Being an NBA coach is hard. When a team is losing it’s usually the coach that receives the bulk of the blame. Meanwhile when winning the majority of the praise tends to go to the players. Besides that, coaching is the type of job where the threat of being fired is constantly looming like the sword of Damocles hanging precariously overhead, just ask Earl Watson.
There are all types of unique challenges coaches can face in a season. Although usually coaches will have some idea of the types of problems they’ll be dealing with when the season begins.
If coaching a young team then the focus is on development and maximizing potential. If you also have a few highly touted and talented prospects then part of the challenge is figuring out how to unlock their unique skill-sets and maximize their effectiveness for the future while minimizing the damage their inexperience can cause.
If there’s been wholesale roster turnover then the focus is on finding chemistry and consistency amongst new players. If a number of star-level players have also been added then part of the challenge is also about utilizing their unique talents efficiently while finding complimentary pieces to fit.
Of course there are also a number of challenges and problems that can come up entirely unexpectedly like severe injuries to key players or unexpected trades and last-minute roster changes due to all manner of unforeseen circumstances.
Brad Stevens has had to deal with all of these problems all at once. For the Celtics’ head coach this season started with a perfect storm of coaching conundrums.
Firstly, the current Celtics roster is overwhelmingly young with a ton of guys still on rookie contracts. What’s more the roster also features several high-level draft picks with plenty of promise like Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier who have all shown flashes of their potential.
So far Brad’s been able to find minutes for the young guns in his rotations and has used their explosiveness to catch opposing teams off guard. He’s also, for the most part, managed to minimise mistakes by keeping rotations tight and forcing players to earn their minutes.
Outside of their rookies the Celtics saw the majority of their roster replaced during the offseason, with only four players returning from the previous season’s fifteen-man roster, three of them still on rookie-scale contracts. Nonetheless the Celtics have gelled quickly under Stevens and are already showing signs of how well they can work together.
Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have fast formed one of the best two-man games in the league right now with the pair seeming entirely simpatico during their more dominant stretches. While Tatum and Brown have been seamlessly incorporated into the starting lineup, their youth offset by their teammates’ experience and their explosiveness adding an edge to the roster.
Perhaps most impressive of all though is how Brad Stevens has dealt with the loss of the Celtics’ All-Star acquisition and his own long-time protégé and friend Gordon Hayward to injury just minutes into the NBA season. Not only has coach Brad been there for his player and friend – helping to carry Hayward out of Cleveland on a stretcher, arranging for basketballs to be sent to his bedside and ensuring he remains a part of the team by giving him a role as a part of the Celtics’ video analysis crew – but all the while Stevens has kept on coaching and despite the loss of such a key player the Celtics have started the season with a win-streak that has catapulted them to the top of the league standings.
After a disastrous opening game injury that many saw as the end of the team’s 2017 campaign before it even began Stevens and the Celtics have managed to start the season strong, despite all the challenges they face. The team’s collective success is testament to the strength of Stevens’ coaching system.
Obviously Stevens’ plug-and-play, next man up, philosophy has been crucial at a time when the team is without a key player in Gordon Hayward. But more than that, Brad’s assist-orientated offensive sets and his communication-heavy, tight-knit, defensive schemes all force the mostly new roster to work together and learn one another’s strengths and weakness on and off the ball.
For the uninitiated and the yet to be indoctrinated, the Stevens system uses ball-handlers, wings, swings and bigs to keep the ball moving on offense and consistently disrupt on defense. Ultimately the system tends to be a somewhat loose-knit set of standards that can be adapted to suit different players and styles. But like an auteur director there are certain hallmarks to Stevens’ schemes that mark them as his own.
Although Stevens always favors pass-heavy offensive sets he also seems to like ball-dominant guards that can create their own offense and distribute to their teammates – think Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving or to a lesser extent Evan Turner and Rajon Rondo. Really ball-handlers are pretty much point guards, the only caveat is that anyone can be a ball-handler in Stevens’ system, which is why we end up seeing Al Horford or Aron Baynes dishing out from the post so often.
Kyrie Irving has quickly allayed fears about how he would work in such a team-orientated style of play as he has almost perfectly fit into his role as a ball-handler in the Stevens system. His ability to score from pretty much anywhere as well as his skills to find his shot when needed adds an extra edge and dynamic to the Celtics offense that Stevens has only just begun to utilise. So far we’ve only seen glimpses of how good Kyrie can be when used effectively by a great coach, and already we’ve seen a fair share of flair from Uncle Drew.
When Stevens has a unique talent to use he’ll make sure they’re highlighted but otherwise he relies on an almost positionless basketball. This is where wings and swings come into the mix. Most wings are swings and almost all swings can be wings. Marcus Smart, with his ability to play virtually any position, is practically a prototypical swing player and he’s also regularly utilized in the wing position where he can constantly switch between positions and assignments.
This season the Celtics roster is stacked with players that can move between positions due to all the added length and athleticism. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have so far been used heavily in the wing/swing position with their speed and athleticism allowing each of them to constantly switch on defense and consistently run out on fast breaks on offense.
Bigs in the Stevens system are not what they are in the rest of the NBA – lumbering dinosaurs soon to see their extinction courtesy of meteorites flying from behind the three-point line – in the Stevens system bigs are asked to do a lot. Bigs are expected to be able to pass, shoot, defend and do just about anything else you would expect an NBA player to do. The only difference in the Stevens system between bigs and the rest of the team are that bigs are, well, big.
That said the addition of some more traditional big men to the lineup, such as Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis, has allowed the Celtics’ premiere big man Al Horford to let loose on both ends of the floor. With some bigger bodies clogging the paint and banging under the rim Al Horford has been freed up to play how he was supposed to play – as a ball-handling, passing, shooting, defending machine, that also happens to be big.
With such a strong system in place and upgrades up and down the roster perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that the Celtics have dealt with adversity as well as they have to begin the season. Sure, it’s a small sample size and in truth the season has only just started. But this team has already been very impressive. The next step is obviously the hardest, meeting expectations when they’re lowered is easy for anyone to do, maintaining success in less than ideal circumstances is always going to be a challenge.
With Horford currently out due to the NBA’s concussion protocol and Tatum struggling with what’s said to be ‘ankle soreness’ the Celtics could find themselves even more shorthanded going forward. But so far at least, throughout all the tumult and change, throughout all the unique challenges and problems, and even throughout the unexpected and the unthinkable, Coach Brad has maintained his cool, calm, demeanor and the Stevens system has prevailed.