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Can Brad Stevens handle a superstar?

Jayson Tatum is on the doorstep of stardom. Brad Stevens has had mixed results with superstars. How will their relationship shape the future of the Celtics?

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics - Game Three Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Brad Stevens has developed a reputation for being one of the brightest young coaches in the NBA, continually coaching his team to overachievement. The only blemish on the reputation Brad Stevens has developed is his perceived inability to handle the egos of his star-studded Boston Celtics roster of 2018-19, a roster that included superstar Kyrie Irving, returning All-Star Gordon Hayward, and aging stalwart Al Horford.

The narrative which emerged following that fateful season depicted favoritism within the locker room, one which fractured the team spirit and led to confusion on the court. Individual players went on record to show their displeasure in not knowing their role, that the egalitarian brand of basketball Stevens preached failed in its implementation from a coaching standpoint.

‘I feel like Terry Rozier was either in the corner or on the bench’ - Terry Rozier on First Take.

Going to the media to voice displeasure is not something new for NBA players who aren’t getting the minutes they feel they deserve, but what’s interesting in this instance is that these rumblings began once a legitimate superstar lineup saw the floor regularly under Stevens tutelage. This wasn’t a problem with Stevens’ “try hard” squads. Herein lies the million dollar question: with Jayson Tatum emerging as a true superstar, is Brad Stevens capable of handling the trials and tribulations that come with managing a player of that caliber?

As Stevens made the jump to the NBA, he took the reigns of a Celtics team in transition. The 2013-14 Celtics were devoid of any star talent, with their only upper-echelon level player in Rajon Rondo injured for the majority of the season. It wasn’t until the emergence of Isaiah Thomas, along with the addition of Al Horford, that Stevens’ task involved handling star-level talent.

“I wouldn’t have brought him in and given him a six-year contract if I didn’t think he was really good and special,” Ainge said. “I’m the first one to see how special he was. It’s exciting for me everyone else is recognizing that. Brad is one of smartest coaches in the NBA. He’s learning the game, too. It’s exciting for me that Brad is getting the accolades he’s getting, but we’ve always known that about Brad. It’s my opinion that in 10 or 20 years, we’ll be talking about Brad as one of the great coaches to ever coach in the NBA.” - Danny Ainge speaking to NBC Sports in 2015

During the 2016-17 season, the Isaiah Thomas-led Celtics were in full effect, providing a clearer picture of how Stevens utilizes his star talent while keeping true to his egalitarian principles. During that season, there was a clear hierarchy, with the ball finding the two stars in Horford and Thomas regularly. According to NBA Stats, Thomas averaged 85.1 touches per game that season and Horford wasn’t far behind with 67 touches per game; behind them, the touches leveled out among the remainder of the roster with five players averaging 20+ touches per night. That season also saw Stevens continue to operate a deep regular season rotation, with 12 players averaging 10+ minutes per night, all of which were getting the necessary touches to remain effective within the role on the team.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Isaiah Thomas was undoubtedly the star on the year’s roster, having an MVP-caliber season, yet the ball continually found his teammates, and every member of the roster felt valued. The ball continued to move, with the open man being the primary option each trip down the floor. This was the season Stevens cemented himself as a top-tier NBA coach.

“He’s a big part of my career; the best coach I’ve ever been coached by.” - Isaiah Thomas speaking to NBC Sports.

Fast forward to last season. Did Terry Rozier have a point? Were the Celtics designed to pander to Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward or did Stevens stick to his principles as best he could?

The rotation and touches statistics paint a similar picture to previous years; Kyrie leads the way in minutes, touches, and usage rate with Horford a close second, and then the rotation begins to level out. Stevens approached last season the same way he’s approached every season: he provides his stars with the tools necessary to succeed while ensuring the supporting cast continues to get the touches their talent deserved.

A point that continued to be discussed at length lingers: was this an issue of fit, personality clashes, players not buying in or all of the above? Regardless, all of this still falls on the shoulder of Stevens, in any case. Part of a head coach’s job requires them to motivate and focus the minds of the players on the ultimate target which is a championship. We’ve seen so many examples of that with Phil Jackson and the Bulls in “The Last Dance.” In fairness to Stevens, he has altered his approach this year, ensuring that players understand when they have fallen short of his high expectations, something that was slowly becoming a regular occurrence during the Celtics dip in January.

What does this mean for Jayson Tatum who lit the league on fire before and after his first All-Star appearance?

Tatum has been enshrined in the Brad Stevens way since his NBA infancy. Outside of a brief stint with Team USA this past summer, Stevens is the only NBA coach Tatum has known. Tatum understands what Celtics basketball is about and the sacrifice an individual is required to make when it benefits the team.

Boston Celtics vs Golden State Warriors Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

As Tatum’s influence on games has increased, so has his usage rate; Cleaning the Glass tracks him at 18.5 percent in his rookie season and rising to 27.9 percent this year, which ranks Tatum in the 93rd percentile among forwards. Another statistic that is indicative of Tatum’s rise is his assisted buckets, with this falling from 66 percent in his rookie year to just 47 percent this year, placing him in the 96th percentile among forwards. When a player is scoring at a higher clip, and their buckets are coming off fewer assists, this indicates growth in that player’s ability to create their offense.

“He’s getting more thrown at him every game and, as you can tell, there’s a hunger to continue to improve. So, I think the best part about this story is he’s had a year worthy of being named an All-Star and he’s gotten better since he was named an All-Star. So, those are usually good signs.” - Brad Stevens on Jayson Tatum to Yahoo Sports

To start this season, Tatum was the consensus second option behind the newly acquired Kemba Walker. However, Tatum has metamorphosed into the first option as the season entered its final third. Between October and January, Kemba was averaging 74.4 touches per game with Tatum in second touching the ball 68.7 times a contest. From January until the league was suspended in March when Tatum had completed his transformation, those touches started to decrease for Kemba, and increase for Marcus Smart and Gordon Hayward while Tatum’s hovered around the same spot.

Stevens is finding new ways to put Tatum in a position to affect the outcome of games by feeding Tatum the ball in the post, utilizing him on pick plays, and allowing him to go ISO when necessary. These weren’t options in Tatum’s rookie and sophomore seasons. There is a freedom to Stevens brand of basketball, one that will enable players to grow through mistakes, one that cultivates unity on and off the floor when everyone is on the same page. Tatum has thrived in this system so far.

It’s also important to note that while Tatum is on a trajectory towards superstardom, he is not Kyrie Irving, and does not carry the perceived baggage that Kyrie does. He wasn’t traded for or self-anointed as the leader. He was drafted, developed, and educated within the culture Stevens instilled within the franchise. By comparison, he’s closer to IT. Thomas came to Boston on a shrewd trade deadline deal by Danny Ainge. He was billed as sixth man scorer, but three games into the following season, he was already starting and building to his MVP candidacy in the next season. His ascent was planned or coordinated by Stevens, as much as he provided a team atmosphere for Thomas to accentuate his talents.

Stevens has handled working with star players at both the college and NBA level during his career. Ignoring last season’s train wreck, he has been successful in ensuring that players across the roster feel valued and understand their role in the bigger picture. As for Tatum, he’s in the best situation possible, the team is his for the taking, the coach trusts him, and there is a history between player and coach.

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