Just 26 months ago, Isaiah Thomas was a 6th man scoring specialist headed to his third team despite being in the league just 4 years (famously drafted at the end of the 2nd round). At that time, Brad Stevens was a young, former college coach trying to prove that he belonged in the NBA (with just a 45-88 record to show for it thus far). Since joining forces, the two have brought out the best in each other and established themselves as stars in the league.
So how did a "college" coach and a "6th man" get to this point? By accentuating their strengths, minimizing their limitations, and by always believing that they were capable of being so much more.
Stevens proved his coaching chops at an early age in college. Actually, he proved it at a younger age than anyone has before.
Often mistaken as a student on Butler’s campus due to his young age and "babyface," Stevens led Butler to a 30-win season in his first year and became the third youngest NCAA Division 1 head coach to win 30 games in his debut season. By the time his six-year coaching career at Butler was finished, he had become the youngest coach to lead his teams to two NCAA Division I Championship games and had broken the national record for most wins in the first three years of coaching.
Danny Ainge knew that he had a special talent when he hired him as the head coach of the Boston Celtics, but his next job was to surround Stevens with talent. The plan was, and perhaps still is, to gather enough assets and roster flexibility to re-create the kind of blockbuster moves that united Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen (along with youngster Rajon Rondo) into a super-team.
Isaiah Thomas was an almost an after-thought trade at the deadline in 2015 and Al Horford was signed as a max contract free agent this past summer. However, Ainge missed out on Kevin Durant and has failed to add another star-level player in that time. Still, that hasn’t stopped the team from improving faster than anyone could have expected. The Celtics went from 25 wins to 53 wins in 3 seasons and much of the credit goes to partnership between Isaiah Thomas and Brad Stevens.
At Butler, Stevens wasn’t blessed with the kinds of All American recruiting classes that other powerhouse schools had. Still, he maximized the talent that he had and promoted a culture of continual improvement. Likewise with the Celtics, Stevens is continually looking for ways to bring out the best in his players while promoting a culture of process-over-results advancement.
Instead of focusing on a player’s shortcomings, Stevens tends to emphasize their strengths. A player like Evan Turner failed at other stops because he wasn’t developing as a shooter, but in Boston he thrived because he was used as a playmaker.
Likewise, Isaiah Thomas has a natural size disadvantage, but his remarkable ability to score in the paint as well as behind the 3 point line has blossomed under the tutelage of Brad Stevens.
It was assumed for years that Isaiah’s scoring bursts were not sustainable over the course of a full game, never mind a full season. He was a great "change of pace guy," but surely nobody that size could stand up to the pounding doled out by men twice his size over the course of the grueling NBA schedule.
Except Thomas was never satisfied with those assumptions and saw himself as a starter and a future star. Brad Stevens was just the coach to take the shackles off and see what he could do.
Stevens stretches the floor by encouraging crisp ball movement and volume 3 point shooting. That forces teams to have to extend their coverage outside the paint which gives the diminutive Thomas the space he needs to operate on drives to the hoop. Isaiah doesn’t need much space either, as he can split a trap or cross up multiple defenders in a blur of motion that’s often hard to follow closely in real-time.
Stevens also frees Thomas up for open looks at 3 point shots by taking Thomas (briefly) off the ball and through a series of screens to give him the ball back with time and space to shoot. Each set also allows Thomas several options to pick from depending on what the defense is giving him and what personnel he has on the floor.
Of course Thomas has made Stevens look good in turn. This league has a way of chewing up and spitting out coaches that don’t produce results and more than a few college coaches retreated to the confines of the NCAA after failing at the next level. Stevens has benefited from Isaiah’s rise to stardom as much as Thomas has benefited from Brad’s belief in him.
The next step for this pair is to take the Boston Celtics from "good" to "great" and from "threat" to "contender" in the playoffs. That next step will likely require adding top level talent to the mix. Critics will wonder if a team relying heavily on Isaiah Thomas has what it takes to be a true Championship contender. But Thomas has been doubted by the best at every level and he keeps proving them wrong.
The doubts will continue to fuel him, but just as important is the belief that his coach has in him. As a pair, who knows what Isaiah Thomas and Brad Stevens can achieve together?