Brad Stephens will be the NBA's youngest head coach. (Lexington Herald-Leader/Getty Images)
Why shouldn't college basketball's fastest-rising star be the man chosen to guide the NBA's fastest-dropping franchise?
In a move no one saw coming, the Celtics tabbed Butler University's Brad Stevens as the successor to Doc Rivers on Wednesday, plucking one of the hottest commodities in the NCAA and dropping him into the middle of a dramatic rebuilding effort. Much of the surprise can be traced to two factors: Stevens' age -- at 36, he will be the league's youngest head coach -- and the moat-like insularity that exists in the NBA coaching world. While Stevens is stuck with his youth and the complications that it could cause during a transition to the professional game, we shouldn't hold the NBA's general reluctance to dip into the college ranks to find coaches against him.
The big college-to-pros misses have had a tendency to stick in the craw: Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Tim Floyd and Jerry Tarkanian are among the more memorable failures. The Bobcats went out on a limb by hiring Syracuse assistant Mike Dunlap -- who had previously been an NBA assistant -- only to show him the door after a single 21-61 season that saw reports of player insubordination. Often left unsaid, though, is how rarely college head coaches even get the opportunity to fall flat on their faces in the NBA. Just about everyone gets fired in the NBA, and the pool of former college coaches given a shot in the NBA in recent years is so shallow that any conclusions about their relative skills in making the transition are subject to sample-size disclaimers.
Boston is the 12th team to hire a new coach this summer; the other 11 include four men with prior NBA head coaching experience, nine men who served a stint as an NBA assistant before claiming their first NBA head coaching job, and six men who were former NBA players. The only other new coach this year without any previous coaching experience is future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, regarded as one of the most cerebral players in league history. Three of this year's coaching hires have previous experience as both NBA head coaches and players (Rivers, Maurice Cheeks and Larry Drew), and two others were both NBA assistants and players (Brian Shaw, Jeff Hornacek). Stevens, quite clearly, is the ultimate outlier in the conversation, arriving in Boston with no NBA head coaching, assistant coaching or playing experience. He famously left Eli Lilly at 23 to take a volunteer position with Butler basketball, where he spent the past 13 years, earning promotion to the head coaching position in 2007. Now, he will become the only NBA head coach hired to his current position directly from college.
Celtics president Danny Ainge is inarguably bucking the NBA's traditional approach with this hire, but a move that is unusual isn't necessarily risky or stupid. In fact, circumstances in Boston are aligning such that this would seem to be an ideal time for Ainge and the Celtics to see if Stevens can duplicate his remarkable rise through the college ranks in the pro game.
Conditions have to be just right for an organization to be willing to take this type of plunge, and that starts at the very top. Boston's current ownership group has been in place since 2002, a period of time that saw some extraordinary ups (the 2008 title, a 2010 Finals appearance) and downs (33 wins in 2006, 24 wins in 2007). That rollercoaster, which jolted toward excellence when Ainge assembled the Big 3 of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, surely gives ownership a unique perspective on team-building. Many organizations talk about avoiding the treadmill of mediocrity, but few seem to pursue the "if we can't be very good, let's be very bad so that we have a better shot at adding stars" quite like the Celtics.
Want to know a major reason why college coaches aren't hired to become NBA coaches? Because management assumes a large portion of the risk if such an unusual move fails. GMs are a disposable commodity, and it's no difficult task for an NBA owner to clean house and fire the executive who dared to suggest hiring a college coach. That Ainge, who has been in Boston's front office since 2003, was ultimately able to deliver a title and a team that contended for a half-decade gave him a level of trust that few NBA executives possess. He is able to operate outside the bounds of NBA group think because, unlike many of his peers, he doesn't appear to be operating with an ax hanging over his head on a year-to-year basis.
Expectations are the next major barrier to a college coach's entry into the NBA. This year is a great example: more than one-third of the league's coaching positions turned over. That includes a number of playoff teams and three teams -- the Nuggets, Clippers and Grizzlies -- that posted franchise-best regular-season records. When staring down that "NEED TO WIN ... NOW" sentiment, it's no surprise that owners and general managers turn to candidates with NBA experience as opposed to the unknown. After trading both Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in a long-term, asset-acquisition deal and with Rajon Rondo's name bubbling on the trading block, expectations aren't really going to be an immediate issue for Stevens, or anyone the Celtics considered for the job. The focus for at least the next year will be establishing a culture of hard work with an emphasis on player development. Losing might not be the goal, but it won't be viewed as a surprise, a black mark against the coach or as that big of a deal. Everyone appears to be on the same page here, and that page involves lots and lots of 2014 lottery ping pong balls.
To summarize: experienced ownership, a free-thinking, empowered GM and an obvious rebuilding cycle hit all the key factors a college coach could hope for in making the leap. On the flipside, Stevens looks like an ideal candidate to succeed in these conditions. Despite his youth, he possesses a decade-plus of coaching experience and has an indisputable track record of success, leading Butler to a pair of Final Fours and a 166-49 record in six seasons. Importantly, he combines those résumé items with: a calm, sober, upbeat and logical personality; a genuine, respectful communication style; an immense work ethic; and a personal integrity that is considered beyond reproach. These are all qualities essential to coaching success, in the NBA or in general, but they will prove to be particularly valuable during the long, lean NBA seasons that are sure to come over the next few years.