After coaching the Boston Celtics for nearly eight years, Brad Stevens was subsequently promoted and usurped Danny Ainge after he decided it was time to retire. This is a massive development for the Celtics and drastically changes how they will approach improving the team in the off-season.
As the former head coach of the team, Brad Stevens knows first hand what his predecessor will need to succeed and has hopefully learned not to make the same mistakes Ainge did. In this article, I will be analyzing what exactly Stevens will prioritize this offseason and why his experience as a coach is so pivotal to the C’s getting back to contender status.
For starters, let’s look at what Ainge’s shortcomings were to assess what exactly Stevens will avoid doing. After 2018, Ainge’s proficiency as a GM fell off of a cliff. He was less decisive, less aggressive, and less attentive to what his teams needed to get to the next level.
After Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown led the Celtics to the gate of the finals, only to be stopped by Lebron James, it was clear that they were going to need room to blossom next season. With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returning, along with all the other players who had helped the Jays achieve such great playoff success, it was clear that there would not be enough ball to go around. But Ainge did not see it this way.
He kept the group together and thought it best to let Stevens figure it out. As good as Stevens was, not even he could figure out how to properly distribute possession time between 6 creators. The Boston Celtics barely scraped together 49 wins and ended up being the #4 seed in the Eastern Conference, where they swept the injured Pacers but got pummeled in the second round by the Bucks.
This led to five of the Celtics’ key rotational players walking out, leaving only Tatum, Brown, Smart, and Hayward for Stevens to work with.
The key takeaway from that season was Ainge’s inability to move on from the teams’ struggling pieces such as Rozier at the deadline. He sat on his hands and watched as Stevens struggled to manage so many star-level players that wanted star-level possession time. His failure to bring in players that could succeed without the ball and failure to move on from players that did not fit the mold before it was too late cost the Boston Celtics.
When Ainge had a chance to rebound, he failed the following off-season. He lost Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris, and Al Horford for nothing and paid a ball-dominant point guard max money who would only hold the Jays and the franchise’s cap space back. Without using hindsight unfairly, there was not much Ainge could have done about the guys he let walk but the Kemba Walker signing was not a good one from the get-go.
The C’s came out firing and sat at the top of the conference for a majority of the first 3rd of the 2019-20 season. Walker was playing like an All-NBA caliber player and Tatum and Brown were both showing signs of being on the fringe of their star leap, which they took just a month or two later. Despite the success early on, the Celtics had some glaring holes on the roster that needed to be patched up before the deadline.
They were undersized and undermanned, which would not bode well in the playoffs. Ainge was reportedly in pursuit of both Bertans and Christian Wood, but both deals fell short and the C’s came out of the deadline with nothing.
This failure to bring in reinforcements was on full display in the Eastern Conference finals when the Boston Celtics could not guard the paint or muster up the firepower without Tatum or Brown supplying it for them against the Miami Heat. With Hayward injured and Walker’s knee bothering him, Boston’s nonexistent depth ended up being the dagger in the C’s promising season.
Even though the Cs were disappointed after getting upset by the Heat, there was a lot to look forward to. Tatum and Brown had taken the first-star leap, Smart look amazing throughout the entire playoff run and they would have three first-round picks in the upcoming draft. But the following off-season did not bear the fruit Celtics fans were hoping for.
Ainge could not move Kemba Walker off of the roster and spent so much time trying to sing and trade Hayward that all the free agents were signed by the time he finished and he traded only one of Boston’s three first-round picks…and he ended up being the best player out of the three.
Ainge ended up having to settle for Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague in free agency and opted to sit on the TPE until the trade deadline.
Not addressing the clear holes in the Boston Celtics’ roster showed in the regular season as the Celtics struggled to string together wins and defend at a high level. There was no consistent shooting, no high-level passing, and no depth for Stevens to fall back on… again. It was as if Ainge hadn’t even watched the 2020 playoffs.
Luckily for the fans, the team, and Ainge he was able to acquire Evan Fournier who would help their shooting, passing, and depth woes. Unluckily, Fournier was not healthy and only played 16 games for the Celtics. This lack of availability hurt Stevens, who anticipated the sub-All-Star level wing to run his bench units. Fournier’s stroke of bad luck was no one’s fault, but Stevens still suffered from it regardless.
Now we are here, Ainge is out and Stevens is in. With all of Ainge’s shortcomings laid out and explained, what can we expect Brad Stevens to do differently?
First and foremost, do not expect Stevens to be overly protective of the C’s draft capital. He has never been fond of playing rookies or second-year players that are not ready for the speed of the NBA, so he will likely look to trade the Boston Celtics’ picks for NBA-ready players or favor third or fourth-year players with low ceilings but high floors. There is no problem with this mentality. It’s what Boston needs if they want to start seriously contending.
Secondly, expect Stevens to favor free agents and trade targets from contending or high-level playoff teams. He loves disciplined players that have experience playing for elite coaches that orchestrate high-caliber offenses and defenses.
Thirdly, don’t expect Stevens to chase big names. As a former coach at Butler, who did not attract big-name prospects, and the former coach of a team whose big-name free agents and trade targets failed them, I would be shocked if Stevens began his career as the Boston Celtics’ GM chasing big-name stars.
At some point, he will have to but this offseason is all about retooling which means there’s no reason to waste it bargaining for a star that won’t put them over the top. Instead, Stevens will likely look to surround the Jays with lesser-known role players that can contribute and play within their role.
Lastly, Stevens will look to bolster Boston’s defense before he does their offense. He already showed as much in landing Al Horford and Moses Brown for Kemba Walker. As a defensive savant, Stevens will be sure his Celtics teams are always at the top of the league in defensive rating. That does not mean he will not prioritize bringing incompetent offensive players, it just means he won’t bring in many defensive liabilities.
Stevens has been regarded as one of the smartest minds in the NBA community, that’s not going to change now that he’s a general manager. He knows what Boston’s future head coach will need to succeed and he knows who specifically can make that happen. Expect Stevens to have an active off-season acquiring cheap veterans and dealing the C’s younger assets.