It is generally understood that the NBA poses uniquely perilous challenges—egos and money and meddling agents, salary-cap machinations and media glare—that can sink even the sharpest of coaches.
Those things matter, and they may one day consume Stevens, who is embarking on his first season as head coach of the Boston Celtics after a fabled run at Butler University.
But Stevens wasn’t thinking about any of that when the Celtics opened their preseason schedule this month. No, he was consumed with time.
NBA games are longer than college games, by eight minutes. The shot clock is shorter, by 11 seconds. That means more possessions, more substitutions, more decisions to make, more circumstances to consider and analyze.
“It’s got to be 115 to 120 possessions you get in the pro game,” Stevens said this week. “In college, there would be games where we would get 70. That’s 50 more possessions. Well, you’re not going to be able to run a set every time down the floor. You’re going to have to be good in your continuity. You’re going to have to get quick looks. And you’re going to have to play at a good rate.”
The discussion of time quickly expanded into a discussion of the calendar—the rapid succession of NBA games, the back-to-back sets, the four games in five nights.
“Defensively, you’ve go to be really sound,” Stevens said, “because you’re not able to prepare. You don’t have four days in between games. So we’ve got to be simple in making the right tweaks.”
These are the fundamental, day-to-day challenges that now confront Stevens, who will be the NBA’s youngest coach, at age 37, on opening night. And those last few paragraphs are an insight into the methodical, analytical mind that made Stevens such an intriguing choice to lead the Celtics into their rebuilding era.
At Butler, where he served as head coach for six years, Stevens was renowned for his work ethic, his communication skills and his intellect. He earned his fame by leading Butler, a mid-major, to the NCAA title game in 2010 and 2011. His embrace of advanced metrics also endeared him to a Celtics front office that strongly values statistical analysis and creative thinking.
In interviews, Stevens is affable, easygoing and easy to like. Friends call him an intensely competitive person, a point belied by his remarkably cool demeanor on the court.
“He’s more laid back,” said the Celtics veteran Keith Bogans, who quickly added, with a knowing chuckle, “The longer it goes on, I think he’s going to get a little more intense.”
The reality of the season will set in soon enough, testing both the acumen and the geniality of the Celtics’ new coach.
Six days before hiring Stevens, the Celtics agreed to a trade sending Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the cornerstones of the 2008 championship team, to the Brooklyn Nets, for a package of role players. That move followed the decision to let Doc Rivers out of his contract, to coach the Los Angeles Clippers.
There are few remaining ties to the Celtics’ glory years. Rajon Rondo, the mercurial point guard, is the last star standing. And standing is about all he can do for the moment, as he works his way back from February's ACL surgery in his right knee. It could be months before he plays again.
As a franchise, the Boston Celtics are focused on the future—on the talent-rich 2014 draft, the promise of cap room in 2015 and, perhaps most critically, whether to rebuild around Rondo or to trade him.
There will be nine rookie coaches in the NBA this season, and several who face tough rebuilding projects. But Stevens is the only one who is coming straight from the college ranks, working for one of the league’s most storied franchises and following in the footsteps of a legend.
“You can look at all that stuff and feel like its daunting,” Stevens said, “or you can look at it as a great opportunity to build something.”
The climb will be steep. The Celtics’ most accomplished scorer is Jeff Green, who is having a miserable preseason as the default No. 1 option (8.6 points per game on 31.4 percent shooting through Tuesday). Their most talented scorer might be Jordan Crawford, a volume shooter with no evident conscience. Without Rondo, the Celtics have no true point guard. Avery Bradley is filling the role for now, as he did last season, with mixed results.
On Tuesday, the NBA preseason schedule sent the Celtics to Brooklyn, providing a stark and almost cruel juxtaposition. There was Pierce, in a bright white Nets jersey, exchanging smiles and pleasantries with Rondo, in green warmups that he never shed, in front of the Boston bench.
Stevens could only marvel at the Nets’ star-studded, Celtic-infused roster—“They’re loaded, at most every position”—while he deployed a starting five of Crawford, Bradley, Green, Jared Sullinger and Brandon Bass.
The game nevertheless came down to the final seconds, and a missed 13-foot jumper by Courtney Lee—a play that, in another time, would been drawn up for Pierce. The Nets held on for an 82-80 win.
“In coaching,” Stevens said afterward, “you always think about the other things you could have done if they miss it.”
Unstated, but more to the point: The things a coach can do are necessarily limited by the players he is given.
When the Celtics are losing—and they will, a lot—the discussion will inevitably drift to Stevens’ age and his pedigree and the well-worn list of college coaches who have failed in the NBA. Rick Pitino, who flamed out with the Celtics more than a decade ago, is among the most noteworthy reference points.
Stevens will be battling against perceptions and history, but with good odds of defying both.
Celtics president Danny Ainge made his commitment to Stevens clear when he gave him a six-year contract, a length that is nearly unheard of in the NBA.
Nor does Stevens have much in common with the swaggering, ego-driven control freaks—the Pitinos and John Caliparis—who have so often failed to make the transition from college to the NBA. In demeanor and makeup, Stevens seems closer to the Frank Vogel model—smart but grounded, humble and open-minded.
“The single best skill I believe that Brad has is his ability to communicate,” said Barry Collier, the Butler athletic director and a mentor to Stevens. “You’re dealing with an incredibly honest person who’s going to try to find a way to appreciate the individual talents that anyone brings.”
Collier added, “Brad is more of a process guy and is able to weather the storm and let the process work, which is going to take time. He knows they’ll be better down the road than they are today.”
In assembling his staff, Stevens chose a mix of trusted friends from Butler and NBA veterans, led by Ron Adams, one of the most respected assistants in the league. Stevens is quick to seek their advice, as well as the advice of his players, in particular Rondo, Bogans and Gerald Wallace.
“Everybody’s input really counts,” said assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry, who previously worked with Stevens at Butler. “I think that’s where Brad’s humility comes in. He’s not above listening to somebody who has a good idea to help.”
There is no shortage of free advice coming in. “Everybody’s given advice,” Stevens said with a wry smile. “And I’ve taken it from everybody.”
He might need all of it.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.
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