The Fundamentals: Brad Stevens empowers Celtics by the clipboard

In the notoriously unstable world of NBA coaching, Boston’s Brad Stevens has ensured he's one of precious few with unambiguous job security.
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In the notoriously unstable world of NBA coaching, Boston’s Brad Stevens is one of precious few with unambiguous job security. He was hired by the Celtics prior to last season on a six-year, $22 million deal despite having only coached on the collegiate level. Both the length and terms of that contract spoke to the Celtics’ confidence in Stevens. To that point, most first-time NBA head coaches had received deals around three years in length worth roughly half as much as Stevens’ contract.

Thus far he’s been worth every penny and well more. Stevens is every bit the kind of cornerstone coach that Boston hoped he might be: A calming presence, a consistent motivator, and a canny tactician. Stevens has seen 22 players come through his huddle over the course of the season, fewer only than the Sixers and Wolves. He seems to have siphoned the best basketball from most of those 22—from Evan Turner to Avery Bradley to Tayshaun Prince.

“One of the responsibilities that I feel like I have is that we’ve got to get some of these young guys, whether they are ready for it or not, to be the guy that is making a play, not only to make a big basket late in the game but to stop a run,” Stevens explains, according to RealGM. “Just having the toughness or desire to want to make that play and I got to do a better job of making those guys believe it.”

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Stevens knows personnel. He’s put an overmatched squad in such great position that Boston has won far more games than it had any right to. Nearly half of his opening night rotation has since been traded away or downed by injury, and yet Stevens can’t help but have his team prepared and competitive.

This—along with an unimpeachable run at Butler which included back-to-back NCAA title games—is why Stevens will be linked indefinitely to any and every head coaching job that opens up, plausibility be damned. To be this young and this successful as an NBA coach is exceptionally rare. In that, Stevens is the dream candidate. He says all the right things and pushes teams beyond their reasonable limits. The only catch is that he isn’t even remotely close to being available, no matter how many times the rumor mill spins ‘round.

Stevens isn’t just a good, young coach. He’s already one of the best in the league when it comes to managing games and manipulating X’s and O’s. Boston doesn’t have the firepower to keep up with the league’s better offenses, yet when coming out of timeouts this season, the Celtics rank No. 9 in points per play, according to Synergy Sports. The rotating cast of Celtics players deserve credit for cutting hard, screening solidly, and making quick decisions. There can be no mistaking, though, that their choreography comes from the bench. Let’s poke around in Stevens’ ever-evolving playbook:

Many of Stevens’ best plays are slight variations of those you’ll see in regular rotations elsewhere. In this case, the operative action is a baseline screen (similar to those used by Dallas and Portland) seemingly intended to set up Tyler Zeller in the post. As soon as Zeller clears the spot, his screener (Bradley) takes off up and around the pick of teammate Brandon Bass and into a clean jumper. Bradley’s defender (Hollis Thompson) is effectively asked to step over to deny Zeller and then keep up with Bradley as he cuts up the middle of the floor. 

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The timing makes it almost impossible; even if Thompson were able to release with Bradley at the point of the screen, Bass might still throw him off-course enough for Bradley to make a play. One of the most impressive things about Stevens’s play design is that he never wastes the momentum of one action to the next. Everything builds based on the ways that defenders are typically asked to help and recover, so as a possession drags on defenders only find themselves further and further behind. 

The backbone of this set draws on the kind of loop popularized by Tony Parker and the Spurs. Running any quick guard (here it’s rookie Marcus Smart) around two or three screens in a row is bound to create some mismatching or separation, either of which can be exploited by the time the guard again receives the ball. Boston’s version actually builds on that basic formula by having the initial screener (Kelly Olynyk) follow up to set a fourth screen for Smart on the opposite side of the floor.

This creates a scenario in which Smart’s initial defender, Alan Anderson, needs help. He gets it from a hedging Mason Plumlee, who then also needs help to defend Olynyk’s roll to the rim. His assistance comes from Joe Johnson on the wing, who tags Olynyk before waddling back to Jonas Jerebko at the three-point line. He’s too late. The ball moves quickly enough as to catch Jerebko virtually on the move, setting up a drive right through the middle of the defense.

Boston essentially won a game against Brooklyn by running double ball screens featuring one guard and one big. That’s pretty typical of the Celtics, though they can be just as effective while screening with both bigs as well. A double-wide screen all but demands a switch of the opposing defense, as happens here when Tobias Harris is forced to pick up Turner. That may not be a doomed matchup, though Turner has enough of a speed advantage to drive straight into Harris’ chest and rise up for an easy finish.

Isaiah Thomas’ pound-the-rock game doesn’t exactly lend itself to off-ball maneuvering, but here he shows just how deadly he can be when operating without control of the possession. Thomas’ sets and releases from a baseline screen so quickly that he turns two Heat defenders into picks against one another. Tyler Johnson needs to trail Thomas and Mario Chalmers is set to follow Turner, yet both wind up in the other’s way. That buys Thomas all the time he needs to cut up around a Bass screen and sidestep away from Johnson as he shoots the gap. Just a beauty of a play.

Whenever a ball handler has to pause while holding the ball and wait for a screen, the play in progress loses any of the advantage its built. The efficacy of the pick-and-roll can be misleading for just this reason; although the best creators in the game can pull amazing results from a simple, stagnant screen at the top of the key, it’s far more effective to have some preliminary action segue into the pick-and-roll. Here that prelude is a basic curl for Bradley into a dribble hand-off, the result of which mirrors that of a pick-and-roll. The difference is that Beno Udrih is already trailing at the point of the critical screen, triggering help rotations and setting up Kelly Olynyk for a wide open three.

On a standard quick-hitting inbounds play, the first cut made is almost always misdirection—a move to nudge the defense off balance or set up a subsequent screen. Boston plays with that expectation here by having Bass curl around a pair of screening teammates to a spot in the corner. Where most would then have Turner or Jae Crowder then make a similar cut of their own, the Celtics instead lob a gutsy, cross-court pass to Bass for the corner three. The dummy cut is made to be a real, observable threat.

Another, similar example: Boston’s game-tying lob to Smart against the Grizzlies last month. The need to attend to each offensive player coupled with the gradual development of most sideline plays leaves Smart free to tie up the game and draw the foul. Boston would go on to win, 95–92.

The best set plays don’t create shots, but options. A first-choice scorer can always be taken away. The true goal, then, is to position players to leverage whatever it is they do best even if the primary action breaks down. Here we see Charlotte defend Boston’s movement rather well. Neither the shot nor the drive is immediately there for Thomas after his catch at the top of the floor, creating the need for something more. Thomas triggers a basic pick-and-roll with Zeller as a follow-up, though the real action to watch is in the left corner.

Bradley has loitered in that same spot for more than 10 seconds and in doing so, lost the attention of defender Brian Roberts. Bradley’s baseline cut doesn’t seem programmed, though it draws on the fact that the screens and movement happening elsewhere tugs Roberts toward the free throw line. By the time he even realizes that the stalled play has pulled him out of position, it’s too late.