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Welcome to Front Office Week: Brad Stevens’ ascension to GM has helped the Celtics push their new era forward

Where Danny Ainge focused on home runs, Brad Stevens settled for singles - and it’s working like a charm.

Boston Celtics 2023 End-of-Season Press Conference Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Doubt swarmed the organization when Brad Stevens took over as the GM of the Boston Celtics in the summer of 2021. Danny Ainge was slated to retire, a choice that quickly came undone, and Stevens would move into a front office role after the Celtics were bounced unceremoniously out of the first round of the playoffs.

The motive behind the move was challenged immediately. Was this ownership’s way of saving money? Did they want to fire Stevens from his coaching gig but still pay him to have a role? Was Stevens even capable of taking on such a position?

Needless to say, Stevens’ shift into the role as Boston’s President of Basketball Operations and chief decision-maker was an odd one. And beyond the inquiries surrounding the justification of the transition, there was also the primary question on everyone’s minds could Stevens even do the job?

Stevens has always been an incredible basketball mind. He took over a Celtics team with Jeff Green and Avery Bradley as its two leading scorers and had them back in the postseason after just one year.

Boston Celtics v Detroit Pistons Photo by Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images

In 2018, Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight, put out a Twitter poll asking people who they would rather have if the goal were to win an NBA championship in the next five seasons - Giannis Antetokounmpo or Brad Stevens? Antetokounmpo, who would win a championship five years later, won the vote at 53.9%, but the fact that Stevens earned almost half of the 30,679 speaks volumes.

Fantastic coach, yes, but having Stevens' changeover into a GM role would require a major switch in thought processing. Rather than focusing on in-game adjustments and maximizing the talent in front of him, he would have to supply the talent himself. Instead of cultivating close relationships with his players, he would need to be ready to ship them out or let them walk at a moment’s notice.

That final point was one of the most significant questions regarding Stevens’ ascension: could he do the dirty work after spending so many years cultivating relationships with the players? Would his past relationship with the entire Celtics roster (to that point) lead to a sort of internal nepotism that would prevent Boston from moving forward in the face of failure?

Two years into his term, that has not been the case. Stevens dealt Kemba Walker less than three weeks into his tenure, moved on from young pieces such as Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford in consolidation efforts, and, just a couple of months ago, traded Marcus Smart, a Celtics staple who, had he won a title in Boston, likely would have had his number hanging in the rafters.

Stevens’ mindset in the front office has been the polar opposite of what many expected, and it’s been a complete change from Ainge’s approach over the latter portion of his time as GM.

Ainge’s wheeling and dealing won the Celtics a championship in 2008 thanks to the additions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and he was quick to shift gears. In 2013, he fleeced the Brooklyn Nets, adding a hoard of draft capital that, in part, turned into Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Boston Celtics Summer League Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Throughout the first portion of his reign over the new-look Celtics, Ainge found a diamond in the rough in Isaiah Thomas, made a deal for Jae Crowder, and added some draft capital.

But from the Thomas deal until his “retirement” in 2021, Ainge only made two significant trades (excludes salary dumps, draft-day swaps, and sign-and-trades) - the Kyrie Irving trade and the Evan Fournier trade.

Rather than amalgamating players and draft assets into an improved bench or higher-quality starters, Ainge focused his efforts on the draft and internal development. In three straight drafts from 2018 to 2020, the Celtics welcomed eight rookies to the roster (not including the likes of Brad Wanamaker and Vincent Poirier), none of which were off the roster until Ainge retired.

Fast forward to Stevens, the new Celtics GM has yet to make a first-round pick, and just three rookies have joined the team - Sam Hauser, JD Davison, and Matt Ryan.

As for his trade dealings, Stevens has made six significant trades, adding the likes of Al Horford, Derrick White, Daniel Theis, Malcolm Brogdon, Mike Muscala, Kristaps Porzingis, and others while sending out Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Smart, multiple first-round picks, and other assets.

This isn’t a knock on Ainge. He brought a championship to Boston for the first time in over 20 years, ushered in multiple new eras of Celtics basketball, and provided Stevens with plenty of young assets to work with. Stevens just took the hand he was dealt and rolled it into the most win-now squad of the Tatum-Brown-led era.

What was once pondered as what could be his greatest weakness turned out to be Stevens’ biggest strength. He’s been unafraid to cut ties with young players and fan favorites, instead choosing to add better-fitting pieces around his stars.

Boston’s last two GMs have combined to construct the ideal pathway to success. Ainge’s stinginess and Stevens’ willingness to take risks have acted as a one-two punch to get the Celtics to where they are now.

Ainge may not have made the White trade in favor of hoarding future first-round picks. Stevens could have traded the 2018 first that ended up being Robert Williams in hopes of adding an NBA-ready piece. Ainge could have balked at the Porzingis trade in favor of holding onto Smart. Stevens may have let Nesmith and Langford go early before finding great deals.

Kristaps Porzingis Introduced As Boston Celtic Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Fielding a championship-caliber team is a laborious task that requires a healthy dose of luck to get over the eventual hump.

In 2007, Ainge knocked it out of the park, earning the Celtics a title, and he then followed up the feat with a flurry of heralded moves that set Boston up for the future. But when it came time to step up to the plate again, Ainge hesitated, accepting walks when the home-run move failed to present itself.

That’s when Stevens took over. He got into the batter’s box, dug his feet in, and hit some singles that eventually turned into RBIs.

Stevens took things a step further this summer, trading Smart for Porzingis in a move that swapped out a deeply connected piece of Boston’s core. It may be the first double (or even triple) of Stevens’ reign, but it could also turn into a strikeout.

But those are the risks the Celtics needed after years of failing to jump the final hurdle and raising Banner 18. Ainge set Stevens up, and now it’s up to the latter to finish the job.

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