Bill Fitch was 36 years old when he left the University of Minnesota to coach the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers. Dick Motta was 37 when he left Weber State to take over the Bulls. Dr. Jack Ramsay was a wizened 43 years old when he ventured out of the comfortable environment of St. Joseph’s University to coach the hometown 76ers.
They were all part of a wave of college Coaches with a capital-C, who were teachers as much as taskmasters. All three went on to long, successful careers in the pros. Juxtapose their experiences with the college coaches who followed in the last few decades. The list of failed experiments is endless: John Calipari, Lon Kruger, Mike Montgomery, Tim Floyd, etc. etc. etc.
Most of those coaches were hampered by weak rosters and flinty management who cut and ran at the first sign of trouble. Some of those coaches were also done in by their own dictatorial personalities and management styles that clashed with the demands of their players in a professional working environment.
The Celtics are betting that 36-year-old Brad Stevens is of the former tradition. Team president Danny Ainge has taken care of the first part of the equation by signing Stevens to a six-year deal that virtually ensures he’ll have time to grow into the job. As for the second, Stevens is well-regarded as a process-driven tactician with a keen analytical mind who can handle the inevitable ebb and flow of an NBA season and keep the long-term vision in mind.
That all sounds great at the press conference, but it won’t mean much if he and Rajon Rondo don’t form a working partnership. Or, if the salty vets who are still on the roster after Ainge’s initial purge tune him out during what should be a rocky transition period.
The Celtics won’t be terrible, but they are no longer elite. Stevens can’t afford to let the endless winter nights wear him down while he focuses on the big picture, which is developing players like Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk. That’s the key to this season for a Celtics team that is taking its first wobbly steps toward a massive overhaul.
Bradley has shown flashes of defensive brilliance mixed with long periods of uncomfortably awkward offensive performances. Sullinger is a mystery, owing to his bad back and personal issues stemming from a domestic abuse charge. Olynyk looked the part in summer league, which is a decent start.
MarShon Brooks, who was acquired from the Nets in the massive deal that sent Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to Brooklyn, will also finally get a chance to crack a rotation. Undrafted free agent Phil Pressey and Brazilian mystery man Vitor Faverani represent some form of untapped potential.
Help will eventually arrive in the form of nine first-round draft picks over the next five years, but Ainge is determined to make the most out of what he has on the roster now. That means developing the young players on hand. In somewhat stark contrast to other rebuilding projects, Ainge has taken the position that there is little to be gained from throwing away a season to gain a few extra ping-pong balls. As such, players like Rondo and Jeff Green are still on the roster. Their presence, along with holdovers like Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee, as well as Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace, leave a unit that is very much in flux.
It remains to be seen if the Celtics are closer to the amorphous collection of teams in the hunt for an Eastern Conference playoff berth or if they belong in the lower half of the conference with the 76ers, Bobcats and Magic. In some ways, it doesn’t really matter.
Stevens’ biggest test will no doubt come with Rondo, the enigmatic point guard who is recovering from ACL surgery with no firm timetable for his return. The Celtics are anxious to see how Rondo will respond to being the undisputed leader on the court and in the locker room. There is also the possibility that he will react favorably to a coach who shares his mathematical approach to the game, but as always, predicting how Rondo will handle any situation is folly.
For years, the Celtics were defined by their hard-nosed defense and grown man’s culture. That’s all over now. For all the changes that Ainge brought forth this summer, the Stevens experiment may prove to be the most important. They are not just starting over; they are attempting to refashion their image for the modern era with a nod to a long-ago tradition established by Ramsay, Fitch and Motta.