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BOSTON — Brad Stevens doesn’t look or sound all that different than he did when he first arrived from the college ranks six-plus years ago.
But the Stevens that we see pacing up and down the sideline these days for the Boston Celtics has a much better command of the NBA game, a game that is about more than just X’s and O’s.
If it were just about that, Stevens would have no problems or issues to speak of.
But as we all know, there’s more to this NBA head coaching gig than just that.
And the more you watch Stevens at work, the clearer his evolution into this job is powering both his own individual success and that of the Celtics.
Kemba Walker scoring 32 or more points in each of the last three games for Boston has been huge in the team’s success. Ditto for Marcus Smart’s leadership, Jayson Tatum’s improved scoring, Jaylen Brown’s all-around play and the contributions that seem to be pouring in from the likes of Daniel Theis and rookie Grant Williams.
But overlooked in the team’s success this season has been Stevens, who has the Celtics (4-1) off to their best start in nearly a decade.
Here are five factors that have been at the heart of Stevens’ success this season with the Celtics:
1. CONNECTING WITH KEMBA
While many would give Kyrie Irving a slight edge over Kemba Walker when it comes to talent, the NBA has shown us time and time again that success involves more than just having good players.
The meshing of talent with chemistry, particularly when it comes to the head coach and the best player, is critical.
And while Stevens and Irving didn’t have any significant philosophical differences, the connection that Stevens has with Walker absolutely blows away the bond that he had with Irving.
Part of that stems from Irving’s "mood swings" as detailed in a recent ESPN article, something that Stevens and his Celtics players from the last couple seasons know all too well.
With Walker, the Celtics know exactly what they are getting everyday from a player who is generally upbeat and whose emotional pendulum rarely sways too far.
And that steady-as-you-go demeanor aligns well with Stevens whose consistent demeanor is very much like that of Walker, which is why their ability to connect from day one has been a big part of Boston’s early success.
2. ESTABLISHING IDENTITY
With so many changes to the roster, no one had any idea what to expect from the Boston Celtics to start this season.
- How will all those wings co-exist?
- Who will be the leader?
- Will Jayson Tatum take the leap so many, himself included, are expecting?
But beyond the burning questions, the biggest issue impacting this team was going to be establishing a style of play and identity.
The Celtics have talked about the importance of defense for years, but it was due to take a hit this year after losing Al Horford (Philadelphia) and Aron Baynes (Phoenix) — not to mention assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry, who returned to the college ranks (Purdue) after being the architect behind the team’s top-shelf defense for years.
But what we’ve seen thus far is a group that will struggle on the boards, but play a scrappy brand of basketball that will keep them in most games. And as the game goes on, their play at both ends of the floor seems to get better. One of the more telling stats about this Celtics team is the stark contrast between their offensive rating in the first half of games (91.4, dead-last in the NBA) versus the second half (122.7, tops in the league).
Even though the offensive goes from worst to first from one half to the next, the defense has been solid, with a defensive rating that ranks among the top 10 in both first and second-half play and overall, and is ranked ninth (101.4) in the NBA.
3. NO CONTRACT ISSUES
The four-year, $115 million extension Jaylen Brown received before the start of the season was huge on so many fronts for both Brown and the Celtics.
For Brown, it’s generational wealth and security that all NBA players hope to cash in on by steadily improving and exhibiting their worth as a player, which Brown has done in his three-plus seasons in Boston.
For the Celtics, it removes a potential distraction that, as we saw last season, has the potential to become a major problem.
When you look at their core group now, there’s Kemba Walker, who is in the first year of his four-year, $141 million contract. Jayson Tatum is eligible for an extension this offseason, and will most likely get a max contract extension.
The only player with an uncertain contract status coming into this season is Gordon Hayward, who has a player option on the final year of the four-year, $127.8 million deal he signed with Boston in 2017.
4. COLLEGE TALK SQUASHED
Having had such a successful coaching run at Butler before coming to Boston, it made sense that Stevens’ name would come up whenever a high-profile head coaching job in the college ranks opened up.
But the last couple of years, such talk has died down considerably, to the point where talk of Stevens returning to the college ranks rarely comes up anymore.
Part of that has to do with Stevens’ repeated insistence that he’s not looking to return to the college ranks.
But also helping kill those questions is the fact that Stevens has now been an NBA head coach longer than he was at Butler, a subtle but important reminder to all that him being an NBA head coach isn’t just a passing fancy.
5. 'DEEP DIVE' PAYING OFF
When last season ended, Brad Stevens was one of the first to be accountable for his role in the team’s underwhelming season.
"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,” Stevens told reporters following Boston’s Game 5 loss to Milwaukee in the second round of the playoffs last season. “I think I did a bad job. At the end of the day, as a coach, if your team doesn’t find its best fit together that’s on you. So I’ll do a lot of deep dives into how I can be better.”
And we’re seeing the fruits of that labor of discovery, here at the start of the season. While many Celtics fans and media pundits have been quick to pin the team’s struggles last season on now-ex Celtic Kyrie Irving, Stevens has been steadfast in holding the responsibility for what happened last season on the entire team. And along that same line of thinking, getting back on track is going to have to involve every Celtic. Stevens’ past players have talked about his ability to be an effective communicator with them, we’ve seen a lot of that with his younger players like Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards and fan favorite Tacko Fall. The team’s success defensively has been as much about the collective sum of the players, than any individual.
And that speaks to the “deep dive” Stevens took this offseason, which is paying off in a big way to start this season for the Celtics.
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