During his introductory press conference on Friday, an introspective Kyrie Irving talked about his development as a player and learning from LeBron James. But after three straight trips to the Finals and one championship, Irving decided to put his best interests first and requested a trade from Cleveland with “no other ulterior reasons than wanting to be happy and wanting to be somewhere where it’s an environment where it’s conducive to maximizing my potential.” Furthermore:
“I can’t wait to get on the floor to maximize my potential,” Irving said at his introductory news conference in Boston on Friday. “I just want to be around those incredible coaches, those incredible minds, those incredible individuals and I felt like in doing that Boston came at the right exact time and it was meant to be that way. I trust in that, and I’m glad to be here.”
“Potential.” That was the buzz word. The introspective Irving knows what’s at stake here. He’ll be expected to not only reach his potential in Boston, but but be a tide that raises all ships and eventually, another banner to the rafters. That’s a lot of pressure on a 25-year-old—even one that’s battle-tested by deep playoff runs and performed at the highest level of The Finals—but Irving knows what nearly every player, particularly point guards, knows when they join the Celtics: Brad Stevens will make them better.
Remember Jordan Crawford? Steez was Stevens’ first Daniel LaRusso to his Miyagi. While Rajon Rondo recovered from a torn ACL, the rookie head coach leaned on the quirky PG for the first half of the 2013-2014 season. Crawford’s 14-6-3 a night aren’t gaudy numbers. He shot only 41.3% from the field, but that’s in large part due to Stevens’ analytical approach to the game. If you’ve got a three, shoot it (more on that later).
What jumps off the box score are Crawford’s assist numbers. He averaged a career-high 5.7 assists as a primary ball handler for Stevens for a team that didn’t really have a lot of finishers on the roster; Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, and Jared Sullinger shot 41.2%, 43.8%, and 42.7% from the field respectively. After Stevens built up his value, Ainge traded Crawford to the Warriors and netted three second round picks. Crawford would fizzle out in Golden State and was out of the league the following year.
When asked how he turned the mercurial into a valuable asset to his team and later for Ainge to trade, Stevens told then Grantland’s Zach Lowe:
“It was more about talking collectively about: ‘What do we all do well?’ And then thinking about what our teammates on the floor do well, and how we all can make them better at what they do. There are very few guys in the NBA who don’t have things they don’t do well. Some of the better players don’t have very many, but everybody is here because they have a strength. So you just try to find your strengths and soar with them.”
Crawford in turn has called Brad Stevens his favorite coach and prophetically said, “a couple great free agents that’s going to be out there, I think, would love to come here.” That was back in 2014 before Horford, Hayward, and Irving, but Crawford was the first in a through line of players that would succeed with Stevens after years of not finding a role with other teams.
The following summer, Ainge scoured the NBA’s lost and found for potential reclamation projects. After being the #2 overall pick in 2010, Evan Turner had become an enigma in Philly and a bust in his brief stint in Indiana as a playoff rental. He was the perfect low risk, high reward for Stevens’ Midas touch. Turner had had a history of misuse by Doug Collins and the Sixers, but Stevens wouldn’t make the same mistake.
Collins had said, “when he has the ball in his hands, he’s a totally different player. Evan is a point guard. At the end of the day, he’s a point guard.” Turner started his two-year stop in Boston backing up Rondo at point guard, but after RR was dealt to Dallas, Turner blossomed. He joined the starting lineup and the team finished the season 27-16 and made the playoffs.
Like Crawford, Turner benefited from Stevens’ seemingly laissez faire approach to coach. ET wasn’t exactly an analytics darling, but Stevens embraced what Turner was good at. Turner was murder in the mid-range and even though a 15-footer isn’t exactly the most efficient shot in Stevens’ playbook, he drew up plays for ET because that was ET’s shot.
When Turner returned to Boston as a Trailblazer last season, Turner said, "He definitely gave myself and a lot of guys in that locker room, he kind of helped their career and reenergized it,” reenergized it to the tune of a 4 year, $70M contract in Portland after being labeled as a bust. Turner expanded his praise for his former coach:
"At the end of the day, when it comes down to it, there are like four or five guys in the league that are going to be superstars. The rest of the guys, sometimes you're going to be as good as your coach thinks you are. He definitely helped me out a lot and, like I said, he put me in some positions to be successful. And I think he did that with a lot of my teammates as well. That's a big deal."
Because of Brad Stevens, Crawford and Turner received bumps up in their careers, but those words couldn’t ring more true than for Isaiah Thomas. Thomas is one of those “four or five guys in the league that are going to be superstars” and Stevens helped realize that.
IT is the living, breathing embodiment of what Stevens is all about. Thomas uses all 69 inches of his undersized body to its max potential. Consider the year Thomas put together. Thomas finished third in scoring behind fellow MVP candidates Russell Westbrook and James Harden, but shot a better FG%, 3FG%, and FT% than both. At 5’9, he finished in the top-10 in FGA’s in the restricted area and shot a blistering 37.9% from behind the arc. Thomas had arguably the most efficient offensive season than any Celtic in history. That puts him in the same breath as Bird and Havlicek in their best years.
More importantly than the numbers, Thomas played with a chip on his shoulder and a guiding principle to always get better. His “Pick Me Last Again” mantra is not just a slogan plastered all over South Station. IT's blue collar approach endeared him to his coach and ultimately, the city and the fans.
Unfair or not, that’s the bar that Thomas has set for Irving.
There are doubts that Kyrie has that edge. Haters construe his trade request as an act of ego over team. His history in Cleveland casts a long shadow of doubt. Some might justify his behavior as a product of singing back up to LeBron, but that doesn’t excuse his lackluster defense and his aloofness with teammates and the media. But according to one of Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck’s sources, Kyrie is poised to raise his game:
“He’s evolved more the last three years than anyone else on our team,” says one Cavs official, who declared himself “really bullish” on Irving’s future in Boston. “He’s just scratching the surface of who he can be, and he’s not going to find out playing with [James].”
Guess who else will be in Kyrie’s corner? Brad Stevens.
Stevens was his usual low key self at Hayward and Irving’s introductory presser. If he was excited about adding his former college player and arguably one of the best offensive talents in the league, you wouldn’t know it. Instead, Stevens echoed Irving’s sentiments about having the opportunity to work together for something bigger than themselves: “...we need to set the tone for building a foundation on both ends of the floor. The most important thing to me over the last few years in Boston is that you know what you’re shooting for. That’s a given. That’s what you’re playing for in this facility and at the practice facility. Ultimately, the path is ‘are you getting better?’” While “potential” was the word of the day on Friday, “process” will be the action word on Media Day.
It’s possible that the Stevens’ Effect is overstated, but with this roster, he’ll have the most versatile group he’s ever had in Boston and with Irving, he’ll have the most talented point guard to spark it to life. For now, the Celtics will enter training camp with more questions than answers, more theory than application. Is there as much of a need for Stevens’ motion offense when Kyrie is an offense all unto himself? Surrounded by plus defenders, will Irving be inspired to ramp up his defensive intensity? Will Horford and Hayward ease the burden on Irving’s instinct to be a do-it-all playmaker?
The tactical stuff will all work itself out in the end. We’ve seen Stevens consistently put together winning teams that are greater than the sum of their parts. When asked about playing for Brad Stevens, Kyrie beamed, “he’s always two or three or—let me give him credit—four steps ahead because it’s a constant wave in the game and it can change and go up and down. To understand those frequencies and understand how you still exist and get maximum potential out of who you have on the floor, that’s Coach Stevens.”
The bigger challenge for Stevens presents itself more like a TED Talk than the X’s and O’s on a whiteboard. Former CelticsBlogger and current Ringer Kevin O’Connor pointed to leadership as the next evolution for Irving. Point guard is the glamour position right now in the NBA and because Irving was dealt for a beloved PG in Thomas that breathed life back into the franchise, he’ll be looked at as the de facto leader of the team. Becoming a leader is something that Stevens is familiar with:
As Kevin suggested at CSNNE, Stevens has a keen understanding that leadership for the Celtics has been a group effort, but coaching a player of Irving's caliber could be a different animal. Crawford, Turner, and to a certain extent, Thomas joined rebuilding teams with their own careers needing repair and rejuvenation. They were team players because they had to be team players under Stevens. Thomas flourished under Stevens’ guidance and help propel the Celtics to the #1 seed and subsequently made himself a star.
Kyrie, on the other hand, is already a star and this is a star’s league. Laced into Irving's reverence for Celtic Pride and enthusiasm to start working with his new teammates were hints of self-realization, reaching his potential, and securing his legacy. That could all be presser-speak for Irving after such a bitter breakup with LeBron, but even if some of that is true, it’s really irrelevant.
Some coaches might cower at the prospect of dealing with superstar egos. Others relish the challenge of being a zen master of men. For Stevens, it’s an afterthought. It’s just about always getting better. This may be unfamiliar territory for him. He’s coached average players and made them good. He’s coached good players and made them great. But entering next season, he’ll not only have the ultra talented Irving, but he’ll be charged with Hayward’s prime and the development of a pair of promising #3 picks, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. All eyes will be on Irving, but potentially more significant will be the development of Brad Stevens as a coach.
The 6’1 Depauw point guard from Zionsville, IN has come so far already.