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Boston's Pop: can Brad Stevens build the Celtics like Popovich built the Spurs?

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When Danny Ainge signed Brad Stevens to a 6-year, $22 million contract to coach the Boston Celtics, he wasn't thinking about a quick fix. It was an investment in the future that fans will have to be patient with to pay off.

Jared Wickerham

Last summer, Danny knew it.  He needed to finally fold.  A series of pragmatic moves in those final days of that fateful June belied his reputation as a gambler.  He traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn and said goodbye to Doc Rivers.  They had been his aces for so long and after a six-year run that produced Banner 17 and two trips to the NBA Finals, it was time to cash in his chips and live to play another day.

But before pushing away from the table, he made one final wager.  It wasn't a futures bet that was going to pay off in a year or even two.  Instead, The Gambler made a smart investment, one that looked more like a well thought out retirement plan rather than a long shot Hail Mary on the ponies or a bounce of a roulette ball or even worse, the NBA Lottery.

He hired Brad Stevens.

With his roster decimated and his only star player, Rajon Rondo, still recovering from knee surgery, Ainge knew the overhaul would be long.  There was the Love affair and promises of fireworks a year later, but Ainge knew that the chances of another worst-to-first makeover would be unlikely; the new CBA incentivized players to hit free agency and Boston had never been an attractive destination for the NBA elite.  With the Celtics looking at a brick one rebuild, he needed to find a coach that could build from the inside out, develop young talent, and create an identity from top to bottom.

In retrospect, I think if Ainge had seen a realistic opportunity for a quick turnaround, he might have gone another way with his head coaching hire and picked someone more senior with a little more gravitas.  Had Ainge pulled the trigger on the Ray Allen/O.J. Mayo deal, sent Paul Pierce to New Jersey and drafted Damian Lillard with the lottery pick, and/or flipped Garnett for Josh Smith, Doc could have stayed or been replaced by a Van Gundy or George Karl.  Instead, he wiped the slate completely clean and brought in a guy that wouldn't have to coach with expectations on his shoulders.  He could build the team the way he wanted to (for the most part) without the distractions of a "Big Three" label.  This was going to be his team.

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At Butler, Stevens had developed a reputation of doing more with less and bringing tiny Butler University to the national stage, culminating in back-to-back trips to the championship game of the Final Four.  The Bulldogs consistently finished at the top of the Horizon League and repeatedly knocked off a number of national powerhouses who dared to schedule them.  Gordon Hayward has been Stevens' most successful player in the pros and a living testament to his coaching and player development abilities; Hayward wasn't exactly a heralded high school player and Stevens' success at Butler had come with only two four-star recruits in six seasons.  Danny must have seen the parallels between what Stevens was doing at Butler and what the Celtics would be facing over the next couple of seasons.  The Celtics were going to be young and raw and Ainge needed somebody that could beat the odds and make them a winner again.

However, the NBA doesn't exactly write Cinderella stories.  The pro game is geared towards stars, stars win games, and superstars win championships.  NBA GM's have become more like trading card collectors, overlooking how players fit together in favor of fantasy stats and name recognition.  But once in a while, glass slippers can beat a pair of LeBrons and Durants.  Ladies and gentlemen, your 2013-2014 world champion San Antonio Spurs.

Well, it would be irresponsible to call the Spurs underdogs.  It would probably just piss them off anyway.  Actually, no.  The Spurs don't get pissed off.  They just do what they do and have been doing for the last two decades.  They've been the model of sustained success in the NBA by winning five championships under Gregg Popovich and yet, for the last sixteen years, they've gone against the NBA grain.  While rivals struggle to find the next so-and-so, Pop and the Spurs spend their days figuring out how their players can help the team.

Sure, they landed Hall-of-Famers David Robinson and Tim Duncan with #1 picks, but those drafts were ten years apart, a lifetime in the NBA.  Both were franchise-shifting players, but it's not as if the Spurs have been stocking young talent with lottery picks since 1997.  Tony Parker was picked at the back end of the first round and Manu Ginobili was a second round flyer.  There biggest draft splash of late was trading for the 15th picked Kawhi Leonard and even the 2014 Finals MVP wasn't exactly a sure thing.  No, they've just been killing it with guys like Splitter and Diaw and Bowen and Bonner.  They're almost never mentioned in trade rumors or in the market for a big free agent during the trade deadline or in the off-season.  Think about the Celtics-and really, the rest of the league--since 2007.  The conversation with contenders always centers around adding a big name to other big names, but I think that's going to change in Boston eventually.  Keyword: "eventually."

When the Celtics visited the Spurs last November, Pop said that he'd watch Butler games to see if he could pick things up from Stevens and preached patience as the Celtics embarked on their rebuild:

"In this league, with the number of games, and as talented as teams are . . . patience is probably a big commodity, especially in someone's situation who's used to winning night after night after night.

"It's a little bit different when you're rebuilding a program, and so patience on everybody's part is really important, and Danny [Ainge] has it and he understands the situation, and all it will do is improve as time goes on, guaranteed."

After a flurry of seemingly inconsequential trades last season and this summer, the narrative around the Celtics has been that Ainge is simply gathering assets to make a big move in the future.  That could still happen, but if a deal doesn't materialize, I'm comforted in Pop's guarantee.  Pop trusts Danny and Danny trusts Brad and Pop trusts Brad, too.  Trader Danny will always have his finger on the trigger if the right trade comes around, but think about the blank canvas that Stevens has to work with.

Skeptics will point to the collective 559-900 record of college coaches that left for the NBA as a depressing harbinger of Stevens' future demise, but the circumstances are very different for Brad.  When Calipari went to New Jersey, the Nets toiled for years trading mediocre talent for mediocre talent without a clear vision in mind.  Carlesimo inherited an older Blazers team in Portland that was playing out the final days of their primes.  Pitino is the closest contemporary to Brad Stevens, but they couldn't be more different.  Pitino's egomaniacal personality is well documented (Kirk Minihane's recollection of his reign of terror is a must read) and if Stevens' first year is any indication, win or lose, his Celtics career won't end in flames.

Already, he's exhibited the ability to get his players to play hard despite the circumstances.  Entering last season, everybody knew the team was rebuilding.  Anybody could have been traded (and many of them were), but not before Stevens got them playing to their potential (re: Jordan Crawford, Courtney Lee, and Kris Humphries).  And for the players coming back this year, you can see how he doesn't pigeonhole his players and instead, challenges them to expand their games.  He stresses process over results and has won over the "super stubborn" Rajon Rondo.

One year doesn't make an NBA coaching career, but it is a good start to what might be a long road.  Remember, after spending over two years as GM of the Spurs, Popovich took over for Bob Hill in 1996 and it took three seasons until they won their first championship in that lockout-shortened 1999 season and another four until they hit their stride of Larry O'Briens in '03, '05, and '07.  At Media Day on Friday, Pop talked about how luck played a big part in winning titles, but that's just the midwestern modesty that he shares with Stevens talking.  The Spurs have consistently been 50+ game winners under Pop and always in contention.  They've valued culture over looking for the next best thing and outsmarted the competition by doing it their way.  "Brad, that trade for Kevin Love fell through and I just got a call from Durant's agent.  He's either signing with the Knicks or the Lakers.  But here's a stable of draft picks and I've cleared some cap space.  It's your move."  Maybe that's a bigger burden to put on Brad Stevens and gives Ainge a pass if he can't strike it rich with a big deal.

On a personal note, I kinda hope it goes that way.  Tomorrow is Media Day and for writers like myself, it marks the last day that we blog about the hypothetical and what moves the team could make to get better and more importantly, it's the first day when we start talking about what the players we do have can bring to the table and how it all works in terms of the team.  It's the NBA springtime and I always get the sense that that's always the case with Pop and the Spurs.  I have to think that that's what Ainge was thinking when he named Brad Stevens the 17th head coach of the Boston Celtics.  The franchise has always had a dynastic quality but the last 25 years have produced one banner from 7 bench bosses with only Doc coaching for more than five years.  Tomorrow will mark the second year in Stevens' six-year contract with the team and most predict another rough season for Boston.  He'll have to coach through more Rondo noise while he recovers from his broken hand, muddle through trade rumors surrounding his vets, and juggle minutes between ten players 26-years-old and younger.

Patience, everybody.