Nearly everything about this year’s Celtics team has been unexpected. They came into the 2017-18 campaign with four players from the season prior, and even though Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were on the roster, the Celtics weren’t pegged as a squad that could contend for a title right away.
The Irving trade was finalized at the end of August, leaving only a month and a half until the regular season began. Brad Stevens faced a tall task in implementing two superstar-caliber players into his system, but throughout the preseason it seemed that his players bought in and trusted each other on the floor. Boston won all of their preseason games, and there were plenty of signs that this team would be a special group quicker than we originally thought.
The team and their fans had to be feeling pretty good as the clash with the Cavaliers on opening night came. Irving, Hayward, and Horford were going to be a multi-faceted offensive machine that other teams could only hope to slow down. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were not only going to contribute, but make strides towards their own stardom. On top of it all, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier were set to lead a second unit of exciting new players to make the Celtics must-watch basketball on any given night.
The preparation and excitement for this new team vanished in about five minutes. When Hayward suffered that terrible left ankle injury and was expected to miss the rest of the season, the Celtics were in a vulnerable state.
Stevens had to not only handle the emotional aspect of bringing his team together on the fly after such an event, but he had to figure out what his strategy would look like game-to-game without his second best scorer. As most of us recall, the Celtics lost to Cleveland and then dropped their home opener to Milwaukee the next night. Boston didn’t have the same expectations as teams like Houston, Golden State, or Oklahoma City coming into the year. But now with Hayward out, they were all but written off.
The Celtics then went on to win 16 games in a row, re-cementing themselves as one of the NBA’s elite teams. Behind the league’s best defense, Stevens was able to bring together a team that had never played with each other before, endure a gruesome injury to a top player, and then help vault them into title contention.
Fast forward about five months. The Celtics have passed the 50-win threshold for the second year in a row. They are well on their way to secure a better record than a season ago, a feat that every Stevens-coached Celtics teams have achieved in his first five seasons. Brad Stevens has put together the finest coaching job of his career, and with the regular season coming to end, the NBA’s Coach of the Year award should be all his.
The Celtics have consistently had a top five net rating all season with a roster containing five rookies and what seems like an endless amount of injuries. Other than Hayward, the Celtics’ main rotation players—Irving, Horford, Brown, Tatum, Smart, Rozier, Morris— have missed a combined 82 games this season. That’s not to mention Daniel Theis missing the latter part of the year with a meniscus tear.
A new roster, an inexperienced bench, and injuries to key players haven’t seemed to doom the Celtics, especially against the top teams in the NBA. The Celtics have the best record in the league against the NBA’s top eight teams:
The Celtics weren’t expected to have this kind of success against teams of this caliber, yet Stevens has found a way to put his players in position to do that. They have made a habit of winning games they weren’t supposed to, typically it comes in comeback fashion and most of the time, it’s in miraculous comeback fashion.
Our most recent instance was of course the win in Utah last night. The Celtics were on the road against a Jazz team that had won eight of its last 10 games without Irving, Smart, Horford, Morris, Theis, and Hayward. They faced a double digit second half deficit, but managed to pull out the victory with great defense and some timely shots, leading to this beauty for the win:
Here's your Jaylen Brown game winner. Celtics win 97-94 pic.twitter.com/0SXynn1H9O— CelticsBlog (@celticsblog) March 29, 2018
It’s hard to develop a culture so quickly where your players play their hardest even when they’re down 26 to the Rockets, or 17 down against the defending champion Warriors. How about a 18-point deficit against Charlotte without Irving, Hayward, and Horford? Stevens has enabled his players to step into bigger roles to the point where his team is built to sustain losses and keep winning.
So you're saying there's a chance... pic.twitter.com/LEEXfueFXf— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) March 29, 2018
This is not about discrediting Dwane Casey, Brett Brown, or a handful of other deserving coaches and what they’ve done this season. They’ve both put together strong seasons that are unexpected in their own right. This is about acknowledging all that Brad Stevens has accomplished with a brand new roster stricken by injuries and a number of nearly insurmountable deficits in his way.
If voters feel that another coach has done more for his team this season than Stevens, fine. For me, there’s a clear-cut choice here. If Stevens isn’t the NBA’s Coach of the Year after this season, then I don’t know how to evaluate these subjective awards anymore. I’d probably just give up getting all worked up about them and refocus my energy on posting memes or something.