For the first time in his NBA coaching career, Brad Stevens entered the 2019-20 season looking for redemption. A coach whose stock had been on an upward trajectory since joining the NBA ranks in 2013, Stevens found himself under a microscope following the Celtics dismal 2018-19 season, where they were unceremoniously dumped out of the playoffs in the second round. It wasn’t just the underwhelming exit, but how the team chemistry never felt right all year.
A summer of turbulence saw Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris, and Aron Baynes depart. Then Kemba Walker was acquired from Charlotte in a sign-and-trade involving the outspoken Terry Rozier who blasted the team’s leadership during an ESPN carwash. Rebounding help in Enes Kanter quickly followed, and a slew of young talent was incorporated courtesy of the 2019 NBA Draft. This was going to be a fresh start.
It appeared Boston had been weakened and that their championship aspirations were on hold as the team rebuilt from within. While those assumptions were partially correct in replacing Horford’s impact, Stevens found a way to elevate the Celtics via internal development and smart schemes that accentuated individuals’ talents.
Under the former Butler Bulldogs head coach, Jayson Tatum developed into an All-Star while Jaylen Brown displayed his own individual growth throughout the NBA bubble. Stevens has a knack for drawing the best out of his squad while implementing improvement plans that are visibly paying dividends.
Yet, for all the positives, there are inevitably some negatives. Adjusting on the fly is a prerequisite of coaching at the NBA level. Adjust too soon and teams know they have you, too late and you find yourself clawing out of a deficit. Stevens tends to err on the side of lateness in this regard, opting to allow his players ample time to figure it out. Spoiler alert: they usually don’t.
Early in the season, the Celtics found themselves in a slump, stuttering to start games. Those slow starts cost Boston multiple winnable games, creating anxiety amongst the fan base. Stevens caught fire for those poor performances, as he stood on the sidelines unwilling to make the changes.
Outside of the Indiana native’s tentativeness, Stevens was also under the microscope for his unwillingness to give the new influx of rookies valuable minutes on the floor. The problem was that Boston was a contending team. Minutes aren’t given; they’re earned. Players such as Romeo Langford and Grant Williams had multiple spells in the rotation based on their defensive play, but when the roster was at full strength, Stevens went with his veterans as he prioritized wins (as he should).
Outside of these two gripes, Stevens had an impressive season. He implemented a new system to incorporate a hockey rotation of bigs, pivoted seamlessly whenever injuries occurred (and they occurred a lot), oversaw gigantic leaps from multiple players, and all while developing future rotation pieces such as Grant Williams.
Despite the topsy-turvy regular season performances, Stevens still impressed the front office, leading to a contract extension - the duration of which is undisclosed, as the team entered the NBA bubble.
Then the playoffs began.
The Celtics made light work on an unbalanced Sixers team missing one of their stars in Ben Simmons, before entering a battle for the ages against 2019 champions, the Toronto Raptors. In Nick Nurse, Stevens found himself facing off against someone many consider his equal if not his superior.
Despite Nurse throwing the kitchen sink at the Celtics, Stevens and his team emerged victorious. Then, against the Miami Heat, those discrepancies that had become questionable earlier in the season reared their ugly heads again.
The Heat are a gritty, well-coached team, but on paper, the Celtics should have steamrollered their way into the The NBA Finals. Yet, Stevens didn’t ring the changes when the Heat went on runs, which cost them on multiple occasions. Furthermore, Miami’s inverted zone was practically impenetrable to Boston throughout the series, which placed Stevens schemes under intense scrutiny.
Alas, Erik Spoelstra won the coaching battle, and the Heat ended the season as Eastern Conference champions, while the Celtics look back at another conference finals that didn’t go their way.
And it’s those Eastern Conference finals that currently define Stevens tenure in Boston. This year was the Celtics’ third trip to the conference finals in the last four seasons, each time falling short. Stevens entered this year with a point to prove: by overseeing this young Celtics roster devoid of any real bench talent to yet another conference finals, redemption was undoubtedly achieved.
Now, all that’s left to do is finally break into the big show, and then anything is possible.