‘You learn every day’: Brad Stevens experiment nears end of first year with Celtics
|02.26.14 at 11:34 am ET|
HANDS ON HIS KNEES, gasping for air, there stood a teenaged Danny Ainge. Covered in sweat, surrounded by members of the Portland Trail Blazers, Ainge looked up to see the greatest Blazer of all. With his shaggy beard and full head of red hair, there was a smiling Bill Walton.
“I’ve known Danny since I moved to Oregon 40 years ago,” said Walton. “He was just in high school in Eugene when we got there. Danny would come up and play with us when he was in high school, and he would do just fine. In fact, he was incredibly fun to play with.”
The young Ainge, still sharpening his teeth as a three-sport All-American at North Eugene High School, would impress his NBA teammates with a strong handle and perfect jumper. The piece of his game that most impressed these professional basketball players was one that still cannot be found on a stat sheet. Ainge’s intelligence put him on another level as a basketball player.
“Danny Ainge is brilliant,” said Walton. “Even at a young age, he was very motivated, dedicated and committed. He’s always been a visionary.”
Ainge has always embraced different ideas. Conventional wisdom is not a phrase you hear the 54-year-old utter to defend his thought process. Just as Ainge was dedicated to the idea of playing professional basketball, he’s now applied his drive to his role as a president of basketball operations for the Celtics. And, depending on who is speaking, his latest big idea may be his greatest.
THE BOSTON CELTICS are spitting in the face of history. Luring Brad Stevens away from Butler and flying him first-class to Boston is a daring move even for a team with a deep history of bold moves. The Celtics, after all, hired the first African-American head coach in the NBA. Amidst all sorts of race issues in the United States, this franchise started the first entirely black starting five. The team, led by the undaunted Red Auerbach, was never hesitant. The Celtics thought differently, courageously, unafraid — in 1950, one year before Oliver Brown and friends began their battle against the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas — the Celtics used a second-round pick on Chuck Cooper, the first black player to be drafted by an NBA team and the second to appear in a game (one day after Washington Capitols forward Earl Lloyd). Trendsetting rarely has surfaced as an issue at 151 Merrimac Street. Yet with Ainge’s hiring of Stevens, the fabled Celtics franchise is following a trend with an extremely high failure rate. College coaches from the past two decades have not succeeded in the NBA. But here are the Celtics, hiring a 37-year-old coach who never played a second of pro basketball, reintroducing the league to a rather old concept. Not that Stevens will fail, but that the Celtics — led by Ainge — will reset the trend. The rest of the league, pawns outplayed by a dominating queen, will see the Celtics succeed with Stevens.
“Brad is smart, he has great integrity, his teams execute and play hard, and he’s a great communicator,” said Ainge. “Experience as a player can help as a coach, but it’s not mandatory. Experience as a coach in college can make a big difference as well. Coach Stevens has proven he’s a great coach. Coaching in the NBA is different, I understand, but in terms of coaching experience, there have been a lot of guys who have become really good coaches that weren’t NBA players.”
Some of the finest coaches in the history of the NBA are former players (including, ahem, Doc Rivers). There are exceptions to the rule — Auerbach famously won nine championships as coach in Boston, Gregg Popovich has enjoyed a marvelous run with four titles in San Antonio, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has twice captured the Larry O’Brien trophy — but the bottom line is that the former players help produce more championships. Only 30 NBA coaches have won a championship, and 70 percent of those coaches played professionally first.
The question of exactly why college coaches fail in the pros has cost NBA executives millions of dollars.
Pete Babcock began working in the NBA in 1973 and enjoyed a successful run as general manager of the Nuggets in the 1980s before spending 13 years as GM of the Hawks from 1990-2003.
Babcock experienced a similar situation to Ainge, hiring a successful college coach in Lon Kruger. Babcock pried the 48-year-old Kruger away from Illinois in 2000 to help with the rebuild in Atlanta.
“I’ve always believed the stereotype that you hear in so many circles, that college coaches can’t make the transition to the NBA, has never made any sense,” said Babcock. “There’s no logic to it. Lon was an outstanding basketball coach and a great person, similar to everything you hear about Brad Stevens.”
Unlike Atlanta, Stevens has a stable ownership in full support of him as a coach.
“The difference is there was so much turmoil in Atlanta going through ownership changes,” said Babcock. “Our opportunity to be successful was limited. There’s much more stability in Boston. There’s a long-term commitment in Brad Stevens, and stability in the organization with Danny and ownership, so Stevens is working under a whole different set of circumstances than Lon was under.”
Upon closer inspection of the successful college coaches who failed in the NBA, the constant themes of failure included weak rosters and a lack of long-term support from ownership and the front office. John Calipari coached a largely talentless New Jersey Nets team, yet still managed to win 43 games and crack the playoffs in his second season. Calipari was fired just 20 games into his third year, the lockout-shortened 1999 season. Rick Pitino, who successfully incorporated the 3-point shot into a major weapon during his time as Knicks coach in the late 1980s, forced his own demise as Celtics coach after he demanded to serve as the team’s president and general manager upon his hiring in 1997. Pitino lasted 34 games into his fourth season before he and the Celtics parted ways. Ego served as a major piece of the failure for Calipari and Pitino.
“I’ve always rejected the notion that college coaches can’t make the transition,” said NBA analyst and former coach Jeff Van Gundy. “The single biggest factor usually is that they take over a bad team. So this idea that college coaches are overmatched? I think it’s more a fact of what team you take over, how much your organization is supporting you.”
Leonard Hamilton was outstanding at Oklahoma State and the University of Miami, but he only lasted a year after guiding a putrid Wizards team to a 19-63 record in 2000-01, his only season in the NBA. Competing against Steve Nash‘s Suns, Dirk Nowitzki‘s Mavericks and Tim Duncan‘s Spurs, former Stanford coach Mike Montgomery was allowed just two years to turn around the Warriors in an outrageously talented Western Conference, and the team could not wait to cut ties in 2006 after the conclusion of the second year (and a 68-96 record). Tim Floyd left Iowa State in 1998 to coach the Bulls, but his roster in three-plus seasons with Chicago resembled something more likely to be seen today in the D-League, and it resulted in a 49-190 record. Floyd spent one season at the helm of the New Orleans Hornets before returning to the college ranks, posting a respectable .500 record (41-41) coaching a legitimate professional roster. Even Kruger (69-122) failed to last three full seasons with the Hawks. All of these coaches were given depleted rosters, and none of them were given the time to turn the team around.
But the Celtics are all in on Stevens.
“Danny Ainge picked Brad,” said Van Gundy. “Not only did he pick him, he didn’t hedge his bets and say, ‘OK, yeah, we want you because we think you’re great, but we’re going to give you a contract of two years and an option.’ ”
Then, Van Gundy explained, the first time it gets rough, the team would have the ability to cut bait and move on.
“Give ownership great credit for giving him the six-year deal that let everybody in the organization and the players know this is our coach,” said Van Gundy. “If there is a problem, you will be going, not him.”
All of the coaching failures proved the obvious: Time is needed for a coach to develop his pro expertise and learn the nuances of the NBA game. There are many differences between the college and pro ranks, even if the sport is the same, and an organization needs to hire the right coach and give him time to build his program on the professional level.
“You have to get the right person if you hire a college coach,” said Babcock. “If that’s the direction you want to go, it’s real important to get somebody whose ego is such that blends in well, because it’s not a coach’s game in the NBA. It’s a player’s game. If you’ve been the star or center of attention of your team as a coach in college, and that’s what you like and that’s what you enjoy, then you’re in for a rude awakening in the NBA. It’s not marketed that way, it’s not geared that way, and it’s not played that way. Having a large ego and being unable to put it aside restricts your opportunity to be successful.”
As evidenced by his short time in Boston, ego is not an issue for Brad Stevens.
LIKE MOST OTHER collegiate programs, Butler ran summer basketball camps during Stevens’ time as coach. During the first night of each session, Stevens and his wife, Tracy, worked the cafeteria line, serving food to the campers and their parents.
One particular night, a mother asked Stevens if he was somehow connected to the basketball team at Butler.
Yes, he replied. He was connected to the team.
The woman, grinning ear to ear, was simply ecstatic upon hearing those words. She had a question she needed answered immediately.
Would Butler’s mascot, a bulldog named Blue, be making an appearance at dinner? The woman adored that Bulldog.
Stevens replied that he also loved that bulldog, but alas, the mascot was not scheduled to appear that night.
Ego has never been a problem for Brad Stevens.
“THE THING I LIKE ABOUT BRAD,” former Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, “is Brad’s over himself. When you become a college coach, the show’s about you. All the players come and go, but it’s your program and your show. That’s what hurts the college coaches when they come here [to the NBA], because the show is about the player. And you’ve got to be fine with that. You’ve got to still coach them, but you got to understand it’s their game. But I think Brad coaches that way, and he coached that way in college. So I really think it will be an easy transition for him.”
Brad Stevens never reached the NBA as a player, peaking while tucked away in Greencastle, Ind., at Division 3 DePauw University. After a cup of coffee with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, working as a marketing associate, the 23-year-old Stevens left his yearly $44,000 salary behind and accepted the director of basketball operations position at Butler. Stevens’ talent as a coach and motivator of young men was undeniable and, seven years later at the ripe age of 30, he was named head coach.
Stevens won 30 games in his first season with Butler, a feat the Celtics will struggle to accomplish this year. He broke the NCAA record for most wins in a coach’s first three years. His trademark at Butler was producing teams that played with an edge, very tough defensively, and were too smart to beat themselves. Stevens took Butler to back-to-back Final Fours, and the Bulldogs were an unlucky bounce away from defeating Duke in the 2010 national championship game.
“We all have tough days,” said Stevens. “How you respond defines who you are. I think you have to be really mentally tough to learn through and to grow through tough circumstances, but you have to be really mentally tough to win. You have to be really mentally tough to come back from a bad loss. If you’re not mentally tough, you have a ceiling in this business.”
Stevens’ Bulldogs returned to the national title game the very next season, knocking off collegiate powerhouses Pittsburgh and Wisconsin en route, before falling to a UConn team led by future pros Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb.
“I love Brad,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “He’s one of the great coaches.”
Dave Gavitt, at the time newly appointed to his role as Red Auerbach‘s successor, unleashed a vicious full-court press to hire Coach K after the Celtics fired Jimmy Rodgers in May of 1990, so Krzyzewski can relate better to Stevens than most.
“Heck, I was almost the Celtic coach in ’90,” said Krzyzewski. “I love the Celtics and their tradition, and I love the fact he’s representing such a storied franchise. That franchise is in unbelievable hands with him. He’ll be fantastic.”
Stevens is now set to succeed in Boston, but that has as much to do with the entire foundation the franchise has laid as it does his basketball acumen.
“I don’t measure our team based on just wins and losses,” explained Stevens. “I measure it based on where we are individually in our growth, where we are collectively in our growth, how we can continue to get better, if we can continue to get better, how we show resolve when things don’t go our way, how we play when our backs are against the wall. No matter if you win or lose, those are good character traits if you handle them well, but it’s tested even more when you lose again. We’ll continue to see them happen over time.”
The Celtics, unlike any other team that tiptoed into the college waters to hire a coach, will allow Stevens to succeed as a coach by providing him the time he needs to succeed.
WHEN BRAD STEVENS first walked into the Butler locker room, his eyes were transfixed to a sign on the wall. Five words were listed in big, bold letters.
Those five values comprised the guiding principles for the Butler basketball program, otherwise known as “The Butler Way.”
Stevens added to the mission statement, requiring his players to place the well-being of the team before individual desires, embrace the process of growth, and execute the system. Whether the team was playing Valparaiso or Michigan State, studying for an exam or battling an illness, the goal was to demonstrate toughness in every circumstance.
While not everyone agrees this formula can work in the NBA, there are some who claim the idea of building such a tight-knit group already exists.
“The family atmosphere he built at Butler was tremendous,” said former Butler standout and current Jazz forward Gordon Hayward. “You look at some of the best teams in the NBA, and they treat each other like family out there on the court. Guys would rather do something for the team than for themselves, so that definitely translates to the next level.”
A prerequisite for building that winning culture in Boston will be implementing his own message within the team. Just as Doc Rivers needed time to build up the “ubuntu” message, Stevens is a firm believer that the Celtics will need to believe in their own message in order to taste success.
“I think it’s just the backbone of any solid organization,” said Stevens. “If you don’t have all those intangibles, then eventually it’s going to catch up with you.”
The tenants of “The Butler Way” were to put the well-being of the team above oneself, to put selfishness aside, and to work for constant personal improvement for the sake of the team. But Stevens is not worried about copying that blueprint for Boston.
“Each team has its own identity,” said Stevens, “and teams have to embrace all of those little things. It’s not going to happen just because the Celtics teams of the past had success, it’s not going to happen at Butler just because the Butler teams had success. Every organization that’s really good has some sort of value-based system they believe in. That’s a foundation that’s bigger than one person.”
BASKETBALL CRITICS do not see many differences between the NCAA and NBA. The fundamental tenants of the game remain the same, they argue, it is all the same, it’s all just basketball.
For those who have argued that the two games are vastly different, here is some justification: You are 100 percent correct.
“It’s a huge adjustment to come to the NBA,” confirmed former longtime NBA coach and current ABC/ESPN analyst Doug Collins. “The games are longer. I think an NBA coach makes 10-15 times more decisions in an NBA game than what a college coach does, and Brad’s adjusting to that.”
The pro game has a different tempo. There are more games and there are fewer practices, not to mention the multiple in-game adjustments against coaches who have spent a lifetime in the NBA.
“You have to understand the difference,” said NBA Hall of Famer Hubie Brown. “As a coach in college, you always get all the credit for the wins. The players have lost every game at that level. When you come to the NBA, the players win every game, and you, the coaching staff, lose every game. You have to understand that. If you don’t understand that, you’re going to have a difficult time.”
And Stevens needs the time to do it.
Time to learn some of the league’s best teams, for example.
“When I was coaching at Butler, I may not have known how talented the Portland Trail Blazers were,” admitted Stevens. “Obviously with a guy like Damian Lillard, who kind of is the head of the snake, but then you’ve got [Nicolas] Batum and [Wesley] Matthews, and [LaMarcus] Aldridge is averaging 24 points a game, and all the way down their lineup, that’s a good basketball team.”
Stevens needs time to learn how to build his rotation, learn how many decisions he has to make with timeouts and substitutions and changing the pick-and-roll defense, changing up matchups, when to sit his starters — and when to re-insert his starters back in the game.
New to the NBA, Stevens also needs more time to learn the personnel.
During Boston’s West Coast road trip, the Celtics lost a winnable game against the Warriors. The game was tied with just over 11 seconds remaining when the Warriors ran a pick-and-roll with Stephen Curry and David Lee. Instead of putting a quicker defender on Lee, Stevens chose to use Kris Humphries.
“I’ve been in this 30-something years and know these players and nuances,” said Collins. “Those are the things he’ll be learning on the run.”
Lee set a screen to free Curry for a jumper, and Humphries was too slow to make the switch. Curry nailed the game-winner.
“The NBA game,” explained Stevens, “you learn every day. I know everybody says it’s different. Getting ready for each game is obviously unique, and a lot more unique when you haven’t played them once already. Now that we’re starting to play teams for the second and third time, there’s some familiarity there. The travel is first class, so it’s not like we’re struggling through that. There are challenges in each level. The challenges you would say the college coach has that I don’t have are recruiting and everything else during the middle of the year. Every coach’s job is unique.”
Perhaps biggest of all, a head coach in the NBA deals with professional athletes, not student-athletes.
“Brad’s big thing is to continue to learn the league, coach every night, and get the respect of his players,” said Collins. “The thing that the late Chuck Daly said a long time ago, God bless him, he said there’s three things you can’t fool: kids, dogs and NBA players. They know if you know what you’re doing or not. That’s the big thing you have to do as a coach. You have to walk in that locker room and have the respect of your team.”
Stevens’ focus right now is on whether his team will improve every 20-25 games.
“I will tell you this,” warned Collins. “Losing in the NBA is dog years. As much as you might want to prepare yourself and say, hey, we’re going to take it on the chin this year and maybe next year and maybe in Year 4 we’re going to be ready to go, very rarely does the guy last that long with all those losses. Make no bones: In real estate it’s location, location, location. In basketball? It’s talent, talent, talent.”
AN ONLY CHILD, Stevens always relished being part of a team. His role as coach became integral to the lives of his players. His visit to check in on former player Andrew Smith, who is battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, would be newsworthy only to those who don’t know Stevens.
“Any time you have somebody that you really care about struggle with something.” said Stevens, “it’s paramount to any of us that we would go and find a way to see that person.”
During his time at Butler, Stevens received Father’s Day cards from former players expressing their thanks and gratitude. He was more to them than just a basketball coach.
Stevens regularly placed quotes in all his players’ lockers. The student-athletes knew they were constantly on their coach’s mind.
“One of the things I think I’ve done a pretty good job at since I became a head coach in college is controlling what I can control,” said Stevens.
Stevens assigned mandatory reading for his players at Butler, requiring all new players to read John G. Miller‘s “The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and Life,” and then pass in one-page papers on how the book affected the player.
The book helped cultivate an atmosphere on personal accountability. Whenever a player blamed another for a mistake, Stevens would quickly state, “QBQ.”
“You only get so many chances in your life to play basketball,” said Stevens. “They may all run together during the course of a season, but it’s as good as it gets if you get a chance to compete.”
“I’M EXCITED ABOUT BRAD STEVENS,” said Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. “I’m really excited about Brad Stevens. The Celtics are building for the future.”
Ainge has stripped away nearly the entire Eastern Conference championship roster from 2010 and has acquired commodities in draft picks and young players with reasonable salaries.
“Danny did a great job getting rid of those bloated salaries, he did a really good job,” said Barkley. “Let me tell you something, Danny Ainge is doing a fantastic job. The Celtics got some good players and a bunch of draft picks. I’m not worried about the Celtics. Kudos to Danny Ainge for doing a fantastic job as a GM. He got rid of those old guys with those huge contracts. He’s got a good young nucleus.”
Barkley added one caveat.
“They’ve just got to get Stevens some great draft picks,” stressed Barkley.
The story of Brad Stevens will be forever connected with Danny Ainge.
“I talked to Danny for a while last summer when he was making his decision,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “Brad’s someone that Danny can really talk to. They have a good relationship, and there’s going to be some growing pains, but his team plays hard.”
Ainge and Stevens are thoughtful, religious men who know the game of basketball extremely well. Ainge served as a bishop for his Mormon congregation outside of Boston, while Stevens finds passion reading Rudyard Kipling and was an integral member of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. “The Coach’s Bible,” a gift from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, adorned Stevens’ desk at Butler. Stevens retreated to his office for reading and reflection before reconnecting with his players and leading them.
“That’s the thing,” said McHale. “If you get your guys to play hard every night, that’s a sign he’s doing something right and they’re buying in. He’s got a long contract, and I’m sure at some point in that contract he’ll have the type of team that can contend.”
Rest assured, in time, Stevens is confident the Celtics will be validated for taking a risk on him.
“We’re not as close as I’d like to be,” said Stevens. “I’d still like to see us grow and understand what each of our teammates do well and putting them in positions to be successful. That will continue to happen over time.”