As fireworks flared off around New England to commemorate the July 4th holiday, the Boston Celtics were setting off explosions of their own. Fresh off of making the enormous decision to trade franchise icon Paul Pierce as well as culture-changer Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets in a massive draft-day deal, General Manager Danny Ainge had just sent Doc Rivers 3,000 miles away to the Los Angeles Clippers and his team was finally ready to embrace the rebuild so many thought was overdue. A group that was defined by its stability was suddenly thrown into a volatile state of change, but Ainge, like a skilled chess player, already had his next move mapped out: Hiring Brad Stevens as head coach.
Understanding it would take the chance of a lifetime to pry Stevens from the college ranks, the Celtics, channeling their inner Godfather, presented Stevens an offer he simply couldn’t refuse: Six years, $22 million and an opportunity Stevens likely never dreamt about prior. The young coach had become a star at Butler University, but this was the NBA and these were the Celtics. Although many wondered how Stevens, just 36 years young at the time of his hire, would translate to the professional ranks, he’s quickly assuaged those concerns and proven to be the key figure in changing Boston’s direction and expediting the arrival of the Celtics’ next era.
After so many teams have avoided the collegiate ranks because of previously unsuccessful transitions, every NBA team looking for its new head coach is now trying to find the next Brad Stevens. Memories of failed college-to-pro moves like Tim Floyd, Mike Dunlap and Rick Pitino have been sifted through, and decision-makers are anxiously trying to discover the next potential gem as exemplified by the Chicago Bulls hiring of Fred Hoiberg and the Oklahoma City Thunder tabbing Billy Donovan. Stevens, capable of managing people as well as he does information and advanced statistics, is the MVP of a team that plays as more than the sum of its parts. Given mostly role players and having to deal with a consistently changing roster, Stevens has been able to build continuity, develop his talent and elevate expectations in the process.
As an anonymous general manager told ESPN’s Dana O’Neil, this is a copycat league, and although the Celtics provided a blueprint for the rest of the NBA to follow, that doesn’t mean the execution will be the same. If San Antonio’s system—regularly praised for both its brilliance and beauty—were so easy to replicate, we’d have a league filled with teams that look like the Spurs.
“For me, Brad Stevens should have been a trend by himself,” said one NBA GM. “This was a light year [in the hiring cycle]. Next year, there may be seven or eight openings. They’ve got to come from somewhere, and this is a copycat league. If David Blatt wins the Finals, you may see more guys from Europe being hired. Or if Billy and Fred have success, teams will be going one of those two ways. Retread NBA coaches are going to be far less attractive moving forward.”
The Celtics have not been a franchise that traditionally attracts stars in free agency, but Stevens provides a new reason to call Boston home. He’s that big of a deal.
When Gregg Popovich, who is regularly cited as one of the most successful coaches ever regardless of his sport, offers unsolicited praise for someone—anyone—the entire league listens (via Chris Forsberg, ESPN Boston).
“I really respect what he does. I’ll still watch his Butler tape, trying to learn some stuff he did there, to be honest with you,” Popovich said of Stevens after Sunday’s game. “I really respect the hell out of him. He’s a really fine young coach, great demeanor. His team executes really well, and they’re just going to keep getting better. So I enjoy him.”
Popovich doesn’t just dish out compliments in order to make people feel good; you have to earn it. Popovich’s validation buys a lot of respect around the NBA, and for the coach with seemingly all of the answers to openly admit he’s still learning from another young enough to be his son is an indication of where Stevens’ rising stock currently sits in the NBA. Despite his baby-faced look, Stevens is a truly transcendent teacher wise beyond his years capable of reaching any pupil. He’s forever changed the trajectory of a historic Boston Celtics franchise as well as the future of the league all before his 40th birthday.
Just imagine what he’ll do next.