And finally, after the last month of rumors and dread and pain and heartbreak, the good news begins. This afternoon, the Boston Celtics and Butler University announced that 36-year old head coach Brad Stevens would be going pro. Stevens leaves Butler with a 166-49 record, and two national title games (’10,’11).
Now how excited am I that the Boston Celtics hired a college coach whose teams played in the Horizon League and who is younger than Kevin Garnett?
The answer is very. Very excited. Very freakin’ excited.
I’ll definitely talk about this decision more in the next few months, as well as the next potential dominos to fall (especially that Danny Ainge better hustle and get Jay Larranaga onto that bench with Stevens pronto), but for now here’s my three favorite things about this hire.
1. The Butler Way
Seriously, look at this man’s career. After six years as an assistant, Stevens took the head coaching job at Butler, going 27-3 (beating Michigan, Texas Tech, Florida State, and Ohio State) and winning the Horizon League with a 16-2 record, making it to the tournament, losing in the second round to the #2 seed, Tennessee. His second year, after losing four starters, Stevens still went 26-6 again making it to the Dance. Then, of course, came the 2010 season, in which Butler went 33-5 (18-0 in the Horizon), stomping out UTEP, Murray State, Syracuse, Kansas State, Michigan State, before a heartbreaking loss to Duke in the title game, 61-59 (just losing their streak of holding each team under 60 points for the tournament). In the 2011 season, Butler returned to the title game (even after losing folk hero Gordon Hayward to the draft) losing to Connecticut in what was one of the most painful-to-watch basketball games ever, and I watched every Celtics game in 2006 hoping Bassy Telfair would somehow transform into Bob Cousy 2.0. After a shakier 2011-12 season, Stevens and Butler once again returned to the Tournament, losing in the third round to Marquette.
What does all that mean? The dude can win. He can win without Top 5 recruiting classes, even going as far as to say that he’d only bring on a one-and-done star if he was going to pursue a degree while playing professionally. Instead Stevens brought out the best of teams committed to “The Butler Way”, in which team principles are prided above any individual accomplishment, focusing on humility, passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness. A big question moving forward will be whether this coaching practice can be moved seamlessly into the cutthroat professional work, where players are more focused on their next contract than rings. But if there was ever a time to try it would be now, as the Celtics enter a new post-Big-Three era.
2. Meshing With The Talent
Last week I bemoaned the loss of Kevin Garnett as a huge blow to the Celtics’ defensive identity, an identity that already started to show a little wear and tear. Well boom, here comes a defensive-minded coach, who held much bigger programs to low-scoring outings habitually over the last six years. And it has to be restated, this is not a coach who recruited college-age superstars in a one-year audition for pro scouts, but a coach who made the perennial contenders out of a less athletic and less vaunted team BECAUSE OF HIS SYSTEM.
So who better to bring out the full defensive potential of Jeff Green and Avery Bradley, the de-facto lockdown members of the Celtics roster, while also bringing extremely goofy titans Kelly Olynyk and Colton Iverson into the fold smoothly. Likewise, if all goes well, Stevens should be terrific with the nine first round picks joining the team in the next five years.
Most importantly is, if he remains with the team, how Stevens and Rajon Rondo will get along. In a previous article, I asked “Can’t you see Rondo and Brad Stevens of Butler chugging Vitamin Water and obsessing over video together?” To answer my own question: yes, yes I can. Stevens is a hardcore stats nerd, being one of the first college coaches to bring a full-time statistician onto his staff, and poring over figures and video for ways to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses. Just as importantly (and like Doc Rivers), Stevens is a former point guard, and he will be able to devise a system that will bring out the best of the mercurial star, while never at the expense of his teammates.
It needs to be said, that outside of their point guard connection, Stevens and Doc are two very different coaches. Rivers was a dramatic, vocal, and super-expressive coach, his trademark hoarse voice often heard giving direction to his players or roaring at refs, reverberating around the Fleet Center. Stevens, on the other hand, is remarkably stoic for such a young coach, his arms-crossed calm stance the same whether his Bulldogs were down 5 or up 15. It will be extremely interested to see how the team responds to such a different approach.
3. The Indiana Factor
I think I’ve been very good about reining in my usual nonsense thus far in the article, but this cannot be ignored. I’m not a firm believer in mysticism or magic, but I do believe in Indiana basketball. I’ve watched Hoosiers too many times not to. Basketball is soaked into the state’s DNA, and the state rose around the meteoric rise of the Butler teams of the last decade. So, for a team pretty much starting from scratch, they need all the help they can get. So let’s hope that Brad Stevens brings some of the heartland magic with him. Maybe they can hold summer practices in French Lick, complete with field trip to Larry Bird’s childhood home!
Even on top of the Hoosiers connection, Billy Hoyle from White Men Can’t Jump is from Indiana, and where did that get him? Champ in the 2v2 basketball tourney, victor in the game against The King and Duck, and dating a Jeopardy champion, that’s where! Indiana magic! Indiana magic!
All of this is to say that I’m very excited for the Brad Stevens era. I was too young to really judge Rick Pitino’s tenure in Boston, but I’m confident it won’t turn out that way. Brad Stevens is no loud personality who rolls the ball out and lets his stars improvise while doling out encouragement and motivation. He’s a disciplined coach, always with a plan, who’s made his career by taking what other teams would consider lesser pieces and turning them into championship contenders.
Almost certainly, Brad Stevens will have a bumpy first season in Boston. It won’t be an easy transition. The good news is, both Celtics fans and Danny Ainge are willing to give it at least a year, as no one is expecting a big playoff run, and frankly the worse the record, the better the draft pick in a loaded 2014 draft (not that they should purposely tank. I repeat, not that they should purposely tank). This, like the trade with Brooklyn, is a move for the long-run, not a hasty band-aid on a dismantled team. Brad Stevens will be growing into the role, just as Rondo grows into a team leader, just as Green and Bradley grow into defensive juggernauts, just as Kelly Olynyk transitions from partially shaved sasquatch to fully shaved sasquatch.
After weeks of subtraction, we have our first big addition. And I, for one, am pumped.