Tom Ziller explains the problem with college coaches mocking mock drafts.
BOSTON -- Before the question had even been formulated, Brad Stevens was shaking his head. No, no, no. He’s not looking to go back to college. This is where he wants to be, coaching the Boston Celtics even as they go through a transformative time in their history and even as Indiana University message boards light up at the thought of bringing a favored son back to the Hoosier state.
"I’ve committed to being here," Stevens told me before Thursday’s practice at the team’s facility. "I’ve already left a situation once and that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to choose to do. This is something that as long as they want me to be here, this is what I want to be doing and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got. I know it’s all specific to the rumor mills and the discussion of one spot. I think they’ve got a good coach who’s done a helluva job. He doesn’t deserve that speculation.
"I’m the head coach of the Boston Celtics," Stevens continued. "This is the job. This is where I am. This is what I want to do really well and I’m committed to being as good as I can every single day for the Celtics."
A few hours after we talked, the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo to the Mavericks, effectively closing the door on the old era and beginning the new one. Their fortunes will rise or fall with a developing group of young players, a mountain of draft picks, several other assets that exist only on paper and their coach, who might be the most important piece of all.
If Stevens’ hire was a surprise last summer to casual observers, it wasn’t to league insiders. Several teams had been after him thanks to his run at Butler that included two trips to the national championship game. Most felt it was a matter of when, not if, he would make the jump to the pros. Years ago, before Butler played Duke in the national championship game, Celtics team president Danny Ainge pointed to Stevens and said to one of the team’s owners, "That’s the best coach in college basketball."
Stevens’ first season on the job was a jumbled affair thanks in part to Rondo’s recovery from knee surgery and a maintenance plan that periodically kept him out of the lineup. There were other in-season trades that continued to shuffle the deck and the C’s offense ranked 27th in points per possession, per Basketball-Reference.com. They were able to maintain a degree of competitiveness thanks to an overachieving defense that Stevens credited to former assistant Ron Adams and his players’ willingness to adapt to the new scheme.
This year has been a different story. Stevens’ read-and-react offense has them playing at a faster pace and scoring at a more efficient clip despite lacking a definitive go-to guy. Their defense, after a terrible start playing one of the toughest schedules in the league, has also improved to the point where they are roughly league average, despite lacking much in the way of rim protection.
This is a true collective effort. On their best nights, as many as seven or eight players can reach double figures. Their defense is led by ball-hawking guards who pressure ballhandlers and eat up the shot clock. If any of that breaks down, they can get in trouble quickly as evidenced by an early-season propensity to blow fourth quarter leads. When it works, they’ve been competitive with some of the best teams in the league and picked off enough wins to place them in the lower sphere of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Where the Celtics were almost painfully dull last season, they have become one of the more entertaining teams to watch this season and an unlikely League Pass cult favorite. All of that helps mitigate some of the growing pains of the young roster and has allowed Jeff Green to post career-best numbers, while furthering the development of players like Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger and Marcus Smart.
Night after night, as teams comes through Boston, opposing coaches and players have praised the Celtics for two things: their competitiveness and their coaching.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich: "He was a hell of a coach before he got here and he’ll be an even better coach as time goes on. He’s a special guy, that’s why Danny Ainge went and got him."
Cavaliers forward Kevin Love: "I think Brad Stevens is an awesome coach. They’re going to be able to figure it out as they accumulate more talent and like I said, I’m a big fan of Brad Stevens."
For his part, Stevens takes all of that in stride. "To be real candid, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to it," he said. "A couple of the quotes get back to me, but very few. People have a tendency to say nice things. Let’s be real. Now, I do believe that. We are playing hard and we are getting better. But we still have a long way to go."
The road just got longer without Rondo, who takes his nightly triple-double watch to Dallas. In exchange, Ainge added big man Brandan Wright, who has been a per-minute monster with the Mavericks and provides a needed dose of athleticism to the front line, along with hard-nosed wing Jae Crowder.
"We thought they were undervalued players in their minutes, in their contributions so far," Ainge said. "And time will tell if we were right or wrong on that, but we really like them, and think they fit into a good team in a rotation role."
Ainge also acquired veteran point guard Jameer Nelson in the deal and the team has been encouraged by the play of second-year guard Phil Pressey, but the Rondo trade makes rookie Marcus Smart the next in line. Stevens won’t just hand him the job. Smart has battled injuries and his offensive game needs work and refinement, but the rookie has flashed defensive potential and has the confidence and toughness required of a lead guard.
"Marcus has to be healthy first," Stevens said. "The No. 1 key is he has to be available before he can be named a starting or a heavy-minute point guard. When he’s been healthy he has been that, and he’s been pretty good. How we’re going to about that, I don’t know yet. It’s not set in stone. He still has to progress at the rate he has progressed. Once you’re available multiple games in a row, what’s your consistency level like, how are you performing, how are you doing gameplan to gameplan?"
Already one of the youngest teams in the league, the Celtics could have as many as six first round selections over the next two years, and that’s where Stevens becomes even more important. The first 106 games of his tenure have been defined by his low-key approach. He rarely gets frazzled during games and isn’t one to cast blame on his players in public or private. That has resonated with his young charges.
"When it comes to this league, the one thing the youth can benefit from is the confidence from a coach, knowing he has your back to make plays," Evan Turner said. "You can tell when a guy’s being sincere about the confidence and when he’s not, and Brad is really a sincere person. He really wants to see the young guys do well."
Armed with an unprecedented six-year contract, Stevens has the space to be patient. The "process," one of the most abused tropes in sports, was a constant topic of conversation last season as the C’s drifted toward a 25-57 season.
During a pregame session with reporters in early December, Stevens raised a few eyebrows when he responded to yet another question about the process by saying that he wasn’t all that interested in it anymore. It was a rare sarcastic moment for Stevens, who above all is as competitive as anyone, even if he chooses to mask those emotions during games.
At the time, the Celtics had lost six games in a row and appeared to be once again drifting back to sub-mediocrity. They held on to beat Detroit that night and have won six of nine against a comparatively easier schedule. That kind of progress, incremental though it may be, is important for a young team.
"The one thing is that when I came here I knew that it was going to be a process," Stevens said. "I’ve always preached how important the process is, and in my unbelievably lucky experience in coaching prior to this, the process was about managing your egos through success. Now, it’s through some success but it’s been a lot more adversity. It is challenging when you’re all competitive to get up off that mat and do it again. Just focus on getting better and making sure that you’re not affected emotionally by what happened yesterday.
"I do think you see a lot of teams are in it early or play really well early in the season, and then there is a cumulative effect to not having success that you have to be able to overcome and it’s totally against human nature. The other thing that’s against human nature is when you get named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, you think you’re pretty good. Then you’ve got to perform again. There’s all sorts of different things that you have to balance there, but it’s fascinating to see it from the side of when things go really tough, you just have to stay the course, stay the course, stay the course, when it feels like there’s a lot of reasons not to."
There are reasons for optimism. Olynyk has built off a solid second-half to his rookie season and is capable of big scoring nights. Sullinger’s three-point shooting has vastly improved and Tyler Zeller became an elite finisher who thrived playing alongside Rondo. In addition to Smart, fellow rookie James Young has lit up the D-League, although he remains a work in progress defensively.
"So, I hate losing," Stevens said by way of a preface. "I’m really enjoying those small moments when you see something apply that is team oriented, when you see the next step taken defensively. When you see Kelly Olynyk shoot the three on the break, we get the rebound, he shoots the next one without hesitation. Those moments, those are invigorating. There’s two steps forward and a step back. You try not to get too down about the steps back but get excited about the steps forward and build on it."