The Boston Celtics have one of the brightest, young minds in all of basketball steering the ship in head coach Brad Stevens. Despite still being a relative newcomer to the professional coaching ranks, Stevens has already distinguished himself as one of the game’s best. However, there might be good reason to think he’s not the right man for the job.
Brad Stevens’ path to becoming head coach of the Boston Celtics has been one of a kind. In a span of little over a decade, he went from a “volunteer” for Butler University’s men’s basketball team — which could have involved doing the players’ dirty laundry, for all we know — to manning the sidelines for the most storied franchise in NBA history.
Stevens very first job once he graduated from DePauw University in 1999 (with an economics degree) was working for pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly as a marketing associate.
His first job in “coaching” would come two years later, when he joined Butler, officially under the title of a “paid volunteer” (aka laundry boy).
Stevens must have been doing something right while serving in the role because the very next season, while still only in his early twenties, he was promoted to being a full-time assistant coach for Butler.
(It had to be the fabric softener.)
Then, after just five seasons as an assistant, with no prior coaching experience to speak of, Stevens was promoted all the way to the head coaching position — at the ripe old age of thirty.
Being named the head coach of a division I men’s basketball program, particularly one as competitive as Butler’s, after spending only five years in coaching, represented an unprecedented and whirlwind ascendancy for a young man who a few short years beforehand had been trying to sell you the next “magic bullet.”
But it was what Stevens’ Butler Bulldogs would accomplish after he became head coach which would vault him up to the professional ranks, and to the Boston Celtics.
During Stevens’ tenure as head coach of the Bulldogs, the team would experience its most successful run in its history. The mid-major program hailing from the Horizon League would make a NCAA Tournament appearance in all but one of Stevens’ six seasons as head coach, reach the Sweet Sixteen three times, and twice finish as the NCAA Tournament’s runner-up.
One of those seasons, Stevens’ Butler team came up just inches from winning it all.
Worth considering is only on one other occasion has a team from the Horizon League ever participated in the Sweet Sixteen, when the Valparaiso Crusaders did so in 1998 due to the help of some serious late-game heroics from Bryce Drew. You’ve seen the highlight countless times during those March Madness commercials they run every year.
Brad Stevens’ Bulldogs had come out of nowhere to take the college basketball world by storm.
Upon it being announced Celtics’ general manager Danny Ainge had hired Stevens to become the 17th head coach of the Boston Celtics in 2013, Stevens had already built such an impressive resume at thirty-six years of age, the decision received a profusion of local and national praise.
And why not? Stevens had an unparalleled story of success at the college level; he was one of the first college coaches to get ahead of the now blooming analytics trend; and it was Stevens’ after timeout plays which the very best coaches in the NBA were studying.
Ainge had seemingly done it again. He’d found himself another “steal,” albeit in a much different fashion than we were all accustomed to at the time.
Plucking the NBA’s next wunderkind head coach out of mid-major college basketball was something brand new to everyone.
But Stevens’ success in college coaching translated almost immediately to the pro game, quickly proving Ainge’s decision was the correct one.
After an expectedly rough first year in Boston, given a dearth of talent on the team’s roster (the best player was Jeff stinkin’ Green), Stevens’ Celtics teams would go on to overachieve every single season until this past season’s debacle.
Boston has reached the playoffs in each of Stevens’ years as coach aside from his first, and made the Eastern Conference Finals twice.
One characteristic of almost all Brad Stevens’ coached teams is they are better than the sum of their parts. Stevens has a remarkable knack for shaping marginal talents into key contributors and then winning consistently against far more talent-laden opponents.
Stevens’ tireless work ethic and brilliant play design are two of the biggest reasons for this. His skill at drawing up after timeout plays goes unmatched, as was on full display during the Boston Celtics’ defeat of the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the playoffs in 2018.
And as Al Horford told us during his post-game, on-court interview after the Celtics’ down to the wire game 3 victory over the Sixers, “Brad Stevens is a genius, man. Unbelievable.”
Horford wasn’t exaggerating.
Moreover, Stevens is one of the most humble, likable people you’ll ever happen across in life.
To Stevens, the team’s success is nothing more: it’s the team’s. But its failures and shortcomings? Those almost always start and end with the head coach.
Stevens even got along well enough with one of the most notoriously difficult personalities in professional basketball in Rajon Rondo until Rondo was traded to the Dallas Mavericks during the 2014-2015 NBA season — a player who more than once nearly came to fisticuffs with coach Doc Rivers. In Dallas, Rondo would wear out his welcome and earn a permanent benching after just forty-six games, having one too many noteworthy run-ins with head coach Rick Carlisle.
And in addition to his in-fatigue-able work ethic, precocious intellect for the game, and amiable personality, Brad Stevens is as cool as a cucumber.
He doesn’t scream and shout at his players when they under-perform. Hell, he doesn’t even celebrate when his team wins. Instead, he maintains an unwavering calm and is known for a consistently positive outlook.
However, if Stevens had a fatal flaw, that might just be it…
You see, Boston Celtics fans, researchers from Jaylen Brown’s Alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, recently concluded a study in which they analyzed over 300 half-time speeches and final scores from high school and college basketball games.
Their findings don’t bode well for Stevens, or the Celtics’ plans for future success.
The researchers discovered the players’ performances improved when they faced “harsh” criticism and were given more negative feedback from their coaches.
The more critical and negative a coach was, the better his or her players played.
Thus, although it will be unsettling for some to consider, the question of whether or not Stevens has what it takes to get the best out of his players is indeed a valid one. And it’s a question needing to be asked by the Boston Celtics’ fan-base and media.
It’s no coincidence today’s best coaches in professional sports perfectly fit the mold the researchers at Cal have outlined for us.
Boston Celtics fans don’t have to look far for perhaps the best example of this in Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick, whose harsh criticism of even his best players, which includes Tom Brady, during the team’s film sessions is the stuff of legends.
In one such session, Belichick famously shamed Brady, mocking the best player in NFL history, saying to him, “I’ve seen better passes thrown at Foxborough High School.”
Then there’s the example set by San Antonio Spurs’ head coach Greg Popovich, who, if possible, may be even more of a hard-ass than Belichick.
Describing his own coaching style, Popovich said the following: “if it’s Tim Duncan and it’s a timeout and I don’t think he’s doing what he should be doing, I’ll ask him, “Are you gonna rebound tonight? Are you gonna rebound at all? Or are you just gonna walk up and down [the court]?”
Unfortunately for the Celtics, this means Stevens might not be the right guy to help lead the team to banner eighteen — and he may ultimately be better suited for assistant coaching duties than those of a head coach…
Now, before the Celtics’ fans and media all too predictably rally to Stevens’ defense and dismiss any criticism of his nice-guy attitude out of hand, please remember:
It’s criticism and a bit of negativity which bring out the best in us.
Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics will be better off once the fans and media have learned to stop viewing everything the coach and team does through the thick, green haze of optimism currently permeating everything Celtics.
So take note, Celtics fans. Take note.
Thanks for reading. I’d love to read about what you think in comments.