FORTY-ONE DAYS into his tenure as coach of the Celtics, Brad Stevens's second-floor office looks essentially the same as when it was vacated by its previous occupant. The walls are bare except for a corkboard covered with schedules, a dusty flat screen mounted at eye level and the small hooks from which Doc Rivers had hung family photographs. A couple of windows overlook the parking lot of the health club that shares the building, SUVs baking in early-August sunshine; three others offer views of the team's weight room and practice floor. Two leather couches and two leather armchairs occupy seemingly random spaces. The office lacks the cachet of Stevens's previous digs, if only because those were in Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse, with its unassailable roundball cool. Not that Stevens was much on decorating that space, either.
His L-shaped light-wood desk is swept clean but for a slender, silver MacBook Pro, a white legal pad with a Celtics logo and, in a corner, a small row of binders pushed against a window. In early July, Celtics president Danny Ainge stunned the basketball community by offering one of the most prized jobs in the NBA—and a six-year contract reportedly worth $22 million—to a 36-year-old mid-major college coach (albeit one with two appearances in the NCAA title game). Stevens stunned that same community no less by signing on. While he will soon move into a house with his wife and two children, since July 14 he has lived in a hotel near the Celtics' facility in Waltham, Mass., 12 traffic-choked miles west of the TD Garden and, for many hours, at his desk in front of the laptop.
Now that laptop is open, and Stevens is running one of the three software programs that most pro and major-college teams use for scouting, while explaining how he studies a game between two of the NBA's better squads. (He asked that neither the teams nor the players be identified in this story.) Green letters in the lower corner of the screen specify the action Stevens is breaking down: SIDE PNR VS. SMALLS (side pick-and-roll plays against guards and small forwards). Stevens narrates the action, succinctly summarizing various sets, options and movements by the defense. "Right here," says Stevens, pausing the video, "I'm watching how [Team A] defends [Team B's] different actions. Already there are three actions: [Player 1] sets a down screen for [Player 2], [Player 3] goes off a fake handoff, and there's a stagger for [Player 4] down here. What is [Team A] doing to defend this? Do you go under the down screen? Do you leave [Player 4] open when he's a very good shooter? You've got all these issues. It's a [defensive] system, and I think I've got a pretty good feel for what their system looks like." Here Stevens pauses, giving weight to the next sentence. "That doesn't mean it's easy to play against," he says. "Because it's not."
After a few more movements on the screen, Stevens closes the program and pulls up an Excel document, into which he has typed notes on every possession of another game involving a team that Boston will face early this season. The notations are copious, in a dense hoop-centric shorthand. One might reference the options off an offensive set, another might describe a particular player's movements in a very specific scenario. Upon coming to the NBA to work, Stevens called a friend and told him that the amount of available information about the professional game was astonishing—there just aren't enough hours or days to study it. "I've learned a lot, and I've got a lot more to learn," says Stevens. "It's almost a little overwhelming with the amount of information to process in a short amount of time. I'm working every day to get myself up to speed."
Since 2010, when Stevens took Butler to its first Final Four (the Bulldogs lost to Duke 61--59 in the championship game), all forms of media have searched for ways to describe his ascension. Because he looks younger than he is (although he acts much older), forms of the word prodigy bubbled to the surface with some regularity, as if he walked into Hinkle, sprinkled fairy dust on top of whatever was left behind by Milan High and Bobby Plump in 1954, and—poof!—Butler was a national power. This narrative rose in step with Stevens's anointing as a savant in analytics, which remain relatively new to basketball. He is believed to have been the first college coach to hire a staff member strictly to track statistics, but that label is accurate only to a point. And Stevens resists it. "The whole Brad Stevens-ahead-of-the-curve-on-statistics thing is overblown," he says. "Anything I can get to make us better, I'm all ears. But everybody does this stuff."
Still, there are grains of truth in most good myth making. Stevens was very good very young: He took over a strong Butler program at 30, won 30 games in his first season and missed the NCAA tournament only once in six years. His two title-game appearances were unprecedented for a non-BCS school in the modern era. Yet there was little magic. There were good mentors, good assistants and good players; there were long hours. (There were also, history excuses, 49 losses.) While it's true that Stevens embraces analytics, he values digitization no more than camaraderie and the hoary canon of what was known as the Butler Way long before he took over. "To me, all the intangible, subjective things you can't measure," says Stevens, "are more important than the things you can."
So he is not prodigy nor magician nor genius, although being any one of those would be useful in rebuilding a Celtics team that in the off-season unloaded veteran superstars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Stevens's wife, Tracy, offers up a more apt label: "He's a lifelong learner," she says. Stevens comes to Boston with more questions than answers, but he's been forming those questions since he first picked up a basketball.
BILL FENLON has been the coach at DePauw, a Division III school in Greencastle, Ind., for 21 seasons, including the four—from 1995 through '99—when Stevens was a guard. They remain close friends, so it wasn't surprising that as Fenlon traveled this summer's AAU circuit looking for players, he was routinely approached by peers incredulous that Stevens had made the leap from Hinkle to the Garden. "I've seen two or three hundred coaches this summer," says Fenlon, 56, "and I'm old enough that I know a lot of them. Everybody wanted to talk about Brad. I know when I heard it, it was surreal."
Yet Stevens's jump to the NBA really wasn't sudden at all; it started six years ago, in the spring of 2007, when he was hired at Butler but hadn't yet coached a single game. Stevens went to a coaching retreat in Gainesville arranged by Florida coach Billy Donovan and attended by dozens of coaches from all levels, including current and former NBA coaches and assistants such as Lawrence Frank, Del Harris, Kevin Eastman, Ron Adams and Tim Grgurich. Stevens was floored by what he heard. "The depth of their knowledge of the game was astounding," Stevens says. "I know I was astounded. Not just from an X's and O's standpoint but from a game management standpoint."
On the way out of Gainesville after the retreat, Stevens found Eastman, then an assistant with the Celtics, at the airport, picked his brain and got his cell number. Later that summer, Stevens talked shop with then Pacers coach Jim O'Brien and his assistant Frank Vogel, who would become Indiana's coach in 2011. "The three of us just sat there talking basketball," says Vogel. "Just exchanging ideas. I think that day we were talking zone defense and fast-break offense. It was pretty clear that Brad was trying to improve himself as a coach. But at the same time, it was pretty mutual."