Brad Stevens was hired as the Boston Celtics head coach prior to the 2013-14 season. Danny Ainge had just traded away Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and it was clear the team was kicking off a rebuild. Stevens had Rajon Rondo to spearhead those efforts, but he was coming off a torn ACL and wouldn’t be available until later in the season. Upon Rondo’s return, it was clear he wasn’t the same All-Star-level player that he had been prior to his injury. At that point, all attention shifted to bundle of picks acquired from the Brooklyn Nets in return for Pierce and Garnett. All in all, the Celtics had three first-round picks and the rights to swap another. Since that point, #NetsPick had become the apple of Celtics Nation’s eye.
Ainge continued his aggressive rebuild by trading Rondo the next year and executing several other deals to ship away role players and to continue adding more draft picks to his treasure chest. By the time the smoke cleared, the Celtics were a playoff team again, even advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals just a scant four years after the rebuild began.
Over the course of those four years a whopping 42 different players appeared in at least one regular season game for Boston. That is a number reflecting a rebuilding team. In fact, the Philadelphia 76ers, who have been in their “Trust the Process” phase during that same period, have taken a similar approach. They’ve cycled through players and collected draft picks while hoping to catch lightning in a bottle and find themselves a franchise player. Assuming health and continued development, Philadelphia seems well on their way with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz.
The difference between the Celtics and 76ers? Philly hasn’t sniffed the playoffs in the last five years. The Celtics had a one-year absence and steadily climbed the standings since then, going from 12th to 7th to 5th to 1st in the East. After this summer’s wheeling and dealing saw the Celtics turn over all but four players, Marcus Smart stands as Boston’s longest-tenured player, stretching all the way back to his rookie year in 2014-15. While watching the revolving door of players come and go, only Stevens remains from when that rebuild kicked off in the summer of 2013.
That much improvement, while turning over the roster as such a rapid rate, only comes with consistency somewhere in the organization. For the Celtics, that consistency comes from Stevens. Not unlike Sam Hinkie down I-95 a ways, Stevens has stressed that it is a process. He prefers to take steps in increments towards the big picture, as opposed to working backwards towards the details. This approach has allowed him to start and re-start the team building process over and over again, as Ainge completes trade after trade.
But, much like the Drake song states: “we started from the bottom, now we’re here.” Despite seeing 11 players who finished last year with the Celtics, many of them contributors, Boston isn’t building a contender. The time for contention is already here. Stevens no longer has the affordability of building slowly. Sure, the Celtics may get off to a slow start as the team gels, but they had better be ready to win when it really matters in the postseason.
How do they get there? By trusting the guy who has the process down pat. Stevens will experiment early on, likely by playing as many as 11 to 12 guys regularly and shuffling lineup combinations from game to game. This has been his approach every season, and with 11 new players, there is no reason to adjust that now. Only Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and Kyrie Irving seem like locks to start from night to night. The other spots can and will be filled by any number of other Celtics.
Ainge has given Stevens an incredibly versatile roster, capable of going big or small on offense or defense. This fits Stevens’ style, which eschews traditional designations like point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center. Heck, he even goes away from guard, forward and center. Stevens plays what he calls ball handlers, wings and bigs. Anyone who can fill multiple roles is a swing. The Celtics roster is stocked with wings and swings, has more than enough ball handlers, but seems a touch short in the big department. That problem is on Ainge to address with the final open roster spot.
In less than a month, Brad Stevens will take the court to lead his team through his fifth training camp. This time it feels different—instead of hope and optimism, there are expectations. Banner-18-level expectations. The good thing for the Celtics is that the man on the sideline seems like the guy to lead them there.
Last February, Stevens coached the Eastern Conference in the NBA All-Star Game. He earned this honor because his team was in first place at mid-season. While it was fun to see Isaiah Thomas take part in All-Star Weekend festivities and to see Stevens on the sideline, there was also some buzz in the building. Several players commented on Stevens’ approach throughout the weekend, which included a montage of each player’s journey to become an All-Star and teaching a complex offense in a simple, plug-and-play fashion. Players from both conferences came away impressed with his calm demeanor, understanding of the game, and knowledge. Even in that short snippet, Stevens was laying groundwork for the future.
In the beginning of June, CelticsBlog talked with several free agents about the importance of the Boston fan base, culture and other topics. Stevens was prominently mentioned in those conversations as well. In the introductory press conference for Hayward and Irving, both directly mentioned Stevens as a key reason for their desire to be with the Celtics.
Hayward isn’t really a surprise. He and Stevens have a relationship that goes back over a decade, to his recruitment to Butler. While he downplayed it some when he was going through the free-agent process, Hayward admitted later that Stevens was a key reason for him choosing Boston over Utah and Miami. The two share a special connection that isn’t common among NBA circles, where players and coaches come and go with regularity.
Irving was a different story. Outside of that brief All-Star experience this year, he’d never played for Stevens. Sure, they had some familiarity from being Eastern Conference competitors, but there was no real relationship. But in his press conference, Irving said “the Celtics were always prepared. You could tell that immediately when you played them.” He followed that up by answering a question about whether Stevens was a direct reason he is excited to be in Boston with, “Yes, his system. I can be taught, while growing. I can gain and share knowledge.”
When you break it down, the haul from the Nets picks is a bit of a mixed bag. James Young was the first draftee, and he flamed out after just a few years, the Celtics declining his fourth-year team option. Jaylen Brown was next. He had a solid enough rookie year and is showing promise. Tasked with a much larger role as a sophomore, Brown is poised to step forward in 2018. The 2017 pick was the swap, and while lottery luck shined on Boston for the first time, Ainge then moved back to draft Jayson Tatum and pick up an additional first-round pick. Tatum impressed in Summer League, but that is a long way from real NBA production. The 2018 Nets pick, and the last of that impressive haul, was shipped to Cleveland, along with Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, as part of the package to acquire Irving.
But the Nets picks were never the best asset Boston had. Neither was Rajon Rondo, who was never the same after tearing his ACL. Neither was Isaiah Thomas, who blossomed into an All-NBA player. Nor will it be Hayward or Irving. The best asset Boston has will never score a point, but he draws up the plays that get those points, including some of the best after-time-out plays the league has seen. He sets the defenses that have consistently outperformed their projection by ensuring that the whole is better than the sum of its parts. Brad Stevens is the Celtics’ best recruiter. He’s the reason players want to be in Boston. Brad Stevens is unquestionably the Celtics’ best asset.