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Knowing when to say “when”: Brad Stevens’ transition to the front office

Stevens seems to be building a team that he would have loved to coach himself...five years ago.

Boston Celtics Introduce Draft Picks Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

On April 19, Brad Stevens was asked about a report that he had turned down a $70 million contract to coach the Indiana Hoosiers. After shooting down the rumors, he added, “I don’t know how long I’m going to coach. I don’t know how long I’m going to coach in the NBA. I don’t know how long they’ll want me to coach in the NBA. I don’t know what I’ll do after that. Maybe I’ll find something new.”

Those remarks took on added significance when then President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge stepped down while the corpse of the team’s 2021 season was still warm, with Stevens being immediately named his successor.

It also shines a different light on some of the Celtics’ struggles during the past season.

Over at Red’s Army, I resisted the urge to compare the 2021 campaign with the team’s disappointing 2019 effort, in no small part because it was quite apparent that the players were approaching the 2021 season differently than in 2019. By the midpoint of the 2019 season, it was clear that there were divisions in the C’s locker room, highlighted by a testy exchange between Jaylen Brown and Kyrie Irving that was conducted through the media. Nothing similar occurred during this past season.

However, given the alacrity with which Brad Stevens accepted the front office gig he was offered, I have to think that, mentally, he was disengaged for considerable stretches of last season—it certainly would have been difficult to focus on coaching once Stevens knew that Ainge was retiring and that ownership wanted him as a replacement as early as March. For whatever reason, I believe that at some point over the past year, Stevens lost the drive that turns a good coach into a great one.

Basically, it seems like coaching ended up on Brad Stevens’ version of Murtaugh’s “I’m too old for this ...” list. So, if no comparisons can be drawn between the players in 2019 and in 2021, the attitude of a few players in 2019 was probably mirrored in Stevens’ approach as the 2021 season wore on. Rozier and Irving, for instance, seem to have tired of playing for the Celtics long before the 2019 season ended. That Rozier was an entirely different player when he started games indicates that, to a certain extent, he had checked out on the team if he was coming off the bench, and Irving, as we now know, decided to bolt months before the season was over.

And while it’s never a good thing to have a coach that’s less than fully invested in his job, I don’t think Stevens’ fatigue materially altered the season’s outcome. Once Jaylen Brown tore a ligament in his wrist, the season was over. The only question was which round of the playoffs would be the last for the C’s, and ultimately, Stevens’ coaching career in Boston.

There are a few pundits who believe that Stevens will be coaching again sooner rather than later. I don’t buy it. I think that when Stevens took the Celtics job, he was done coaching college ball, and I think that when he traded a seat on the bench for one in the front office, that move was just as permanent.

Stevens has a couple kids who are now 15 and 11, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the combination of the quarantine bubble and the compressed schedule of the 2021 season left him wondering if he was striking the right balance between work and family. When Stevens took Ainge’s job, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said that Brad had become “worn out” by coaching since the bubble.

To be sure, going from head coach to President of Basketball Operations doesn’t mean a major shift in the amount of work he’ll be doing on a weekly basis, but it does mean a lot less travel and, consequently, more time with his family.

Boston Celtics Introduce Ime Udoka Press Conference Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

With new head coach Ime Udoka, I think the players are going to be more responsive to a coach who is excited to have a new challenge, rather than one who had grown tired of the demands of the job.

Udoka has also brought a distinct philosophy to the head coaching gig, or rather, he seems to be breathing new life into Stevens’ old coaching philosophy. Udoka told WEEI’s Gresh and Keefe last Tuesday that one goal was “getting back to, defensively, where they were two or three years ago.” The addition of Josh Richardson, Al Horford and Dennis Schröder, along with Marcus Smart’s almost certain move into the starting lineup should accomplish that.

At the other end of the court, Udoka draws a distinction between scoring and playmaking, which at first seems counterintuitive. For Ime, though, the distinction is that playmaking involves a coordinated team effort that generates scoring opportunities, period, as opposed to individual players looking for their own shots. When discussing the Jays, Udoka noted that they’re “pretty natural scorers,” before adding that he wants to see them “playing more of a team-style of basketball.”

This renewed attention to the way the team approaches the game itself is refreshing and a nod to Stevens’ early success as a head coach.

If the C’s front office can be faulted for a failure in strategy or philosophy or whatever over the past few years, it has been a belief that the team needed to acquire an additional star player in order to make the leap from a good team to a title contender, without particular attention to the ability of the new player to fit into the team’s system. In fairly short order the team acquired — and then parted company with — Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, and Kemba Walker.

Each of these guys eventually overstayed their honeymoon period, and there were few tears shed when they departed.

That the C’s got relatively little in return for Hayward, Irving, and Walker has been viewed by some as a step backward, as abject failure. But the fact is, the C’s didn’t give up much in order to obtain those players either. Some fans may regret swapping Terry Rozier for Walker but there are two relatively certain aspects of the S&T swap that sent Rozier to Charlotte for Walker: 1) Terry Rozier did not want to come off the bench and 2) It would be awfully hard to win a title with Terry Rozier as a starting PG.

What I see as the primary problem with these players is that they altered the team’s gestalt, if you will. The change in the team was something other than altered chemistry — I think that the C’s got along pretty well after Irving and Rozier left. And it’s not as though any of the C’s marquee free agent signings were as bad as fans portrayed them to be. Hayward, especially, got an undeservedly bad rap for having enough basketball IQ to put the team’s welfare ahead of his own stats.

It’s more that they just didn’t fit. Stevens was one of the best coaches in the NBA when it came to maximizing the on-court value of a player. But I think he got pulled in too many different directions by the team’s rosters over his last few seasons, and as a result he wasn’t able to field a team with the characteristics that he had developed earlier.

It’s like the 1940 Lincoln Continental, a vehicle that was almost immediately recognized as a classic. However, by the end of World War II, Ford’s designers felt that it didn’t look sufficiently luxurious, or in other words, that it didn’t look enough like a Cadillac, so they put a Cadillac grille on it and made the whole thing look ordinary, if not a little ungainly, and certainly uglier than the Cadillac it was copying.

The same thing, in hindsight, can be said about the past few Celtic teams: Ainge fiddled with something that was working — albeit not at a championship level — and ended up with something that was, arguably, not as good as what he had before.

Make no mistake, the C’s would have needed to make personnel upgrades from the 2018 roster to contend for a title, but it’s tough to look at the past few years without wondering if the team could have accomplished more with fewer or less dramatic changes.

However, what’s done is done. Ainge is gone and Stevens and Udoka seem to be pursuing a strategy that is more focused on growing a contender than assembling one. To be sure, the Josh Richardson signing does give the team a salary for the 2022-23 season that could be used in a sign-and-trade next summer (along with Al Horford’s non-guaranteed final season on his deal), but I don’t take this as an indication that the front office has decided to punt this season.

Ainge did a great job maintaining flexibility during the rebuild, and the C’s seem to be keen to maintain flexibility going forward, but it would be a mistake to think that the front office is primarily focused on what it can achieve next summer. If the past three seasons have taught us anything, it should be that you can’t make a team better by adding whichever All-Star free agent happens to be available, or through trades for stars that are, superficially, “good deals.”

And I, for one, am looking forward to this season. As much as I dislike the “nobody believes in us” cliche, it seems to provide better motivation than, say, 2018-19’s hubris-filled predictions of future glory. You can be sure that these guys know that Celtics fans basically have them pegged as, maybe, the fifth or sixth best team in the East — if that — based on the results of a season where everybody was injured or sick and the coach had one foot out the door. So you can bet they’re going to hit the court with a mammoth chip on their shoulder, and I can’t wait to see the results.

Fans and observers have loaded the arena ceiling with balloons and I think the C’s will make sure they stay up there.

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