Can Coach Brad Stevens Put the Celtics Together Again?
This is where the myth comes in. Perhaps you’ve heard the legend of Brad Stevens. It goes like this: Lost without basketball, the young exec closes his eyes and leaps from the high-rise of corporate America into the bowels of a field house, where he becomes a glorified equipment manager at Butler and works his way up.
Anyone who knows anything about Stevens knows that his move to coaching, as with all of his moves, was methodical. The corporate high-rise hadn’t been that high, but he had been saving much of his $44,000 salary for months prior to leaving Lilly, and his bosses there had assured him the door was open for him to return. He was 23, with no family, mortgage, or real responsibilities. The opportunity far outweighed the risk.
All he had to sacrifice was his pride. To get back into the game he loved, the man who had once considered quitting for lack of playing time had to start back at the very bottom, cold-calling local high school coaches to volunteer as a scout, sitting in the rafters of rural Indiana gyms. He served pizza to kids at Butler basketball camps in order to pepper the coaches with questions. And when then–Butler head coach Thad Matta finally offered him an entry-level job as an unpaid graduate assistant, Stevens arranged a shift at Applebee’s to pay the rent.
Fate finally intervened, in the form of a hooker: Just before the 2000–2001 season, a Butler assistant was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. The charges were soon dropped, but on the day Stevens was to have waited his first table, Matta called to offer him an $18,000 gig as director of basketball operations. He never picked up a dish.
Stevens witnessed firsthand the potential of the “team before me” philosophy at Butler, where there was no room for individual egos. Butler was a school of fewer than 5,000 students sandwiched geographically between basketball juggernauts Indiana University and Purdue, with a fraction of the recruiting budget of those schools. It had to target players who fit into a team concept. Incredibly, the so-called Butler Way had yielded three NCAA tournament berths in the four years prior to Stevens’s arrival.
As a newcomer to the Butler machine, Stevens started as the smallest cog: He was the guy responsible for arranging travel, exchanging film with opposing teams. No task was beneath him. Meanwhile, he was impressing higher-ups with his IQ in the film room, compiling detailed scouting reports and spot-on analysis of Butler’s own players. “What stood out was his willingness to do whatever assignment and do it well,” says Todd Lickliter, a veteran assistant and eventual head coach who took Stevens under his wing. When Lickliter replaced Matta as head coach the following year, he promoted Stevens to a full-time assistant, giving him the opportunity to scout, recruit, and even coach in-game.
Over the next six years, Stevens steadily moved up the coaching ranks, outpacing his youthful appearance. In 2007, when Lickliter left for the University of Iowa, Butler athletic director Barry Collier was looking to promote someone who would carry on the school’s ethos of self-sacrifice. He made 30-year-old Stevens one of the youngest head coaches in the country.
In the top job, Stevens learned to connect through selflessness. “He organically builds relationships,” says Ronald Nored, who played for Stevens from 2008 to 2011. “He genuinely cares about you, and you can see the level of trust from the players. You want to go to war with him.” Outwardly anxious at first, Stevens soon realized that his team’s play reflected his demeanor, so he made it a point to appear collected on the sideline and in the locker room.
They played for him because he worked for them. Always a numbers guy, Stevens was the first college coach to hire a full-time statistical analyst, who churned out pages of data on opposing teams that Stevens would then distill into two or three tips for each player heading into the game. He had a knack for putting players in positions to succeed. But more than that, he understood the people behind the statistics. He would regularly visit with players and coaches, asking them about their individual goals, assessing strengths and weaknesses and areas to work on. He also listened, welcoming their input. “He is not a micromanager,” says Matthew Graves, a former assistant under Stevens. “He gets the big picture. Expects guys to do their job. You felt like you were working with him, not for him.”
If Stevens seems to speak in clichés and truisms, it’s partly because he is a connoisseur of self-help books. He collects advice, even from other coaches, and one of his favorites is: Just be yourself. If you try to replicate others, it will not be successful because it is not authentic. But just because his selfless approach to basketball is sincere doesn’t mean it isn’t also intentional, even calculated. And it works. Under Stevens, the Bulldogs won 166 games and made five NCAA tournament appearances in six years, including two consecutive losses in the championship finals—a feat for any school, much less little Butler.
He got offers from bigger schools and flashier programs, but Stevens seemed content in his humble Indiana home. Few thought he would ever leave. But as he watched a couple of his players graduate to the pros, the coach became more and more intrigued by the NBA game. The challenge appealed to his competitive nature. And in July 2013, when Danny Ainge called with his offer to coach the C’s, it sparked enough of his competitive drive to overcome any inertia or fear of failure. Almost everyone in Indiana and college basketball was shocked when Stevens announced he was leaving Butler. More than a few people in Boston and the NBA were shocked that he would leave home to take on this Celtics team.
Stevens knew that he was parachuting into a disaster area in Boston. But it’s fair to wonder if he truly understood the extent of the damage.
It had been less than a month since Doc Rivers abandoned his contract and fled to L.A. following the Celtics’ first-round playoff ouster at the hands of the Knicks. Doc’s defection presaged the sudden end of the Big Three era, which was made official with the late-June news that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett would be traded to Brooklyn. All that remained was a rapidly fading 2008 NBA championship banner and a gutted roster of unproven youths and past-their-prime vets. The most famous, mercurial All-Star Rajon Rondo, was injured.
Clearly, Stevens was not brought in to win games—that was impossible. The coach’s job, in this case, was to harness young, inexperienced talent, as he had at Butler, and to squeeze enough production out of veterans like Jordan Crawford and Courtney Lee to fatten them up for the trade market, where Ainge could deal them for expiring contracts and draft picks. And yet local media still wondered aloud whether a small-college coach was up to the task. Hours after Stevens was hired, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy went on television and posed a form of the question everyone was thinking: “How’s [Rondo] going to listen to this little kid coaching him, this 36-year-old guy?”
Celtics fans were still trying to forget Rick Pitino, who came here after three Final Fours and an NCAA championship at mega program Kentucky—only to be shipped home before he could finish his fourth miserable season. How was Stevens going to command respect in a locker room filled with pros—marginal pros, but professionals nonetheless? It was a question acknowledged even by the man who had just given him a six-year contract. “I knew he wouldn’t carry the same cachet as Doc Rivers or Gregg Popovich,” Ainge says. “With his age, he was going to have to earn his respect on a daily basis.”
Stevens’s response? He didn’t change much beyond the color spectrum of his tie collection, from Butler blue to Celtics green. His first move was to hop on a plane and personally meet as many of his new players as possible, walking into their homes as if he were recruiting them. One of his first official visits was to Rondo’s youth basketball camp in Louisville, where he sat with his star point guard talking basketball and philosophy.
When the entire team was finally together for training camp, Stevens put his words into action. “Brad did the same thing he did with the college guys,” says Micah Shrewsberry, a former assistant at Butler whom Stevens brought to Boston. “He got out on the floor and worked with them, rebounded with them, sweated with them. He tried to show them that he wasn’t just here to coach them, he was here to make them better. He really invested in them. He invited guys over to his house. Showed them that he is who he says he is.”
None of this changed the fact that the Celtics, as constituted, were not good at the game of basketball. They lacked size inside, and a consistent scorer, and when Rondo was out, as he was for more than half the season, they didn’t have a true ball handler—pretty much everything you need to win. They ended the season 25–57, tied with Utah for fourth worst in the league.
Losing was expected, perhaps even not-so-subtly desired by management in order to secure more Ping-Pong balls for the draft lottery. (Ainge, of course, repeatedly denied the team was intentionally tanking.) The shock was that, even in failure, the team was actually fun to watch. Rookies Phil Pressey and Kelly Olynyk showed sparks of improvement, even brilliance. They beat LeBron and the defending-champion Heat twice, including a thrilling 111–110 victory in Miami on a Jeff Green three-pointer at the buzzer. Back at TD Garden, 742,400 fans—30,000 more than the league average—showed up to watch the Celtics, whose season featured 34 losses when the team was within five points with less than five minutes to play. They never quit. “He never accepted mediocrity,” says former Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an NBA analyst for ESPN. “He had a mediocre record, but that’s different from his team having mediocre mentality or habits. You could watch his team and know he was prepared. They were disciplined, smart, and gave good effort every night.” Ainge seemed pleased, too: “Brad is, maybe, the only thing right now in our whole organization I’m not concerned about,” he told NESN. The biggest dissenter, of course, was Stevens himself. Fifty-seven losses was eight more than the ultracompetitive coach had suffered through during six years combined at the Butler helm. At season’s end, Stevens made no excuses: “I’ve got a list of things I want to do better.”
Then came year two. On a Friday night in mid-March of last season, Stevens decided he’d had enough.
It was halftime of a home game against Orlando, and in the first two quarters, as in much of the first half of the season, the Celtics were embarrassing themselves.
Forty-one different players had donned the shamrock during the 2014–2015 season and Rondo, the last remnant of championship days, had been shipped to Dallas in December. Stevens was the sole constant, desperately trying to build relationships with journeymen as they passed through on 10-day contracts, to win with whomever happened to be in his clubhouse on a given night. The result had been an abysmal record of 27–36. The only silver lining was that, thanks to the kiddie-pool depth of the Eastern Conference, the C’s were only one and a half games back of Miami for the final playoff berth with 19 games left.
Even with a ticket to the postseason at stake, on this night the hapless Celtics were getting outscored on their home floor 50-40 by the lowly Magic—and looked thoroughly uninterested while doing so. By halftime, Stevens was so disgusted that the infamously unshakable coach finally came undone. “I don’t know who came in our locker room, but he came in and started screaming,” swingman Evan Turner told reporters. “I never heard Brad really curse, and he cursed us out pretty good.” Those in the room who knew Stevens best realized that even this undignified display was calculated for effect. “He was punctuating his point,” Shrewsberry says. “If he was a guy who yelled all the time, it would’ve just been another day.”
It worked. The C’s came back to best the Magic 95–88, then went on to win 15 of the last 21 games to nab the seventh seed in the playoffs.
Stevens’s selflessness was contagious. Point guard Isaiah Thomas had been a starter most of his career, but after he was traded to the Celtics in February, he didn’t start a single game. Once Stevens got him to accept his role as sixth man, Thomas led the team with 19 points per game. The Celtics locker room was unlike any Thomas had seen in the NBA. “It was almost a college atmosphere,” he says. “Everybody’s locked in, listening to what [Coach Stevens] says. That’s difficult in the NBA. Players’ minds are often elsewhere. But here, you feel like you’re part of the team.”
Stevens’s players certainly made him look like a genius in the second half of last season. “You saw the team come together,” Ainge says. “They were hungry and buying into what [Stevens] had to say—both X’s and O’s and the unity in spirit.” His peers took note, and Stevens finished fourth in voting for the coveted NBA Coach of the Year award.
Red Auerbach couldn’t have staved off the reality check that arrived in the form of the Cleveland Cavaliers. On his way to his fifth consecutive Eastern Conference title, LeBron James drove the Cavs straight through Boston in four games, with Cleveland’s own Big Three —King James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love—combining to average 64.6 points per game. It was a harsh reminder that in this league, star power still holds sway. Stevens might well have proven himself the man for transition, capable of even a fairy-tale season or two. But nobody hangs banners for moral victories. When Ainge adds the superstars he’ll need to bring home banner number 18, will Stevens be up to the task of managing those egos? Could you see LeBron James or Steph Curry responding to an “I believe in you” text from the soft-spoken coach?
“If you don’t believe in somebody, a lot of things come off as corny,” says Krzyzewski, a Stevens friend from their NCAA days and victor over Stevens in the 2010 National Championship. “You have the trust of your team. His kids at Butler trusted him. His men with the Celtics trust him. Because he’s trustworthy. That’s the biggest key. He’s always going to tell them the truth. No games. Real. Professionals appreciate that more than anything.”
“I don’t worry about that at all,” says Ainge, who played along some of the greatest. “Superstars would love to play for [Stevens]. I don’t care if you’re Magic Johnson, you want to use your talent the best that you can.”
Van Gundy sums it up thusly. “If, as a player, you don’t get along with Brad Stevens,” he says, “you’re the asshole.”
It’s the second night of action in Vegas, and three generations of Stevens men—Brad, his son, and his father—are courtside to watch the C’s play the Sixers. On the floor, second-year point guard Marcus Smart is hustling after loose balls, trying to build on an upstart rookie year and prove he is a worthy heir to the All-Star Rondo. Rookie first-rounders Terry Rozier and R. J. Hunter are trying to adapt to Stevens’s relentless defensive scheme. Stevens needs these three kids to grow up fast. At the moment, his roster is overflowing with youth: The Celtics have 10 players with three years or fewer in the league.
Entering his third season, Stevens has shown that his nice-guy approach can be effective in maximizing young, unknown professional talent. And he’s confident that his philosophy will translate no matter who Ainge brings in to rebuild this storied franchise. “Good players want to be coached,” he says. “They want little ideas. They want somebody to spend time watching film and breaking it down. You have to invest in people or it’s not going to be effective.”
In the meantime, Stevens himself is the closest thing the Celtics have to a star. During the second game in Vegas, Stevens is again interrupted from his evaluation. This time it’s not an usher or a security guard, but a middle-aged man with a boy in a white Celtics shirt about the same age as Stevens’s son. The man wants a picture of his boy with the head coach. Stevens stands to oblige. Even he realizes that as the face of the most recognizable franchise in basketball, his notoriety is directly proportional to the team’s success—two variables that Ainge says are on the rise. “People don’t necessarily recognize him on the street like you would think,” Ainge says. “But all they want to talk about is Brad Stevens. He doesn’t want it that way. That’s genuine. But people talk about him.”