This does not come as an absolute shock throughout the NBA; last week a rival team executive suggested Stevens as a possible coach for the Celtics. There is, however, a big difference between considering Stevens as a candidate versus vesting the future of the NBA's winningest franchise in him.
Stevens, 36, has never coached professionally. The history of failure by college coaches in the NBA -- with Rick Pitino's tenure in Boston serving among the most infamous examples -- reveals this to be a daring choice by Ainge and principal owner Wyc Grousbeck.
It is, above all else, an inspired move. It says what is already well known about Ainge -- that he is not afraid to stick out his neck. Having taken this enormous risk, Ainge is making it clear that he is going to be standing by his new young coach as Stevens endures a steep learning curve.
Most of the career college coaches have failed in the NBA because (1) they couldn't adapt to a league in which the team revolves around the players rather than the coach, (2) the pro game is far more sophisticated and demanding and they were unable (or unwilling) to meet the demands, and (3) they took over bad teams and lacked the support of management over the long haul.
The hiring of Stevens indicates a trade is upcoming for Rajon Rondo, who is among the smartest and most stubborn stars in the NBA. Rivers is known for being able to cajole with, reason with and confront players as well as any coach in the league, and it required the full array of his talents and three decades of NBA experiences in order to maintain a constructive relationship with Rondo.
Ainge understands the strengths and weaknesses of Rondo better than anyone. It is hard to imagine him introducing Stevens to the NBA by pairing him with Rondo, who would routinely question moves and undermine the new coach before he could develop a working knowledge of the league. Stevens, more so than Rondo, represents the future of the Celtics now.
Ainge has spent the past decade learning the NBA from the point of view of a team president who won a championship and also lost 107 games over the preceding two seasons. Instead of hiring a coach who acquired his NBA lessons elsewhere, Ainge has brought in a young talent who is going to learn, with the help of Ainge, the meaning of the Celtics' long tradition. The departure of Rivers left Ainge with full power over the team, and he is wielding that power in an audacious and promising way.
Stevens was known for running an NBA-styled offense dependent on pick-and-rolls while leading Butler to NCAA title games in 2010 and '11. His hiring suggests that Ainge intends to build a program from the ground up based around the fluid offensive style in which he believes. The first indication of the future came when Ainge traded up to No. 13 in order to draft Kelly Olynyk, a highly-skilled big man from Gonzaga who will play multiple frontcourt positions for Boston. Too much should not be read into this one draft pick, but look at it this way: If Olynyk becomes the starting center of the new Celtics' era, then he will represent a major shift in emphasis from defensive-minded Kendrick Perkins, who was the preferred center of Rivers' nine years in Boston.
Ainge may insist that he has no plans to trade his All-Star point guard, because that's what you say when you're trying to trade someone. But one potential path seems clear: Trade Rondo, hold onto other young talents like Jeff Green and Avery Bradley, suffer a losing season while Stevens spends a needed year adapting to the demands of his new job, and then get in line to win the lottery and the rights to Andrew Wiggins or another young star in what promises to be a talented 2014 draft.
The Celtics aren't going to be tanking, and they aren't going to rebuild in the traditional NBA sense. With this hire it is clear that Ainge is focused on developing a program based on the values and vision in which he and his new coach share. Ainge, also a former head coach, is going to mentor Stevens. It is clearly the kind of relationship (one that is unusual in the NBA) that Ainge wants at this stage of his career. Unlike most of the other college coaches who have failed in the NBA, Stevens is going to have the long-term backing of management -- a six-year contract, as reported by the Boston Herald -- because Ainge, to his credit, made this move knowing that it will be his reputation that suffers if Stevens should fail.
Before Ainge was hired, and before he hired Rivers and then traded for Kevin Garnett, the Celtics had spent two lost decades trying to renew their values and stay relevant in the modern NBA.
Now, in what could have been a moment of uncertainty and weakness, Ainge is making a long-term investment in those values. He and Stevens are married to each other, they need each other, and that alone is reason to believe that together they may eventually be able to do something unprecedented in the NBA -- contend for the championship with a college coach. In this case, Stevens will be learning from the unique point of view of the NBA's winningest franchise. There has never been a story in the modern day league quite like this one.