25. 40. 48. 53.
12th. 7th. 5th. 1st.
0. 0. 2. 9.
The above represents the Boston Celtics win totals, final place in the Eastern Conference standings and playoff wins in four years under Brad Stevens.
Year one featured an impossible task after Danny Ainge sent Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry off to Brooklyn to kick off a rebuild. Stevens’ best players that year were Rajon Rondo, who was returning from a torn ACL the prior season, and a host of role players that largely were weren’t ready for the bright lights as starters.
Year two saw an unexpected jump under equally as impossible circumstances. By the end of the season, the Celtics had far better talent than the previous year, but getting there was a chore. Ainge swung 10 separate deals over the course of 2014-15 and 22 different players played in at least one game for the Celtics. Boston might as well have installed revolving doors to the team facilities. Having 40 solid practices with that kind of roster turnover would have been an accomplishment. Winning 40 games was a minor miracle.
Year three featured more roster stability and the talent had time to mesh. Injuries wrecked any hope at a postseason run, but the foundation was in place.
This past year, year four, everything came together. The Celtics finished atop the East in the regular season and won two playoff series before falling the Cavaliers in the Conference Finals. It wasn’t an easy task even making it that far. Al Horford joined the team and had to be integrated in and Avery Bradley missed considerable time with assorted injuries. Stevens also had to balance minutes for youngsters like Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier against relying on his veterans to win games. While that “problem” is enviable and most coaches would like to have it, Stevens still had to navigate those waters.
Over the course of the four years, several questionable talents have blossomed while playing for Stevens. Jordan Crawford turned into a viable rotation player, while Evan Turner was so good he landed a massive contract of $70 million plus over four years. Also, Stevens isn’t owed all the credit for Isaiah Thomas’ emergence as an All-Star and All-NBA player, as that would be wildly unfair to Thomas. But Stevens, starting two years ago when Thomas was acquired at the trade deadline, put the ball in his hands and let him go. Unfettered for the first time, Thomas has ascended to levels no one could have imagined. It takes a certain amount of courage for a coach to build and offense based around a 5’9’’ guard, but Stevens not only did it, but has thrived with it.
In the 2016-17 season, Stevens incorporated Horford’s unique skillset, as Boston regularly ran large chunks of the offense through Horford. But that took time to come together, witness the Celtics hovering around .500 early in the year. And just as things were coming together, Horford missed time with injury. Once the playoff push began in earnest around the All-Star break, the team hit their stride and Horford’s value as a playmaking big man was fully seen. It was a process that took a while to come to fruition, but when it did it was great.
In the playoffs, Stevens’ real ability showed. He made timely lineup adjustments in both the Chicago and Washington series, calling upon deep bench players to make positive impacts. And then there was his masterful ATO work in the lone win against Cleveland. While the Celtics fell short of their ultimate goal, they were in the mix. Beating the Cavaliers, never mind the Warriors, was always a stretch. But to be there is part of the process.
Part of that process also included Stevens being the head coach of the Eastern Conference All-Star team. CelticsBlog had a chance to talk to several players and agents about their experience with Stevens in New Orleans for All-Star weekend and here is bit of what they said:
“You kind of hear how smart the guy is, but to see it up close is cool. He’s a real player’s coach. And the guy has no ego at all. Just a cool cat that was real chill. Made for a fun weekend and makes you wonder what it would be like to play for him.”
“He doesn’t get real animated, but you can still tell he wants to win. And he believes you win by doing the little things right. I’ve been to a few of these (All-Star games) and practice is usually really loose. I mean, no one really cares. But he put in a few simple sets and we messed them up. He didn’t get mad, but made us run them again until we got them right. That was cool to see in person.”
“As an agent, I get asked about Brad a lot by my players. They usually have a sense that he’s really quiet and a different kind of guy. But then they get around him and they realize he has a fire burning in him to win. And players like that about him. He isn’t the show, they are. And that video he and the staff put together, went a long way with a lot of players.”
The “video” that the agent referenced was a presentation that Stevens and his staff put together for the Eastern Conference All-Stars. It showed their journey from playing basketball as kids to high school to college to the NBA. It is believed that the video was intended to honor the players journey along the way to becoming an NBA All-Star and the hard work and sacrifice it took to get there. Several players commented on how much it meant to them that Stevens and crew took the time to put it together as part of the All-Star prep process.
When the playoffs started, Isaiah Thomas experienced a personal tragedy with the loss of his younger sister in a car accident. Any NBA organization would have allowed their player to step away and take care of himself and his family. But the Celtics went above and beyond, by making it known that Thomas didn’t have to return at all until he was ready. Thomas ended up missing no games and Boston made sure he had all the arrangements he needed to travel back and forth from coast to coast and in between, as necessary. As Thomas’ family needed him, his Celtics family rallied around him with Stevens and Ainge leading the charge. And that sense of family wasn’t lost on those around the NBA that are outside of the Celtics organization. Going from a team to a family is part of the process.
Process is a word Stevens likes to use a lot. In his first year in Boston, the phrase “It’s a process” was uttered more than any other. Process can mean something different to different people. Process is also often used interchangeably with progress. While those two words are just a few letters off, they mean very different things. Process is how you get there. Progress is getting there. Sometimes the process to progress involves taking steps backwards. Fortunately for the Celtics, those steps backwards haven’t really happened. Each year under Stevens the team has been better than the year before.
There is an old saying in the NBA that goes something like: “It isn’t very hard to jump from bad to good. It is very hard to jump from good to great.” That is where the Celtics are now. They are a good team, but they aren’t quite great yet. Winning the conference in the regular season isn’t the goal, winning the conference in the playoffs is. Even competing for titles isn’t enough in Boston. Winning them is what matters. Those 17 banners hanging in the TD Garden are cool and they mean a lot, but the next one is the one players, coaches, fans, etc. want. And the Celtics have one of the best on the sideline to lead them through the process to get there.