After a disappointing loss to the Wizards at home, head coach Ime Udoka criticized the team’s effort and particularly singled out Jaylen Brown. Through the first five games of the season, the Celtics have been up and down. A double overtime loss in New York and an overtime win in Charlotte have highlighted the team’s potential to step up in big moments, but home losses that have included a blowout to the Raptors and a lackadaisical response to Washington have frustrated the fan base. In a visit with 98.5 The SportsHub’s Toucher & Rich, President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens addressed some of those concerns.
To start, Stevens cautions that it’s very early in the year. The team is 2-3, but could easily be 4-1 or 1-4. “This early in the season, I’m not going to overreact to a five-game sample, but there are some things that are concerning if we don’t start playing possession-to-possession and that’s the bottom line,” Stevens said.
“You’re good if you play good. It’s not about what your reputation is. It’s not about what people say about you. You’re good if you play good. That goes for the whole team. That goes for everybody that puts the team together, that goes for everybody that coaches the team, that goes for everybody that plays the game. You share results and you go from there.”
Even as a first time GM, Stevens had one of the most active offseasons of his peers. After leaving the bench and taking over for Danny Ainge, Stevens quickly traded Kemba Walker to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Al Horford and replaced veterans Tristan Thompson and Evan Fournier with Josh Richardson, Enes Kanter, and Dennis Schroder, and extended Marcus Smart and Robert Williams.
However, his most consequential move might have been replacing himself on the sidelines and hiring Ime Udoka. Stevens very rarely called out his team in public, so Udoka’s postgame presser after Wednesday’s loss was a noticeable difference between coaches.
“I hired Ime because I have a great deal of respect for him as a person. He’s got a great humility about him,” Stevens noted. “He has a great approachability. He can be very demanding. He can yell at you, but you get over it quickly.”
Despite the small sample size, Stevens does recognize that there are trends that need to be addressed. The Celtics are currently 22nd in defensive rating at 110.6. After a summer touting the defensive versatility of the roster, Boston has suffered growing pains from implementing a “switch everything” strategy that has them ranked 28th in defensive rebounding percentage and 24th in opponent’s fast break points.
“It’s not just about the effort. There are techniques. There are systems. There are coverages. There is communication,” Stevens said about the criticism of the team’s effort early in the season. “If you want to be a reasonable defense, you can give great effort and be average in those things. If you want to be a great defense, then you give great effort and you’re great in those things. We do have enough guys here to be a really good defense, but right now, our transition and defensive rebounding isn’t as good as it needs to be.”
Finally, Stevens talked about Smart’s slow start. Smart will not be travelling with the team to D.C. for the second half of the home-and-home with the Wizards as he recovers from the stomach issue that has dogged him all week. He’s shooting just 25% from the field and averaging 2.4 turnovers a game, the highest of his career. For Stevens, he wants the player who he “trusts and loves” to focus on what makes Smart Smart: winning plays.
“One thing I think guys need to get back to when they’re struggling is, ‘what makes you the best version of yourself?’ ‘What plays are going to be shown at your banquet when you retire?’,” Stevens said, recalling Smart’s game-tying three in Madison Square Garden and the steal on LaMelo Ball that sent both games to overtime. “For him, it’s diving on the floor, offensive rebounds where he gets an and-1 against Embiid in the playoffs, not being afraid in a big moment to step in and take that shot and make that shot. All the things that people love about him.”
Stevens has spent the last couple of weeks visiting college campuses for practices and scrimmages and he’ll start scouting more as the college season approaches, but it’s obvious that the former head coach is still dialed in to the everyday of the team.