Inside Boston Celtics' Heavily Scrutinized Transition of Power

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IJune 7, 2021

Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens looks on during the first half of Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets, Saturday, May 22, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Corey Sipkin)
Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

The long list of rumored candidates to replace Brad Stevens as Boston Celtics head coach continues to grow, as vacancies on Portland's and Orlando's benches also opened over the weekend. The number of Boston's potential interviewees may be reflective of how the franchise's rejiggered front office could embark on a lengthy search to determine its next play-caller.

A categorical pressure presides over this decision, league sources told Bleacher Report. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have proven capable of guiding two iterations of Celtics teams to the conference finals. Regardless of whether both All-Stars remain on this roster, the next person to lead Boston onto the parquet will have an immediate expectation of overseeing long postseason runs each spring. 

With that in mind, there's little belief, sources said, that the Celtics' next coach will be an assistant elevated to the top position for the first time. That would theoretically cast a wide net, including respected retreads. The first two names linked to Boston's opening, Jason Kidd and Lloyd Pierce, both led teams previously, and Warriors assistant Mike Brown—formerly a head coach of the Cavaliers and Lakers—is searching for another head coaching opportunity, sources told B/R. 

If Boston were to consider a first-time head coach, that pool would likely include former players such as current Clippers assistant Chauncey Billups, who despite his inexperience, is widely considered a premier candidate on this summer's NBA coaching market. Among league personnel, Billups has been considered for weeks as Portland's leading candidate to replace Terry Stotts. The former Finals MVP is described as someone who commands each room he enters by his presence and demeanor, equal parts confidence and humility to listen—a similar recipe that landed Steve Nash on Brooklyn's bench prior to this season. 

If not Billups, 76ers assistant Sam Cassell—another former Celtics point guard—is also considered to be one of the few external first-time head coaches who could receive significant interest for Boston's opening. Cassell, too, is said to command the ears of superstars, such as Paul George and Ben Simmons, who he has mentored over the past few years as an assistant with the Clippers and 76ers.

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

More and more, coaching in the modern NBA is as much a balancing act of personalities as minutes. The job has evolved far beyond evaluating tape and instituting schemes. 

That does appear to be a large factor in why Stevens stepped away from his post on the Celtics' bench. When consulting with fellow coaching figures after Boston left the Orlando bubble, Stevens openly discussed feeling burnt out by the NBA's daily churn, sources said. Even under normal circumstances, playing four road games in five nights is not a lifestyle conducive to raising a family, and Stevens is a man who enjoys extended power walks with his wife, long competing against her in board games each evening after putting their kids to sleep. 

News of Stevens' abrupt change in title did, however, surprise many figures around the NBA. It is rare for such an esteemed young coach to leave the sidelines so soon and so suddenly. The fact that Stevens, 44, is signed to a lucrative deal through 2025-2026, further perplexed several league executives contacted by B/R. 

"One of the best coaches in the NBA deciding to join a front office and leave the sidelines doesn't just happen overnight," said a team capologist. "It doesn't happen over a few days. It happens over a few months."

"This had to be in the works for a long time for them to announce it the day after the season ended," added one longtime personnel staffer. 

Further, there was a significant outcry among league personnel pointing to Boston's power shift as just another top job vacancy—lead executive or head coach—to open and close without any interview process at all, let alone one that included conversations with multiple Black personnel. With that, there is a sense around the league that hiring a head coaching candidate who is Black will be a top priority for this position—the circumstances with Danny Ainge saying he'd never heard of racism from Celtics crowds notwithstanding. 

Ainge's departure from Boston, meanwhile, was not nearly as unexpected around the NBA as Stevens' new position. There have been whispers about his connection to new Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith for some time. And additional rumblings persist about potential changes coming within Utah's front office at the urging of new minority partner Dwyane Wade, despite Utah's success this year. 

The Celtics messaged that Ainge "retired" from his post and will serve a senior advisory role to Boston's ownership group, but since his departure, Ainge has also been linked by league sources to possibly joining Portland in some capacity as well. 

And with Ainge having stepped aside, it seems Boston's maneuvering will finally clear the path for assistant general manager Mike Zarren to operate as the Celtics' lead basketball mind. There's a belief that Stevens will only nominally outrank Zarren in Boston's decision-making tree, sources said, and it's a role Zarren appears more than prepared for.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Whenever teams have conducted negotiations or trade calls with the Celtics, sources said, it has typically been Zarren on the other line. Right around Memorial Day weekend in 2013, it was Zarren, for example, who phoned Brooklyn to resume negotiating the famous blockbuster trade that ultimately netted Tatum and Brown. 

Yet for all the decline in Stevens' efficacy on the bench this season, Celtics brass are still considered very fond of the now-former coach and his acumen, sources said. 

"That ownership group just adores him," said one Western Conference executive. "As they should—he's an awesome basketball mind. He's really, really smart."

There's further expectation that Stevens may use this opportunity to expand Boston's front office, which is known to function with one of the smallest staffs in the league. Ainge kept a close range of confidants, all of whom are said to be remaining with the Celtics, sources said. It's expected that longtime director of player personnel Dave Lewin will be elevated to assistant general manager. And perhaps Stevens will place an emphasis on diversifying the Celtics' scouting department, such as hiring the heavily-rumored Landry Fields, Atlanta's current assistant general manager. 

"All teams are monitoring Landry Fields," said the Western Conference executive, "because he's going to get a real shot here to run his own team soon."

Boston's most important hire will, of course, be the 18th head coach in franchise history. Whoever the Celtics choose, that play caller will shoulder the same task as Stevens and governor Wyc Grousbeck: "Win banner 18 or die trying." And whoever Boston hires may also preview the decision making to come from its new-look regime. 


Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.