Brad Stevens to get every opportunity to succeed as Celtics coach
WALTHAM, Mass. -- They sat side by side, the Celtics brass did, three owners -- Wyc Grousbeck, Steve Pagliuca and Bob Epstein -- team president, Rich Gotham, and general manager, Danny Ainge, all flanking new head coach Brad Stevens. Each grinned from ear to ear. They swapped stories about Stevens' whirlwind courtship, joked about negotiating with Stevens' wife, and agent,Tracy, and spoke confidently that in Stevens, a 36-year old wunderkind who in six seasons transformed a burgeoning Butler program into a national powerhouse, they had found the man who would lead the Celtics through a difficult rebuilding process and into another championship era.
It was a good day in Boston. Though it's fair to wonder just how many good days are ahead.
In tabbing Stevens, Ainge says he landed his first choice to replace Doc Rivers. He landed a coach he has admired from afar for years, a man he targeted as a future NBA coach long before he made his first phone call to recruit him. It's a hire that fits Ainge's maverick reputation, a move both bold and gutsy, high risk and high reward. The NBA landscape is littered with the crumbled ruins of high-profile college coaches who made the leap to the pros. From Rick Pitino to John Calipari, Lon Kruger to Mike Montgomery, these coaches sauntered into the NBA expecting players to walk through walls for them, only to find themselves tuned out by many who, in some cases, made significantly more money than them. These coaches have arrived with great fanfare and are almost always unceremoniously shoved out a back door.
Stevens is cut from a different cloth: More humble, more realistic, born with a prescience to understand that the NBA is a players league, and coaches just play a role in it. There are limited examples of small college coaches making the jump to the NBA -- Dick Motta made the leap from Weber State to the Bulls' bench in 1968 and finished with 935 wins and an NBA championship. Dick Vitale went from the University of Detroit to the Pistons in '78 and was fired 12 games into his second season. Yet Ainge staunchly believes Stevens' humility, coupled with unflinching organizational support -- exemplified by a six-year, $22 million contract -- makes Stevens a can't miss.
"Brad's success will be determined a lot by what we do, what I do to help him and support him," Ainge said. "We have been through this rebuilding type of process before, and we are all better for it. We all know what we are about to embark on, and [Stevens] will have great support from management."
He better. The Celtics won't be as bad as they were in the mid-1990s, when M.L. Carr and Co. were tanking for Tim Duncan, when the likes of Brett Szabo and Greg Minor were regulars in the rotation. A team with Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger won't be fighting for a division title, but it won't be in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes, either. Still, the heart and soul of the team -- Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce -- was traded, and what's left isn't much. Ainge will need to be patient, to absorb the body blows bound to come this season.
Indeed, it's Ainge that may have the most responsibility on his shoulders. It's become trendy to compare Stevens to Frank Vogel and Erik Spoelstra, two coaches who took over teams in their 30s and have risen to the NBA's elite. But Vogel had the implicit respect of the locker room when he took over for Jim O'Brien in 2011, while Spoelstra was Pat Riley's protege who had nearly a decade of experience coaching alongside him. Stevens walks into an unfamiliar locker room to coach players who, after years playing for one of the league's best in Rivers, will be understandably skeptical. Ainge will have to be supportive, but not controlling, be involved but not be someone players see as coaching from above.
Winning the respect of Rondo will be critical, and Rondo's relationship with Stevens is a storyline that isn't going anywhere. Love him or hate him, Rondo is a unique talent, a basketball maestro who on his worst days is a top-ten point guard and on his best a top-five player in the NBA. You don't dump assets like that -- not for cap relief and draft picks, anyway -- you build around them. Ainge told SI.com he was certain Rondo would be on the roster next season, and that six months removed from a torn ACL, Rondo's return on opening night was a "realistic goal." Stevens was effusive in his praise of Rondo on Friday, declaring he was his biggest fan, gushing over his intelligence and instinctive ability to see the next play coming. Stevens reported he had a brief conversation with Rondo and there are indications he will be popping into Rondo's basketball camp in Kentucky next week.
"I think Brad and Rondo will get along great," Ainge said. "Brad is a great communicator and Rajon is a brilliant basketball player. I think they will see eye-to-eye. Rajon has been our best player the last few years. I think Brad, maybe being a new coach, will need to rely on Rondo for input, strategy and get his feedback."
No executive is more aggressive, more of a gunslinger than Ainge, and in hiring Stevens, he has reinforced that rep. He went outside the box and grabbed one of the most sought after college coaches on the map with the hope that, in time, he will duplicate that success in the NBA. A new era is beginning in Boston. Whether Stevens proves to be the man to lead it or the next college coach to land on the scrap heap is, at this point, anyone's guess.