The Boston Celtics are not supposed to sniff the playoffs this season. Expectations were in the basement before it started, and any shot in the dark they had of becoming a competitive team was dramatically lessened after Rajon Rondo (their franchise player) and Jeff Green (their leading scorer) were traded, and Jared Sullinger (their leading rebounder) went down with a season-ending foot injury.
In his sophomore year as head coach of the Celtics, the 38-year-old wunderkind has taken a constantly revolving roster of journeymen, youngsters, energetic glue guys and one-dimensional dynamos and turned them into a spunky, swarming crew that would face the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs if the regular season ended today.
Stevens probably won’t win Coach of the Year this season (Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr is the deserved clubhouse favorite), but that’s hardly his goal or that of those who hired him. Boston is striving to develop a winning culture based on a smart, efficient brand of basketball, and Stevens is the face of its effort.
Stevens isn’t a miracle worker. If he was, Boston’s offense wouldn’t be one of the NBA’s 10 least effective units, and its defense wouldn’t be average (though, given personnel, that ranking nearly qualifies as serious water-to-wine craftsmanship). But what’s so incredible is the delicious feast Stevens has prepared after being given less-than-passable ingredients.
Since February 1, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Cleveland Cavaliers and Warriors are the only teams in the league with more wins than Boston's 16. This is both shocking and pure fact. Their offense has been hot and cold since then, but only five teams in the league have a better defensive rating, all without any rim protection to speak of.
Regardless of record, Stevens already demands attention from some of his most widely respected colleagues. From ESPN's Jackie MacMullan:
Stan Van Gundy: When you watch Brad on the sidelines you can't tell whether his team is up 20 or down 20. That's valuable for any team, but I think especially [with young guys], they see the calmness. If he doesn't panic, they won't panic.
When he's got you spread out on the perimeter like that, he makes the big guys on the other team very, very uncomfortable. And the way he mixes his defenses to keep teams off balance...in a very short amount of time—less than two years—Brad has proven that he's as good as anybody in this league.
Gregg Popovich: He's got them playing the right way and playing together. Neither of which are easy to accomplish.
Commissioner Adam Silver is also impressed, per CSNNE.com:
My initial impressions are that he’s one of the best young coaches in the league—there’s no doubt about it. Maybe one of the best young coaches ever to come into this league. This league doesn’t easily take in outsiders sometimes, especially coming from the college ranks, and there’s some legendary failures of some Hall of Fame college coaches who’ve come in. I would say Brad has broken the mold from that standpoint.
Stevens regularly plays some of the smallest lineups in the entire league, allowing the Celtics to switch pick-and-rolls. But their defense is only as good as the timely baseline rotations made by guys like Kelly Olynyk, Jonas Jerebko and Brandon Bass, players who aren't tall or strong enough to consistently deter attacking scorers in the paint.
The Celtics instead rely on their three perimeter watch dogs (Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder) to lock down the other team's top threats and force turnovers without sacrificing basic discipline. These guys don't need help, which lets other defenders stay home on long-range shooters. Since the All-Star break, Boston's opponents are shooting just 30.9 percent from the three-point line, which is second best in the entire league.
Look at this play from a recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Bradley has perfect position on Rodney Stuckey, but Pressey still feels the need to drift down off his own assignment, George Hill, and offer help toward the middle. Keep an eye on Stevens and Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry. It's in-game teaching at its finest.
Stevens spent last year dipping his toes in the NBA's water, adapting to a faster playing style, studying what works and what doesn’t. This season he’s deployed all he learned in Year 1, and we've seen the Celtics play modern, analytically savvy basketball. They run, pass, shoot threes and work together (only five teams have a higher assist/turnover ratio).
More impressive is Stevens’ ability to extract the most out of just about every player beneath him. Everyone hustles, which is half the battle at this level. Tyler Zeller is really good at running the floor, knocking down open jumpers and attacking from the low post early in the shot clock, so guess what Stevens has him do?
Pressey can carve his way into the stomach of just about any defense in the league, so Boston gives him a ton of high screens and lets him go to work. Evan Turner has the green light to pull up off the dribble just about anytime he wants, but Stevens allows it because Turner simultaneously gets others involved, and every offense needs isolation scoring from time to time (which the Celtics severely lack).
Making Turner the team's lead ball-handler was a risk that's generally paid off. He isn't very efficient, but instead of turning him into a three-and-D wing, spotting him up in the corner to brick threes and destroy Boston's spacing, Stevens put the ball in Turner's hands and let him do what he does best.
Bradley can't dribble, but he can shoot, so Stevens frees his second-leading scorer up with hand-off action and pin-down screens at the elbow. Isaiah Thomas is called upon to run pick-and-rolls, shoot threes and attack the basket (the—only—three things he's really good at), and everyone else who can shoot threes stands behind the three-point line when Boston has possession.
The pieces aren't perfect, but everyone in the NBA has at least one skill that got them here, and Stevens does a tremendous job finding what it is then unleashing it on an opponent. He doesn't have a system so much as a way he wants his team to play. There are fundamental guidelines, but Stevens doesn't jam square pegs into round holes.
The Celtics don’t have any players who are close to making an All-Star Game anytime soon, and their frontcourt rotation is a general horror show. But they control what they can, limiting turnovers, getting back on defense and consistently executing their game plan on a nightly basis. It’s the small stuff that matters. And Stevens sweats the small stuff.
On the national level, he’s made a name for himself in the most direct way any basketball coach can: with really dope plays. Diagramming inventive X’s and O’s isn’t the most important part of a head coach’s job, or the most time consuming, but it’s the only way fans can observe their influence, the job’s non-visceral demands.
The plays Stevens calls out of timeouts are brilliant. He has an uncanny ability to anticipate what the defense is dead set on stopping, then countering with the unexpected.
Check out how the Celtics get this open layup during a recent game against the Miami Heat. Starting on the weak side, Crowder motions for Smart to get ready for a pin-down screen. But instead of taking it, Smart pops out to the corner, and Crowder's man, Luol Deng, eases up just enough to get blindsided by a Luigi Datome pick. Crowder then cuts to the basket and is wide open for a layup, which he misses.
And from a similar play earlier in the year against the New Orleans Pelicans, watch as Crowder motions for Thomas to curl around his screen on the baseline. The Pelicans are absolutely petrified of Thomas—who dropped 27 points in 28 minutes that night—and 100 percent focused on preventing him from getting another shot, so when he instead stops to screen Crowder's man, Eric Gordon, they're dumbfounded.
Crowder uses Thomas' screen, flashes across the lane and is once again open from point-blank range. This time he makes it.
In a tough loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Stevens showed how he isn't too smart for his own good, dialing up the same exact play on back-to-back possessions. The result? Six easy points.
Hey, that went pretty well. Let's do it again!
There are indescribable reasons outside the countless plays that leave opponents shaking their heads that make it feel like a wise decision to climb aboard Stevens’ bandwagon right now. Age certainly has something to do with it; much like inexperienced players, being the league’s youngest coach suggests room for growth.
But even more meaningful is the fact that he's a magician. This point is debatable, but the Celtics probably have no players in their rotation who would start for a playoff team in the Western Conference. Talent is crucial in the NBA, and the Celtics don’t have much of it. And as we all know, all great coaches, from Red Auerbach to Pat Riley to Popovich, had Hall of Fame players to lead.
Aside from post-ACL Rajon Rondo, Stevens doesn’t know what that feels like, but he’s making do, which begs us to salivate over what he’ll accomplish once Danny Ainge delivers a more competitive roster. What would Stevens do with Kevin Love? Or Greg Monroe? Or Kawhi Leonard? Or even Khris freaking Middleton? It’s scary to think about.
If Stevens is already a top-10 coach—as declared by ESPN earlier this week despite him winning less than 37 percent of his career games—how high can he go? Once Popovich retires, will Stevens slide onto the throne? Such seats are of course reserved for those with at least one championship ring, and Stevens has yet to win his first playoff series.
But will he win Coach of the Year? An award that revolves around set expectations and one man's ability to make preseason prognosticators look silly? If he doesn't get it this season, winning it in the future won't be easy. Sooner than later, Stevens will set the bar too high to catch anyone by surprise. He'll be one of the greats before we know it.
Michael Pina is an NBA writer who lives in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.