Eleven months ago, with his team still basking in the glow of an unexpected run to the fringe of the NBA Finals, Brad Stevens lounged in an office inside the Boston Celtics’ former practice facility but looked uncomfortable when the conversation with a reporter shifted to the growing hype already surrounding his team.
Much of the basketball world had started to declare the Celtics as the new favorite in the East and those declarations would only grow louder throughout the summer (particularly after LeBron James officially took his talents west). Even in the infancy, Stevens bristled when asked about the championship-level hype that had enveloped his team.
"We go into the season recognizing that we can't skip steps,” cautioned Stevens, the first of many yellow flags he’d wave before the 2018-19 season.
Stevens repeatedly told his team it couldn’t just show up and expect to be great. He stressed to them it would take hard work, sacrifice, and an ability to fight through adversity to simply get back to where their season had ended the year before.
All of Stevens’ concerns were validated throughout the nauseating roller coaster ride that was the 2018-19 season. His team sometimes acted as if it expected to simply show up and win games. They repeatedly skipped steps.
And, because of that, they got unceremoniously bounced in the second round of the playoffs, losing four straight, including two on their home turf in what amounted to must-win situations, and offering little resistance throughout the process.
The lack of fight at the finish line of the season, combined with Boston lacking the hallmarks of Stevens’ previous teams, left the coach particularly disappointed.
"I’ll be the first to say that, as far as any other year that I’ve been a head coach, it’s certainly been the most trying. I think I did a bad job,” Steven said after Boston’s Game 5 loss in Milwaukee. "Like, at the end of the day, as a coach, if your team doesn’t find its best fit together that’s on you.”
How much of the blame does Stevens deserve for this year’s failures? It’s undeniable that he had the best collection of talent of his entire coaching career and yet his team fell woefully short of expectations. For the first time in his NBA career, Stevens failed to increase Boston’s win total — the team slipping six wins to 49, this in a season in which Las Vegas had them sniffing 60 wins before the start of the year.
As Stevens said, when a team simply doesn’t find the best version of itself, much of that blame has to fall back on the coach. Stevens never figured out the right combinations or how to press the right buttons.
Stevens’ biggest strength — and maybe his biggest flaw this season — is that he has a propensity to give his players every opportunity to work through what ails them. In the past, that faith has been rewarded by players who appreciate the rope they’ve been given.
This year, his players too frequently simply let go of that rope.
Maybe Stevens should have made changes to his rotation earlier in the year before the team stumbled its way to a 10-10 start and Gordon Hayward got moved to a bench role. Maybe Stevens waited too long to make changes later in the year before settling on the two-big lineup that brought the team so much success in the early stages of the postseason.
Maybe Stevens leaned too hard on Terry Rozier, who simply never figured out how to positively impact winning while coming off the bench. Maybe Stevens should have tightened his rotations more often, eliminating the talent log jams that his players struggled so mightily to endure.
Ultimately, the Celtics’ front office elected to roll with the glut of talent hoping that the team would eventually figure out roles and lean on that depth in the postseason. They did — for five playoff games, at least — but quickly reverted to old frustrating habits. Then instead of working through it, they just launched 3-pointers and played haphazardly.
They skipped steps and fell flat on their face.
Ultimately, Stevens might not have been able to prevent exactly what clearly worried him 11 months ago. But how can he grow and learn from a maddening season?
Stevens showed a great deal of personal accountability while acknowledging he had a bad season. That’s more than some of the stars on this year’s team can say. It seems fair to wonder if Stevens needs to be firmer when the stars on his rosters don’t play to expectation.
Listen, it’s a delicate line to walk, and easier for this reporter to type than for a coach to actually deal with. Players are different and it’s undeniably easier to hold young players accountable for defensive lapses than to do the same with, say, an impending free agent who continually calls for head-scratching switches throughout your playoff run. Every NBA player is different and coaches have to find the proper methods to motivate and keep them engaged.
With the departure of Micah Shrewsberry, Stevens has a rare spot to fill among his assistants. It will be fascinating to see which direction he goes with his pick. Since the departure of Walter McCarty, the team has lacked the presence of a former player who might be able to help take the temperature of a locker room. The right ex-player might also serve as liaison between coach and prickly player.
Or Stevens could target a specialist. Shrewsberry was a defensive coordinator of sorts and, while it would be unfair to pigeonhole his role as solely that, most assistants have a specific focus that takes some of the work off the head coach’s plate.
Stevens, who signed a six-year deal when he came to Boston, would have been reaching a contract year this summer if the team hadn’t extended him three seasons in 2016. While this is the first year he’s faced harsh criticism for failing to meet expectations, his job security is high, with co-owner Wyc Grousbeck having already publicly gone to bat for Stevens after the tumultuous season.
Stevens will undoubtedly use the summer to learn and grow. He said after Boston’s exit that he would undertake many deep dives into the team’s struggles to figure out how he can improve and help his team avoid the missteps they made this season.
One thing is for certain: He won’t skip steps in that process.
Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.