The fortunes of the legendary Boston Celtics franchise were altered in a big way on July 3, 2013. Brad Stevens was brought in out of Butler University at the tender age of 37. The critics rose up far and wide in opposition to this curious coaching hire. NBA coaches are typically brought up through the ranks, serving as assistants for several years before finally getting their big break.
Brad Stevens was certainly an exception to that rule.
Not that he was unqualified, of course. During his tenure at Butler Stevens consistently brought out the best in his players and it showed in his excellent 166-49 overall coaching record.
Stevens certainly had his work cut out for him once he got to the league. He inherited a roster that had just moved on from the glory days of the big three and was caught in a state of flux. Sure Rondo was still around to direct traffic and inspire when things got stale, but the team was by and large a huge collection of young talent mixed with savvy veterans. He navigated the tightrope as well as could be expected considering the circumstances. Remember Jordan Crawford? I certainly do. (I had the fortune of snagging him off of waivers in fantasy basketball and he single handedly kept me in the hunt with multiple double-doubles!) He's bounced around the league quite a bit during his career, but he actually looked like a starting caliber point guard with Boston. He experienced career high production during those 39 games (13.7ppg/3.1reb/5.7ast) similar to a Darren Collision type player today. Not bad. Back when were still convinced that Jeff Green was a borderline star, he also got pretty nice numbers with the C's compared to the rest of his career.
Youngsters Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley were groomed in an ideal environment that eventually led to their generous paydays the last two Summers. A strong argument can be made that Avery Bradley has leaped from a grosly underpaid player the first seven years of his career to one that is significantly overpaid going into year nine, but that's a conversation for another day. We're keeping things pretty and positive this time around.
And so began the patented Stevens' trend of accelerating and optimizing player performance. When you really think about it, quite a few guys should be sending a small slice of green to Brad every year as a small token of gratitude for getting them paid. Alright alright, so it's a little unfair to say guys like Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas have only been successful in their career because of one coach. In spite of this, he certainly played a big part in helping them become the established veterans they are today.
How exactly has he extracted the very best out of his players? Well a short glance at the tape paints a pretty picture, no doubt.
In this clip, Stevens brilliantly optimizes Bradley's ability to catch and shoot by having him perform an Iverson type cut directly across the free throw line and off of two screens. It's not super sexy and there's not too many moving pieces, but as they say, sometimes less is more. Bradley has always been at his best coming off screens and using minimal dribbles to get a shot off. Bradley's eFG% rose every year under Stevens because he was always on the same page as the system that was run around him. In 2016-17, 64.2% of his shots came after 0-1 dribbles. He should not be deployed as a "do it all" primary ball handler and maybe that is why he hasn't found the same level of success since leaving Boston. It doesn't do anybody any good to overcomplicate basketball. If you're really intentional about getting to know your players inside and out, you'll know how to maximize their talent and that will in turn, translate into more consistent production. Stevens has had a great grasp on this concept from day one.
These days, Kelly Olynyk is about as steady and consistent of a presence on the basketball court as you can find. He found himself as a player during his tenure in Boston, where he was given the freedom by Stevens to explore his smooth shooting touch and slick moves away from the basket as a stretch big. In the clip below, Olynyk and Horford prepare to set a double drag screen for Thomas, but Thomas causes rejects the screens and causes both defenders to overcompensate...presto. Olynyk seizes the chance to utilize his tried and true pop action and rises up for a silky smooth triple.
Oh how I miss this supercharged incarnation of Isaiah Thomas. He was in constant motion with the Celtics, frequently using the space created by handoffs and timely off ball screens to get the opposition on their heels. He has always been at a huge disadvanatge on the court obviously due to his 5'9" frame. Stevens devised the perfect antidote to this problem by getting him going with momentum to take advantage of his supreme agility.
These plays that were run for Thomas were straight up works of art. Quick feed to Olynyk, flare screen by the sturdy Horford (wow, these guys really made a living together) and Thomas is gifted the space to quickly rise into his jumper.
Can we just admire the hangtime Thomas is able to create in his upward motion? My God this dude has a ridiculous apex on that thing. Anyways, back to business.
So there you have it. Three prime examples of players who have previously thrived and seen their best production under coach Stevens and that's not even including current players on the roster. He is without a doubt, a top 2 coach in this league. He is best described as a silent mastermind who thinks the game two to three steps ahead of the competition.
I'm going to be honest here: He was my pick for COY last season. No disrespect to Dwayne Casey...59 wins for the Raptors is nothing to scoff at. The Celtics just won so many more games than expected due to injury that he seemed the most deserving. Undermanned and outgunned, he almost ushered this young squad to an improbable Finals appearance. Hayward was lost after one game. Kyrie was toast after 60 appearances. He was left with unproven and inexperienced contributors and it didn't seem to matter.
His unit regularly went through offensive droughts without the top two creators and finished 18th in offensive efficiency (107.6). How often does a team like that come within one game of a championship bout with Golden State? I'd be willing to bet that its pretty rare. Looking back, it's kind of surprising that Stevens has not won the COY award yet in his career. His teams take massive jumps every year and always seem to punch above their weight.
Now it all comes down to this. The race shouldn't even be a debate at seasons end if the guys in green can hit their preseason projections and finish at or above 60 wins. The silent killer has paid his dues, left his mark, and built his brand. Now the ball is in his court and he won't surrender it easily. Game on.