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5 ways Brad Stevens can succeed as Celtics president

This is how Brad Stevens can win with the Celtics as he moves from head coach to President of Basketball Operations.

One day after getting knocked out of the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs in five games by Brooklyn Nets, the Boston Celtics announced a wide-ranging shakeup to the front office that qualifies as the first big piece of breaking news of the NBA offseason.

Long-time GM and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has retired. Head coach Brad Stevens is assuming Ainge’s old job, and will move out of coaching entirely. Stevens now begins the prospect of rebuilding the Celtics after a disappointing season as he sets off to hire his replacement on the bench.

This was a trying season for the Celtics even before they got knocked out of the playoffs by Brooklyn. Covid tore through the roster and caused Celtics players to spend more time in health and safety protocol than any other team in the league. Jayson Tatum’s recovery from the virus was so precarious that he started using an inhaler for the first time in his life. Kemba Walker never looked right after undergoing a knee procedure at the start of the season. Jaylen Brown had a breakout season, but it ultimately ended with a wrist injury that sidelined him for the entirety of the postseason.

A year after going to the conference finals, the Celtics slipped to the No. 7 seed in the East and needed to earn their playoff spot via the play-in tournament. Their brief playoff run included Ainge’s tone-deaf response to Kyrie Irving’s comments about racism.

Ainge had a terrific run as Boston’s lead decision-maker since 2003. He helped bring the franchise a championship in 2008, watched the 2010 squad get back to the NBA Finals only to lose a Game 7 to the Los Angeles Lakers, and then saw his teams reach the conference finals four other times. For as successful as Ainge was during his tenure, Stevens is stepping into a role with brand new challenges. This is what he’ll need to do to be successful.

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This is an easy place to start: Stevens must hire to right head coach. Ainge only hired two head coaches in his 18 years with the Celtics: Doc Rivers and Stevens. Now Stevens needs to find a replacement who can help lead the franchise into a new era.

While it’s too soon to speculate on who Stevens could hire, there are a few names already expected to be interviewed.

Ainge shocked the basketball world by hiring Stevens out of Butler in 2013. Could Stevens make a similarly audacious move for a first-time head coach, or will he go with someone who already has head coaching experience in the league?

Expect Stevens’ first big move to be hiring a head coach before he starts to address the issues with the roster.

Find a third star

The Celtics have plenty of room for improvement on their roster, but they do have a great foundation to build around with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Tatum just turned 23 years old, and is comfortably one of the 15 best players in the league already. He’s the sort of player every franchise would kill for as a versatile 6’8 wing with takeover scoring ability at every level of the floor while also making an impact defensively. Tatum went off for 50 points in the Celtics’ lone win over the Nets in the playoffs, and also had a 60-point game at the end of the season. Boston already has its headline superstar, which means it’s ahead of most franchises from the jump.

The Celtics also already have a great sidekick for Tatum in Brown. Brown had the best season of his career as 24-year-old by averaging career-highs in points (24.7), assists (3.4), steals (1.2), and three-point percentage (39.7 percent). He’s another big, physical wing who plays both ends of the floor and should be a staple for Boston for a long time. Stevens would be foolish to entertain the idea of trading either unless he can add a significantly better player, which will be difficult. Instead, he needs to find a third star to play alongside them.

Boston signed Walker to be that player, but it feels like his best days are behind him with lingering knee issues at age 31. Ainge’s tenure was partially defined by his unwillingness to trade draft picks and young players for established stars (in his defense, the one time he did it for Irving it didn’t work out). Stevens would be wise to prioritize getting a third star above having a deep and balanced roster. Tatum and Brown are ready to win right now.

Maintain the Celtics as a free agent destination

One of the NBA’s biggest truisms is that stars tend to favor big markets. LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard flocked to Los Angeles, and found a way to get Anthony Davis and Paul George to join them. Irving and Kevin Durant linked up in New York, and convinced James Harden to make it a big three. While Boston isn’t on the level of New York or Los Angeles or even Miami, the Celtics were a real player for top free agents under Ainge. Stevens has to keep it that way.

Ainge signed Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, and Walker to max or near-max deals as free agents. Even if the Celtics didn’t get to another NBA Finals with any of them, they did help maintain the franchise’s status as a contender in the East. Boston is by no means guaranteed to continue adding free agents that are just a cut below the superstar tier. Ensuring that the team is still attractive to free agents will be one of Stevens’ biggest challenges as he transitions into his new role.

Develop the young talent on the roster

The Celtics hit a home run by drafting Tatum and Brown. Since then, their draft history has been mostly filled with singles and strikeouts.

Boston still has a ton of young players on the roster. Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard, Grant Williams, and Robert Williams are all recent first round picks. Robert Williams looks like a possible long-term fit at center, but the rest of those players have yet to prove themselves in a major way. Stevens should prioritize developing these young pieces, and if any of them don’t fit his long-term vision he should quickly flip them for another player or draft pick.

Developing young talent is of course easier said than done, but obviously the Celtics were able to pull it off with Tatum and Brown. It requires investment throughout the organization by hiring the right coaches and trainers. It also requires conviction in your own decisions to know who to keep and who to trade.

To go back to the baseball metaphor, the Celtics would really benefit from a couple of these ‘singles’ to be stretched out into doubles. There are a number of young players on the roster, but its overall talent level is still lacking without proper development.

Make an impact on the margins

Every championship contender this season can point to smart moves on the margins for helping put them in position to win. The Lakers were able to develop Alex Caruso, and find veterans like Markieff Morris and Wes Matthews who can play a role on a winning team. The Clippers essentially stole Ivica Zubac in a trade with the Lakers, and seem to have found a keeper in former second round pick Terance Mann. The Nuggets signed Austin Rivers just before the end of the regular season, and now he’s starting playoff games for them. The Nets found gold by trading for Bruce Brown.

Stars players run the league, but it feels like it’s never been more essential to find wins on the margins than it is in today’s game. The Celtics’ roster couldn’t point to many success stories in that regard this past season.

The Celtics have the hard part figured out by already having two foundational stars in place in Tatum and Brown. Now it’s about finding the right coach, developing the talent on the roster, and doing everything you can to land a third star. Stevens has a huge opportunity in filling Ainge’s shoes, and he’ll have every chance to succeed. Just know he has a lot of work to do.