An insightful look at Victor Oladipo’s development and Arron Afflalo’s rise by Tyler Lashbrook of Orlando Pinstriped Post.
The Celtics are 9-12, which is neither good nor bad. It simply is. They are the definition of mediocrity in a conference that is home to two great teams, a handful of lousy ones and a morass of meh. Thanks to geography and nothing more, the Celtics are remarkably in first place in their division, which makes them a "playoff team" roughly a quarter of the way through the season.
There are some coaches, maybe most, who would disregard the record and focus instead on the positioning. That’s totally understandable. This is a business in which they are judged by owners with outlandish expectations and fretful GMs who seem to be forever chasing one more piece to the puzzle that will get them an extension.
Brad Stevens is not one of them. It helps that he is working for a GM who has a bigger picture in mind and for owners who allow Danny Ainge to execute his plan. It also helps that Stevens has a 6-year contract in place and an expectation that he’ll be allowed to see this rebuilding project through to the end so he doesn’t have to worry about the day-to-day minutia that consumes so many of his colleagues.
This was his response to a question about whether he pays attention to the standings after his team beat the Bucks on Tuesday and took over the top spot in the Atlantic Division from the equally underwhelming Toronto Raptors:
"I know. I know. But it has no bearing on my life. Literally none. What it is, it is," Stevens said. "You can take a snapshot of where you stand versus the competition, but it has nothing to do with your preparation on your next opponent, it has nothing to do with getting better tomorrow, it just is what’s happened. And so, yeah, I do. I know, but I have no reason to know."
It’s worth noting that the Celtics are responsible for two of the three wins Milwaukee has earned this season. It’s also worth pointing out that until Friday night’s win over the Nuggets, they had beaten two other teams could be objectively defined as decent in Miami and Atlanta. Stevens understands that, and it’s the most important development for the Celtics so far this season.
When Ainge unexpectedly hired Stevens in the offseason from Butler University he wasn’t just hiring a talented young coach. He was trying to create a culture from scratch that in time will help attract other players to the cause. The Celtics had it all with Doc Rivers and their veteran stars, but when they left so did their identity. Stevens’ growth as an NBA coach is the first step in building a new one.
He has been exactly what was advertised. Stevens is prepared and focused. His demeanor is so calm and even-keeled that when he cracked a mild joke in his pregame scrum with reporters it took everyone more than a full beat to realize that he was being funny.
Stevens is all midwestern manners. He took the time to get to know the names of all the beat writers, even those that don’t travel with the team. He answers their questions in the same placid tone that reveals nothing at all but sounds nice all the same. This is an odd juxtaposition in a place as cynical as Boston. As Rick Pitino so memorably put it once, "The negativity in this town sucks."
The real takeaway is that Stevens has created a harmonious working environment in what could easily be a toxic wasteland. The Celtics roster is full of young players and veterans on their way to somewhere else, yet they all seem to like him. Even the ones that aren’t getting any time haven’t spoken up or tried to undermine him.
The trick is blending the talent on hand into a functioning whole without sacrificing the larger goal of development. That means starting rookie Kelly Olynyk when he was healthy and using Jared Sullinger as an undersized five, while bringing his veterans off the bench.
"I really like what they’re doing from a team situation by playing 10 guys," said Hall of Fame coach Hubie Brown who on hand Friday to call the game for ESPN. "By playing 10 guys they’re developing the young people on the first unit and backing it up with older players. When you put in so many young players you have to give them November and December to adjust to the coaching staff, to terminology to offensive and defensive philosophies. Then, how they handle close game situations from eight minutes down, all of that has to come from the head man."
Against the Nuggets, Stevens rode his reserves through most of the fourth quarter while they held off the Denver run. He turned it back over to the starters to close it out. It was a small move and an obvious one in the context of the game, but it also showed a flexibility that has been a hallmark of his tenure so far. An analytical mind doesn’t coach by the book. It adjusts and it adapts.
He made a smart decision early in the season when he inserted Jordan Crawford into the starting lineup and moved Avery Bradley off the ball. Crawford has been a revelation, averaging better than 13 points and 5 assists while keeping his turnovers to a minimum and his shot selection acceptable. It’s the best stretch of basketball he’s played as a professional.
The move also freed Bradley. Barely 23 years old, we are finally getting a chance to see him in extended minutes in a set role without the added point guard responsibilities that clearly don’t fit his skillset. He has good nights and bad nights like the team itself, but the effort is always there.
Lacking a viable center, Stevens has used Sullinger at the five and the second-year player has been the team’s best player. With Sullinger taking up more minutes inside, the team’s defensive rebounding has gone from woeful to encouraging despite their undersized personnel.
Then there are the forwards. Rather than shoehorn Jeff Green, Gerald Wallace and Brandon Bass into set positions, he has used them interchangeably and has them switching on screens to take advantage of their versatility. The player who earned the nickname "No Pass Bass" has even become an unlikely playmaker out of the post.
That’s the rough idea of what a Brad Stevens team looks like. It’s a team that moves the ball, pushes the pace and tries to take advantage of players’ strengths. Set positions are less important than skills. Space is everything. That’s the ideal, but it hasn’t always worked that way in practice.
They entered the weekend ranked No. 26 in offensive efficiency per Basketball-Reference and lack both 3-point shooting and a singular player who can break down defenses. They take a ton of mid-range shots and make them at about a 40 percent clip, which isn’t good enough. Aside from the occasional Jeff Green explosion, the Celtics are kind of boring offensively.
"We’ve got to really get better," Stevens said. "Offensively, I think we’ve done a better job in the last two weeks of understanding where our spots are and taking advantage of them. We go through lulls where we pass up shots and then we end up taking a shot that’s not as good as the one we pass up. We’ve gone through lulls where we’ve not screened or cut as we need to and we need to be good at all that stuff."
He added, "We’re going to be a team that has to score with our strengths. Once we get outside of those or pass those up, then we’re going to have trouble scoring points."
Stevens said all that before Friday night’s game when the Celtics went out and tore up the Nuggets for 39 first quarter points en route to 52 percent shooting and 25 assists on 43 made shots. Yet he was bothered by a six-minute stretch in the third quarter when the C’s allowed Denver to get back into the game. Their margin for error is extremely thin, which helps explain their tendency to give up big leads.
What we also know about a Brad Stevens coached team is that they seem prepared on a nightly basis, even when they don’t execute or have the talent to compete with some of the better teams. They have run a handful of gems in late-game situations that suggest a creative instinct with the clipboard in crucial moments. They rank in the top 10 in defensive rating despite not having much of an interior presence, which speaks to scheme and effort.
"What you like to hear is that people are happy with their effort on a nightly basis. That’s key," Brown said. "That’s coaching, making people accountable, and then he has an excellent demeanor about himself personality-wise. He’s low key. Right now he’s handling everything and he’s learning as he goes along. Any time you do this -- I’ve done this with young teams -- it’s a daily challenge to develop the talent, make them accountable and give them the discipline, which equals chemistry. That sounds simple, but it’s difficult to do."
And now we need to talk about Rajon Rondo, who has been a visible presence at practices and games and is scheduled for a checkup with Dr. James Andrews in the next few weeks. We will have a much better handle on Stevens and his team when Rondo is back to full speed.
We will finally get to see the Rondo/Bradley backcourt in action for extended stretches. We will finally get to see how Green and Rondo play off each other in the open court, and we may finally see how Sullinger acts as a pick-and-roll partner in the halfcourt. We will also see whether the Stevens/Rondo relationship will work. It’s been our feeling since last summer when Stevens was hired that the two are perfectly aligned in terms of temperament and philosophy to enjoy a long and successful tenure together.
"All of this will unfold as they go through November, December, January and then the All-Star game," Brown said. "Because what you’re looking for now is from the All-Star game to the end of the year, major improvement. Now you’ve added offensively and you’ve added defensively, but now everybody’s paying attention one through fifteen of who’s going where in the playoffs so now you can’t steal games. From February on, that’s when the push comes."
The standings? That’s not Stevens’ concern. At least not now.