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Paul Flannery | December 8, 2013

Sunday Shootaround

Brad Stevens' Celtics work only toward the future

Celtics' new coach looking beyond this season

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."

"[It] has no bearing on my life. Literally none." -Brad Stevens on the Celtics' place in the standings

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.

OvertimeMore thoughts from the week that was

At some point in life things stop working. Plans go awry. Grand visions of success give way to cold doses of reality. Limbs and ligaments stop functioning like they used to in the past. Kobe Bryant has come to be defined by his refusal to accept any of that.

In his prime he chased away Shaquille O’Neal and made do with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown. He validated his stance by winning two more titles and then clung stubbornly to the idea that they could do it again when everyone knew it was over. Rather than accept a secondary role and ride out the rest of his career next to one of the game’s remaining dominant big men, he refused to cede ground to Dwight Howard.

He is noble, stubborn, brilliant or infuriating depending on how you perceive him.

From the beginning of his career it’s been impossible to have a rational conversation about Kobe Bryant. Everything from his paycheck to his hero ball tendencies have spawned a million blog posts and think pieces about the nature of stardom in the modern NBA, and it’s a debate that’s become more tiresome than illuminating. He’s a force of nature and resisting it is akin to spitting in the wind and hoping you don’t get drenched.

As he prepares to return from a torn Achilles, Kobe’s career finally has a moment in time that resonates in a way that all the count the ringzzzzz arguments never could. It’s his refusal to give in to circumstances, time or even the harshest of injuries that mark him as a true original.

The game went on without him and it will continue to go on long after he’s really gone, just like it did for all the rest. But it is infinitely more interesting when he’s a part of it.

Viewers GuideWhat we'll be watching this week

MONDAY Nuggets at Wizards

Let us take a moment during John Wall’s breakout season to remember the parade of knuckleheads that dominated the Wizards roster in his early days. In his rookie season, Wall ran a team comprised of Nick Young, Andray Blatche, Jordan Crawford and of course, JaVale McGee. All four have their talents and abilities. All four have found gainful employment in productive roles with other franchises. But having all four on the same team with your 20-year-old franchise savior is like … it’s a really bad idea, OK?

TUESDAY Heat at Pacers

With the exception of a few obvious ones -- Celtics-Lakers, etc -- rivalries come and go in the NBA as players change teams and teams change coaches and personalities. These days they are less about proximity than postseason history and there is none bigger in the East than the Heat and the Pacers. This has everything: The two best teams in their conference by far, an up and comer in Paul George against the reigning king in LeBron James and when you get down to it these teams really don’t like each other. So, why isn’t this on Christmas Day?

WEDNESDAY Clippers at Celtics

If you ask people in Boston who was most responsible for the Celtics’ success during the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce/Ray Allen/Rajon Rondo era, you’re likely to get a variety of responses. But if you ask people who was the enduring symbol of that team, my bet is most people would say Doc Rivers. He had his team’s respect -- and they were not an easy bunch. He had the media’s respect and we’ll turn on you in a heartbeat. He had the fans respect and they may be an even tougher audience. For those years Doc was the Celtics and now that he’s in LA, some people will try to turn this into a referendum on how he should be received when he returns to Boston. That’s easy: Standing ovation.

THURSDAY Rockets at Blazers

If you’re Darryl Morey, what do you want for Omer Asik? The smart money would seem to be a stretch four who can play alongside Dwight Howard, but considering the solid contributions of players like Terrence Jones and Omri Casspi, maybe the Rox already have that answer in house. Would a bonafide perimeter stopper be the better play to shore up that leaky defense? For all that he’s done to rebuild the roster, this is the deal he has to get right.

FRIDAY Timberwolves at Spurs

We’ve reached the point in the season where it’s officially time to worry about the Timberwolves. Their defense still rates reasonably well by most metrics, but their lack of depth and killer schedule has undone what had been a strong start. The always insightful Britt Robson respectfully put it on Rick Adelman a few weeks back, which underscores just how tenuous this whole team really is at this stage.

SATURDAY Lakers at Bobcats

Let us take the opportunity to offer more praise for Bobcats coach Steve Clifford. By most objective measures, the Bobcats have less top-end talent than the other rebuilding teams in the East. Even high lottery picks Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller are slotted for role-playing status as their careers develop. Even with Al Jefferson, Charlotte is the worst shooting team in the league and a tick above abysmal on offense. But the Cats are in most games and even winning their share because of surprisingly stout defense. That’s a reflection of coaching, preparation and of course, execution and trust. It’s amazing what a coach with actual coaching experience can accomplish when given a chance.

SUNDAY Warriors at Suns

Insert your own League Pass joke here.

The ListNBA players in some made up category

It’s become all too easy to take LeBron James for granted, but James just keeps doing his thing and shockingly getting even better. His 3-point shooting is up. His free throw rate is higher than ever. His overall shooting percentages look like a 7-foot-6 big man who does nothing but dunk. So let’s give the man his due with a look back at his top five games this season.

1. Nov. 25, Phoenix: Scores 35 points on 11-for-14 shooting and helps the Heat pull away with a perfect 11-for-11 from the free throw line. He told reporters afterward that, "I'm in a very, very comfortable position right now with my game." No kidding.

2. Nov. 15, Dallas: Drops 39 on the Mavs in just 18 shots and clinches the win by backing down Monta Ellis and raining a Dirk-shot over the guard’s head. Maybe LeBron should imitate other superstars just to keep things interesting.

3. Nov. 5, Toronto: Scores 35 points, grabs eight boards and hands out eight assists against only one turnover. The truly impressive work happened early in the fourth quarter when James and crew held the Raptors scoreless for almost five minutes.

4. Nov. 16, Charlotte: Scored 30 points in 31 minutes on 13-for-18 shooting and could have had more if he wanted. That’s the thing with LeBron’s game these days. He waits for it to come to him and calls upon it at will.

5. Nov. 27, Cleveland: Just your standard 28-8-8 and oh by the way, he outscored the Cavs starters by himself.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Up With Magic

An insightful look at Victor Oladipo’s development and Arron Afflalo’s rise by Tyler Lashbrook of Orlando Pinstriped Post.

The Tax Man Cometh

When should you pay the tax man? Cap master Mark Deeks breaks it down.

Playing Against Themselves

The Heat’s biggest obstacle? That would be themselves. James Herbert explains.

Spew York

The Drive & Kick talks to Howard Beck about the Knicks, Nets and dumpster fires.

The Drummond Rule

How do you fix the scourge of intentional fouling? Tom Ziller has an idea that’s so simple it’s brilliant.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"We’re a pretty damn good team. And we can beat anybody." -- Portland guard Wes Matthews after the Blazers knocked off the Pacers.

Reaction: We covered Portland’s hot start in depth a few weeks ago, but unlike other would be contenders (ahem, Golden State and Minnesota) the Blazers haven’t crested yet. Credit to Terry Stotts and his entertaining offense, and also props to LaMarcus Aldridge who has reignited the great power forward debate. (For the record, I’ll still take Kevin Love first but LMA is moving up the charts).

"A lot of guys expect us to tank for (Duke’s) Jabari Parker or (Kansas’) Andrew Wiggins. You might as well throw that out the door. I don’t know why people are talking about them. We’ve got competitors around here. We just want to win." -- Celtics forward Jared Sullinger.

Reaction: Sullinger is talking about the nattering no-nothings of talk radio and talking head shows who are shocked and dismayed -- SHOCKED, WE TELL YOU! -- that the Celtics aren’t gawdawful enough to have a lottery pick all wrapped up 20 games into the season. By their own admission some of these people don’t follow the NBA, understand the salary cap or how teams are constructed in the modern age. So, whatevs.

"Lawrence has been reassigned to doing daily reports. He won’t be sitting on the bench or practice." -- Jason Kidd, explaining his demotion of assistant coach Lawrence Frank.

Reaction: The real shocker in all of this is that Lawrence Frank got a 6-year deal as an assistant coach. Who does that? Oh right, the team that willingly pays $1.25 when a dollar will suffice.

"I don’t speak Italian." -- Kevin Garnett after Andrea Bargnani was ejected for trash talking him. Reaction: KG got punked by Bargs. It pains me to even write that. The Nets are so depressing.
"Everything. I eat meatballs. I never had eaten meatballs before. A lot of burgers. Shrimps. I never tasted shrimp before." -- Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. Reaction: Giannis is delightful.

This Week in GIFsfurther explanation unnecessary

Patrick Beverley

No wonder 4-year-olds are so terrible at basketball.

Dwyane Wade

Oh, Heat.

Benny the Bull

Taking the public proposal to its illogical extreme.

Andrea Bargnani

Vengeance for all of the Euros KG has taunted over the years.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.