For most of his eight-year coaching career, Stevens employed a democratic approach to the game. Oversimplified, that meant sharing the ball on offense, pacing-and-spacing, reading-and-reacting, and being accountable on defense. That worked early when Boston made the playoffs in just Stevens’ second season with a band of brothers that included Evan Turner and Jae Crowder and exceptionally well with the 2019 Hospital Celtics that made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals despite losing Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
Stevens defined our most idealistic definition of what a coach is. Without one of the league’s top-10 players, Stevens so often defied expectations. After taking the Butler Bulldogs to two consecutive championship games in the college ranks, Stevens followed that up with three trips in four years to the conference finals with teams that were consistently greater than the sum of its parts.
That makes for a tidy narrative for Stevens’ coaching career (if this is truly the end of it) and for years, he was viewed as one of the game’s brightest young minds, but the GM hustle is a different animal, so different that the challenge might force Stevens to even go against his coaching instincts.
As a head coach, you’re constantly trying to make everything you have work together like an astronaut marooned in space. Don’t have a ground-and-pound big to roam the paint? Spread out the floor with shooting. Field a roster populated with inexperienced rookies and sophomores? Run more isolation plays for your more established playmakers. Simply put, you do the best with what you have. But as President of Basketball Operations, Stevens will instead be tasked to survey the entire league for what the Celtics don’t have and what could make them better all with an eye on short term and long term spending. While the ultimate goal is the same, the jobs couldn’t be more different. In fact, ownership made clear the delineation; “at the Celtics, those are two separate jobs,” Wyc Grousbeck said at Stevens’ introduction as President of Basketball Operations.
Even for a former college coach accustomed to the churn of recruiting and graduation cycles and the tectonic shifts in personnel he coached through with the Celtics, these are uncharted waters for Stevens. He will now be responsible for those moves and the pressure and public scrutiny that comes with them. There’s a ruthless cunning that he’ll have to embrace, an instinct that might seem foreign for a head coach used to trying to keep his team together rather than having an eye on making it better from the outside.
“One of the things I’ve learned just being around Danny is you have a job to do, you have a responsibility. That responsibility is to the Boston Celtics and our fans and the pursuit of excellence and the pursuit to compete for championships,” Stevens said of his new gig. “But you can also care about people and you can also be there and do everything you can to help someone and care about them when they’re here or no longer here. I think that’s really important.”
There's also the inherited pressure of following Danny Ainge. During Stevens’ tenure as head coach, Trader Danny was a transactional wizard. There were little deals that extended the value of middle class contracts like trading one year of Avery Bradley for two seasons of Marcus Morris or sacrificing a first round pick to shed Enes Kanter’s player option in order to sign Tristan Thompson. We can second guess some of the effectiveness of his moves, but Ainge was constantly finding ways to make the Celtics better and that often meant seeing players as chips rather than people. While most of his decisions were net positives, there will always be a specter over Ainge dealing fan favorite Isaiah Thomas and that's a harsh reality that Stevens may have to accept quickly.
For the doubters, Stevens has reportedly already played a big part in the decision-making process. “Brad was in so many of our meetings over the years,” Ainge told The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach. “He had salary cap questions, he had ideas, he spoke to agents for us, and he was in any really big discussions that we had. He’s not somebody fresh that’s never been in this position before. He’s basically been an assistant general manager, and I think this is a good progression. I don’t think that it’s as big of a jump as some people say it is.”
There’s some thinking that after several seasons coaching the team — particularly the last five with Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart — Stevens has keen insight on what this roster needs moving forward. However, where he might stumble is in the salesman aspect of being GM. To Ainge’s credit, he had a successful run during Stevens’ tenure making Boston an attractive destination. As CelticsBlog’s Daniel Lubofsky noted, “Boston also signed three All-Star free agents in free agency in a four-year span: Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, and Kemba Walker. For a franchise that hasn’t traditionally been a prime free-agent destination, Ainge has to get some props for playing some part in that.”
Some of that allure was certainly aided by Stevens and the job he did early. In less than a year, Isaiah Thomas became a legitimate MVP candidate which lead to signing Al Horford which lead to the reunion with Hayward which turned into Walker’s departure from Boston to Charlotte.
Fortunately, Stevens won’t have that heavy lifting to start. He already has two franchise cornerstones locked in long term with Brown and Tatum. Of course, he now has to hire a coach to replace him that gels well with his two young All-Stars. That responsibility and challenge could be more difficult than convincing max free agents to play in Boston. What a strange position it must be for Stevens to recognize both what worked in his time with Brown and Tatum and his failings and where a new head coach can improve.
The wildcard here is how much input they’ll have with the coaching hire. They’ll certainly have a voice in the room, but to what actual weight they’ll have is TBD. They’re not on LeBron level. However, these next three years are critical in their development not just as players, but recruiters and influencers in the league. If they’re truly key building blocks and more so, partners in raising Banner 18, they should be influential in picking their coach.
That could mean hiring someone like Mike D’Antoni, the engineer behind the Seven-Seconds-Or-Less Suns built around Steve Nash and the James Harden Rockets that finished in top-2 offensively in Harden’s MVP-caliber seasons. D’Antoni has become a serious candidate for the Portland Trail Blazers, in part because of his track record of building teams around singular talents like Damian Lillard.
In a way, D’Antoni is the antithesis of Stevens as a coach. Stevens’ most successful seasons in college and the pros were marked by getting role players to buy into a team first system; he somewhat struggled dealing with stars plural, enough so that several of them that signed up to play for Stevens walked when their contracts were up. That could be a blind spot that Stevens has to recognize.
To some extent, it’s possible Stevens’ shift in coaching style already reflected this paradigm. The Celtics were more ISO-dependent in 2021. That’s not to suggest that Stevens was priming the pump for his replacement and plotting his promotion since the start of the season. That’s just the reality of building a winner on the NBA. This is a superstar league and as a GM, Stevens might have to build accordingly.