level] for a lot longer than [a couple years]. It hasn’t always been called analytics. It was called statistics, forever. People have always tried to figure out their best way to gain an advantage.
In the early 2000s, when I first got to Butler, everything was about analyzing stats and figuring how best to prepare your team for the opponent. How best to get your group to play its best and maximize your group.
That’s not new. What is new and what continues to improve is the amount of data. You have more people analyzing it from a numbers’ point of view, and you have more access to those numbers.
Forever, and maybe it’s still the case, but in college, Ken Pomeroy had a one-stop shop for everybody, where people would go and analyze the bigger picture numbers. Everyone was doing that, and everyone is still doing it.
As there becomes more information, at some point, you have to figure out what’s important and what’s not. I don’t think we were at the forefront of anything, that’s just the way I was wired. That’s one of the things we tried to really delve into and figure out to how to prepare our teams to play best.
B/R: Is there a wide gap between the use of analytics in college and the NBA, or is the difference based largely on resources?
Stevens: The gap is only there because of the number of people that we have that are dedicated to it [with the Celtics] and the access to way more information because of resources. Coming from Butler, we wanted every single piece of information that we have now with the Celtics, but we just didn’t have the resources to get them. At Butler, we didn’t have the manpower to spend all our time on that.
The NBA has access to a lot more, and we have more people dedicated to that, than most, if not all, college programs do. I’ve seen some college programs that have SportVU cameras and have groups of people that are dedicated to that. A lot of those places take graduate students that are in their different programs and ask them to do projects for them and those types of things. I don’t think it’s any different.
We are all trying to utilize the information we have to the best of our ability, but there’s just a lot more access to that here in Boston and probably in the one percent of Division I schools compared to the other 99 percent.
B/R: After experiencing nearly two full seasons at the pro level now, how much of a difference is there between managing personalities in the NBA versus college basketball? Is the difference overblown at all?
Stevens: I think it’s easier to get a group to play together in college. I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think it’s easier to get that collective team focus because those kids choose to go to school there.
They choose that over all of their other options. In our particular circumstance at Butler, that was a big part of our selling point. This is the way we are going to do things and this is who we are going to be. If you like that, "great," and if you don’t…great. You know? At least, we know before you get here.
In the pros, especially in the situation we’ve been in the last 18 months, there’s just been so much movement. You’ve got guys that know they aren’t going to be there very long or on edge that they aren’t going to be there. Or maybe, they don’t want to [be there] since they want to be somewhere else. And that it makes it harder to build a team and a sense of purpose.
B/R: You mentioned the challenge of having players that may not want to be with a team, or know their time is limited. Is a situation like that challenging for the younger core players to handle, as well, as they watch the revolving door of guys coming in and moving out?
Stevens: I don’t really look at it from any perspective other than: Do you add to the locker room? Do you add to practice? Do you add to the collective ability of our team?
I think all three are equally important, especially as you’re growing with young players.
It’s huge to have an environment where those guys are challenged. It’s hard for them, but at the same time, they feel a huge sense of ownership. They have to put their signature on everything. I think that that’s all positive.
B/R: With that sense of stability with the younger Celtics core in place lately and the trade deadline having passed, do you find yourself able to just focus more on the basketball side of things, instead of the behind-the-scenes element?
Stevens: I think you can really delve into the tactical basketball things now. Guys may not agree with their roles, maybe they are not content with it, but they have embraced it for the good of the team and are willing to be the best they can be [in those roles]. Once you have that, you can really delve into the basketball stuff.
We’ve been really fortunate that we have some older guys that have embraced that and some younger guys that have been in and out of the lineup that have embraced it, too. The thing that is most encouraging to me, right now, is that we are making progress.
I am hopeful we can continue to play well. We have a tough stretch ahead of us, but we are making progress. That’s what you want every single day. You can see it in the walkthroughs, you can see it in the rare occasion where we get to practice, but you can really see it where things get tough in the game.
We’ve stuck together pretty well.
B/R: Are there any other current college basketball coaches who you view as similar to you? Do you think more CBB coaches will follow your footsteps?
Stevens: There’s really good coaches at every level. I remember my old boss used to say, "There’s not a monopoly of good coaches at one level." All the great college coaches aren’t at the Division I level. All the great high school coaches aren’t at the varsity level. All the great coaches aren’t at the NBA level. There are good coaches everywhere.
Certainly, the NBA coaches are great, all the way down the line. I’ve learned a ton from them, but there are a lot of good coaches at a lot of levels. It’s more about finding the right situation than it is about the jump from college to the pros. You have to have a group that believes in you and is committed.
In our situation, especially with all the movement, we have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of work to do, right now, but we had a lot more to do 15 or 16 months ago. Like anything else, it’s all whether you find the right situation. Does that situation fit you?
Hopefully, we can continue on the right path. I’m sure that there will be other college coaches that will ultimately be hired into the NBA, and they’ll be great; it’s just a matter of where you go.