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Brad Stevens is the Celtics' biggest reason for hope

The Celtics are banking on heightened win totals and an expanded rotation. They have reason to expect big things because of their blossoming head coach.

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

BOSTON -- There’s an interesting dynamic heading into this latest Celtics season. Most people think the C’s will be fairly decent, which is to say around the .500 mark and safely into the lower end of the postseason for the second straight season. Others who rely on more intricate models see something quite different, with win totals in the high 40s, maybe even in the low 50s.

While no one thinks the Celtics are ready to contend for a championship, that’s still a significant spread. In the East, it’s the difference between hosting a round or two in the playoffs and having a shot at reaching a conference final or getting overrun in the first round again by a more talented opponent. It’s the difference between making progress and marking time.

The cautious projection represents the general consensus. They see a team of perfectly average players that lacks that one true game changer around whom the franchise can build a roster. Indeed, there isn’t a single All-Star candidate among the regular rotation players, unless you count Isaiah Thomas who is likely to come off the bench.

The optimistic models take into account that while the Celtics do not have a franchise player, they do have a number of good ones. To put it another way, they have depth and lots of it. They’re likely to use up to 10 players in their regular rotation and maybe even more if the situation calls for it. That depth can be used in multiple ways, from killer reserve lineups to recovering quickly from injuries and managing game-to-game fatigue.

"We’ll see how our minutes end up, but I envision this team being a hand the baton off, let’s go. Next guy up," Brad Stevens said after practice last week. "Somebody gets tired? Great, let me know. It’s not a situation where you gut through it for the next three minutes. If we have to go 11-deep, which is not normal, or 12-deep in a game I’m very comfortable doing that right now."

And now we get to the real reason for optimism: The coach. What good is depth without someone to deploy it? If the Celtics lack a true star on their roster, they have an up-and-coming one on the sidelines. Entering his third season in the NBA after a fantastic run at Butler, Stevens has garnered praise from colleagues and opponents alike. From Gregg Popovich to LeBron James, the masters of the game have nothing but love for the unassuming Stevens. He’s the first name people talk about when they talk about the Celtics, and all of that makes him a tad uncomfortable.

"It does. These guys are the reasons we’re good," Stevens said. "There’s a lot of people who can coach, but it takes special players to play together. It takes special players to be willing to be one of 12 as opposed to one of eight. It takes special players to stick to their strengths. This is a lot more about them.

"Hey, I’m boring. I come here to the practice facility, I go home. I feel bad sometimes because I don’t have any good stories to tell. These guys are lot more interesting than I am."

He’s not lying. Stevens is not a natural storyteller like Doc Rivers. No one has ever suggested he might have been an international spy like Pop. His fondest memories from a summer with USA Basketball involve Skyping with his family and discovering a bunch of actions run by a team he was scouting that he thought were pretty great. What you see is pretty much what you get.

Still, we’re always enthralled by the possibility of genius in our midst. That a wunderkind may have cracked some kind of encrypted code that unlocks the secrets of a game with sheer intellect and intuitive gifts. Yet this line of thinking runs counter to the coach’s philosophy and fails to shed any illuminating light on the subject. We can see the ethos buried in plain sight within his standard lines of pregame coach speak.

"I’m not focused on being results oriented," Stevens said before a preseason game last week. "I’m more focused on that process and that progress. We’re going to stick to it. That’s been good to us as far as creating a good environment for growth. That’s where we’ll stay. I’m not worried about it."

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Isaiah Thomas and Brad Stevens, Photo credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Stevens loves to focus on the process; that systemic catch all for grinding through an 82-game season. That approach has its advantages when you’re playing three or four games a week for six months. Don’t get too high after a win, don’t get crushed after a loss, rarely pick up a technical foul. Stevens is a sphinx on the sidelines, which is a fairly accurate representation of his personality.

"When I first got the job at Butler somebody told me, ‘Just be yourself.’ Don’t try to be the guys before you because they were successful, just try to be who you are and be comfortable with that," he says. "What I’ve felt like if being myself isn’t good enough, cool. I’m going to do it as well as I can and that’s that. It allows you to sleep at night. It doesn’t get you flying over the clouds when you win. It doesn’t freak you out when you lose, it keeps you in that spot. I want to win. I want to win when I’m playing Scrabble. There’s nothing I want to see more than the 18th banner. But I know how far away that is because it’s a day to day process."

When he was younger, Stevens was not always so patient. He was an achiever, in search of the validation that came with getting good grades and other tangible measures of success. Ultimately, he found that approach limiting.

"When I was a young guy, I was a box checker," Stevens says. "I was a guy that tried to get good grades. I cared more about that than actually learning. I was scared to death of making mistakes, even as a young assistant and maybe my first year of coaching. Then you’re in coaching long enough that you realize there’s only so much you can control. I was fortunate enough to already have this unbelievable job. It was just like, 'You know what? I’m going to be me and hopefully that’s good enough.'"

Stevens references the work of Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor from Stanford whose seminal work entitled "Mindset" explores two distinct ways of learning: What she calls fixed and growth. The idea is simple. Those who believe that achievement is tied directly to inherent intelligence or natural talent have a fixed mindset and will often struggle when presented with more challenging obstacles. Those who believe that intelligence can be developed through hard work and creative diligence will often thrive in more advanced, competitive settings with a growth mindset.

"Life is so much more enjoyable when you’re focused on your effort and your growth, rather than on something that can be lost or gained."- Brad Stevens

There are all kinds of practical applications to be gleaned from Dweck’s work from education to parenting to managing people, and it’s no surprise that her research would gain currency with coaches.

"We’re a society that’s been built generation by generation on the pursuit of trophies, not on the pursuit of growth," Stevens says. "Life is so much more enjoyable when you’re focused on your effort and your growth, rather than on something that can be lost or gained. I know that’s big picture, philosophical stuff, but it’s real. For me, that’s the best way to be a coach because I don’t get too high or too low."

Consider an NBA basketball team. It’s filled with driven, talented people who have already succeeded beyond most people’s wildest dreams. Yet even within this tiny universe, some players succeed beyond the perceived limits of their abilities. Some maximize their gifts while others stagnate. It’s the coach’s job to bring out their best attributes and put them in a position to succeed as part of a collective.

That sounds wonderful, but it’s a rather radical notion in a league where there’s an almost cynical acceptance that stars dominate and talent wins. It’s a maxim that’s been proven over and over again, but the cynical part of that equation is that everyone else is simply wasting time while waiting for that great player to come along and save them. Stevens’ job isn’t to do more with less, it’s to do more with more; to take up to a dozen players and win games where eight or nine would usually suffice.

"Every team loves those transcendent players, but there only are so many of them," Stevens says. "We probably deem that there are more than there actually are, which is another discussion. But everybody else has great strengths otherwise they wouldn’t be in this league. They do something at such an elite level that they’re in the league and on our team. So, find those. Bring them out together. Figure them out together. All play the right way on one end and cover for one another and then support one another and let the chips fall where they may. To me, it’s about soaring with your strengths as a group."

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Brad Stevens during media day, Photo credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Despite his Midwestern roots, plainspoken manner and mid-major coaching background, it would be a mistake to cast Stevens in Hoosier-esque terms. Given a choice he would gladly take a transcendent superstar or two. Ask his rotation preference and he says eight or nine players, like most coaches. There is nothing mythic or magical about any of this. He has begun to succeed where so many former college coaches have failed by understanding that there is still far more for him to learn at this level.

"I have to work. I have to watch. I have to learn. I have to figure it out," Stevens says. "It was like starting a whole new sport. For me it was like I was starting over in a lot of ways. I had this foundation, or this shell of basketball. But we had to play a lot differently in the 82 games and the lack of practice was a huge difference. I’m so much more comfortable entering Year 3 then I was Year 2 then I was Year 1. The more hours you put into it the more comfortable you get. You’re not an expert with zero hours. You’re an expert as you put in time and I’m far from it but I’m putting in time to try and catch up."

Here’s another NBA maxim: You can’t fool NBA players. By the time they reach the league they’ve seen coaches at all levels and the more they get around, the easier it is to identify the ones they want to play for. All players want minutes, shots and opportunities, but they also want direct, honest communication and a confidence that the coach is prepared to put them in a position to succeed. That’s where Stevens truly connects with his players.

"His attention to detail and his knowledge of the game is as good as anybody’s I’ve seen," says veteran forward David Lee. "He has a great way of teaching and getting his message across to everybody. He’s a very positive coach, which makes it fun to come to practice and come to work every day."

After a preseason game against the Nets, Stevens and his staff identified gaps in their pick-and-roll coverage. That was the focus of the next practice. It’s a simple and direct approach that players appreciate, but what seems to separate Stevens at this early juncture of his career is the ability to call plays and make adjustments during the course of the game.

"He’s a great X’s and O’s coach, and what I mean by that is he can draw up a play and change the whole perspective of the game," Amir Johnson says. "Some coaches can’t do that during the game. He sees a play or he sees something defensively and puts guys right in the spot. He’s great for us."

The playoff loss to Cleveland has stayed with Stevens throughout the summer. What good was it for a team to overachieve their way out of the lottery and get swept in the first round? For the coach, it was about gathering more information and for the players it was a litmus test. There’s a push and pull between accentuating the positives and identifying the weaknesses in order to get better. Stevens often says that, in a perfect world, he’d take the emotion out of things, but emotion can also be a powerful motivator with driven people when channeled into development.

"We did some good things against Cleveland," he says. "If you look at the game on a possession by possession basis and you take out transition, which was up and down for us and rebounding, which killed everybody against them, we were pretty darn good. We need to shore those two points up. We need to get a little bit better in our techniques but we saw some things that we can build with. All of our guys had good moments in small snippets at least. Those are all positives. Then the other thing now is you should be confident, but you should have a chip on your shoulder. Human nature says those two things should happen based on how our season ended."

The process continues. There are expectations now, roles to be filled and games to be won or lost. Stevens isn’t worried about the big picture. For him, and the Celtics, it’s still evolving. Projections mean little in this environment and prognostications aren’t relevant when there is so much room for growth.

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