Say this about Brad Stevens: The man isn’t afraid of a challenge.
Eight years ago next month, he parachuted into Boston as skeptics screamed about how the NBA wasn’t the Horizon League, and suggested the Butler wunderkind would be just another college-to-pro flameout.
Stevens never delivered the Larry O’Brien trophy that might have most emphatically suggested they were wrong but with 354 wins and three Eastern Conference finals appearances, he can feel pretty good about the resume he built on the Boston sideline. And it would have been easy to stay in that role and see if a Jayson Tatum/Jaylen Brown core could eventually deliver that ultimate prize.
But now, whether by his own volition or simply acknowledging the awkward crossroad this team finds itself at, Stevens is taking on an even greater challenge. On Wednesday, the Celtics elevated the 44-year-old to the lofty role of president of basketball operations as Danny Ainge revs up his retirement golf cart.
Stevens will be tasked with not only finding his own successor but untying the shoelace knot that Ainge leaves behind after Boston got tangled in the aftermath of the Kyrie Irving experiment. There is still reason to be optimistic about Boston’s future with both Tatum and Brown locked up long term, but there is work to be done to put the right pieces around them and Stevens must find someone who can motivate them maybe even better than he could.
It was obvious the Celtics needed change this offseason but the news of the Celtics musical chairs still hit with the velocity of a Robert Williams volleyball block. Twelve hours after his team’s disappointing 2020-21 season ended in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs -- with Irving on the other side, no less -- Stevens took on the burden of figuring out how to get Boston back on the same level of a Brooklyn team that has emerged as the title favorite.
Was this the right time for a change? It’s always easier to make a move after a disappointing campaign. Ainge, steadfast in recent weeks that he wasn’t contemplating stepping back, didn’t always sound like someone who was willingly ready to watch from afar to see if the fruits of his labor could deliver Banner 18. But with Stevens inserted in his spot, Ainge at least seemed at peace with the decision.
Stevens, too, sounded a little bit wistful while detailing his feelings at the end of Game 5 and knowing that, after 21 years with the clipboard in his hand, a new challenge awaited. He waited until Tuesday morning to tell his teenage son about the change and wonders what it will be like when everyone just calls him Brad instead of “Coach.” But he also sounded invigorated by what’s ahead.
And, ultimately, maybe change was unavoidable. The Celtics get a new vision after Ainge’s 18 years in the GM seat but maintain the undivided focus on the task of adding to the banner collection.
Stevens should have much of Ainge’s support system in place to help ease his transition. His first task will be identifying the right person to lead this team forward as coach and his seemingly endless rolodex of play-callers should make that a fun endeavor to dive into. Stevens poked fun at himself while noting that the new coach doesn’t have to fill Doc Rivers’ shoes, he just has to be better than the last guy.
A heavy lift awaits Stevens after the coaching hire. Stevens used to be able to deflect roster decisions by noting that it was Ainge’s job to figure out the best pieces. Stevens surely had a voice in those decisions -- though Ainge was the first to admit he didn’t always agree with those choices -- but there’s a lot more pressure when you’ve got the final say.
The big question from this vantage point is, can Stevens be as bold as his predecessor? Ainge, for all the quips about always coming this close at the trade deadline, took some big swings during his two decades here. Those moves delivered Banner 17 and at least positioned the Celtics to compete for another title in the 2020s.
We know by now that Stevens puts a premium on established talent, often deferring to veterans over young players during his time on the sideline. If he overhauls the back end of this roster, we’re guessing he’ll give his new coach a more trustworthy gang of reserves than what he dealt with the last two seasons.
But what does that mean for Kemba Walker? Effusive in his praise of the 31-year-old point guard over the past two years, will GM Brad be willing to roll the dice on Walker’s health or look for ways to move the $74 million remaining on his contract? What about Marcus Smart? He was a stalwart of the Stevens era, but does Stevens value Smart’s intangibles the way Ainge surely did or will he use him as trade fodder as an impending free agent after this season?
Will GM Brad splurge to keep Evan Fournier around? Is he ready to extend Robert Williams despite his health woes? Which young guys are Prez Brad willing to invest in, and does that jibe with Coach Brad’s playing time distribution?
What we do know is that Stevens will dive into his new role with a desire to prove he can do it. We’re fully expecting his first decision on coach will be as bold of a choice as it was when Ainge plucked Stevens out of Indiana.
Change is difficult. But it can also be invigorating. Notice no one is lamenting the 2020-21 season today. The focus shifted quickly to what’s ahead -- and that’s not a coincidence.
Was promoting Stevens the right move? We’ll let time be the judge. But we’re certain Stevens is ready for the challenge ahead.