Tankers take note: Wunderkind Brad Stevens and the Celtics are showing that it's possible to be competitive—very competitive—while building for the future.
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Brad Stevens has been called a genius, a prodigy and the future president of the United States. "I shouldn't be," he says when asked about being worshipped. "The credit goes to Danny Ainge and the guys on the court. It truly is about the people who are on the bus. And I'm not even close to driving it."
So does this mean he's not running for president? He laughs, but only to be polite. "Never."
He's not into this. He wants to talk about Jae Crowder guarding three positions every night, or Isaiah Thomas in the spread pick-and-roll, or Ainge's scouting. Actually, talking about his own success seems to be the only thing that makes Stevens uncomfortable.
But, look, it can't be avoided at this point. If he won't do it, others can.
"I got to know him in Chicago," former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau says. "From the first time I met him, you could tell. He's always studying, he's always improving. He'll never stay the same because of the way he approaches things. That's what makes him great."
"We hired him because he's a great person," says Ainge. "He's a hard worker, and he's very smart. It's a good formula for success."
"The big thing about Brad," Thibodeau says, "he never tries to be somebody else. He's humble, he's trustworthy, he's reliable, he's sincere. The players in the NBA read that, and if they see that he's knowledgeable, they're gonna buy into it."
Look at Thibs writing the campaign ads. It's a weak field, right? Stevens could definitely win Massachusetts. "No, thank you." He smiles for real now. "I like having a scoreboard."
And so this is the first reason to be excited about the Celtics' future. Brad Stevens isn't leaving.
For the outside world's understanding of this year's team, we go to Braintree resident and my 26-year-old cousin, Annie. "So you're here covering the Celtics?" she asks. "Well, the Celtics are kicking ass. We have no idea what's happening."
It's really not far off from the reaction across the NBA. There are no franchise players in Boston, and nobody who would even be considered a top five player at his position. The East isn't great, so maybe that's how this is happening? But Boston's beating playoff teams from the West by an average of 3.9 points per game.
It's all very difficult to explain, and it's why turning Stevens into a rock star has made sense. But crediting him is only half right. This is different from that cute story where every player sacrifices his style to play The Right Way, and the coach's system shines.
First of all, these players are actually good. Nearly any team in the league would find a way to get Crowder into the starting lineup. Same for shooting guard Avery Bradley, a shutdown corner with three-point range. Isaiah Thomas may not unseat guys like Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, but you could put him anywhere on the planet and he'd get you 20 points a night.
They also play drastically different styles. Take the 5'9" Thomas off the floor at point guard, and his tightly coiled pick-and-roll game is replaced with the Adventures of Evan Turner, a 6'7" backup who meanders through defenses with absolutely no plan—and somehow makes it work. The only thing Turner and Thomas have in common is that they've always had talent that other teams gave up on.
"We look at guys who might have a chip on their shoulder," Stevens says. "That's been a big deal for us. It's something that can be contagious, but it has to be recruited. At this level you have to draft and sign guys who have that attitude. It's hard to create an environment if those guys didn't bring that with them."
Compare this to the rest of the NBA, where every team is constantly searching for every possible advantage. I read a story last week about the 76ers investing in sport scientists who monitor water intake and lead meditation sessions after practice, and by next year they'll have a new training facility complete with napping pods and state-of-the-art kitchens.
The Celtics practice at a health club in Waltham, and there are no meditation sessions. The advantage they found is players who came to Boston pissed off. "It's our DNA," Crowder says.
"We got a group of guys that have always been counted out," Thomas adds. "And we play like that."
This year's Celtics rotation goes 10 deep with guys who are ready to throw their bodies all over the floor and prove critics wrong. If you're trying to understand the culture and unpack the chemistry, the common element is hard to miss.
"He has little man syndrome," Crowder laughs when asked about Thomas. "But I love it."
"We don't care who gets the credit," Turner says. "That's actually kinda special in this league. It's dope. Anytime you lose yourself in something bigger than you, it's really cool."
The best coaches are much harder to explain than the best players. Ask a fan to tell you why LeBron James is great, and you'll hear about passing and scoring and vision. Ask a fan to explain what makes Gregg Popovich great, and it will start with "wins," and then you'll hear mumbling about "culture" and "systems" and other words that get thrown around in every HR meeting in America.
Let's try to settle this without buzzwords, then. Here is a theory about what the best basketball coaches actually do, with Stevens as the perfect case study.
"Every NBA player has an elite strength," Stevens explains. "Some of them have 10 of 'em, and those guys are the very best in the league, right? But every one of 'em is here for a reason. And there are times when you can really soar with that skill, and there are times when they may not be as effective."
The best coaches understand those times before they happen. For example, Thomas struggles on defense, so that means Bradley or Marcus Smart will always handle the best guard on the floor. Bradley struggles creating his own shot, but he's the fastest player on the court and he can hit threes, so he's going to spend the possession running off screens like Reggie Miller, and he'll get his open looks that way. Crowder won't scare teams in isolation, but if he's popping off a screen, he can knock down threes or get into the lane to create for everyone else.
Every NBA player is good at something, and most are bad at something too. Look at San Antonio, or look at Boston. Whether it's Boris Diaw or Isaiah Thomas, the rosters are full of these players. The two best coaches in the sport are better than anyone at understanding those weaknesses, and hiding them. When you do that, the whole team looks better. That's what great coaching is.
And then it all gets unfair. The future in Boston began over the course of a few days in June 2013. "The first time Danny called," Stevens remembers, "he basically said, 'Hey, Doc [Rivers] just left. I want to talk to you about being the head coach of the Celtics, but I've got a busy couple of days ahead.'"
Before they could talk more, the Nets called Ainge. That call turned into a deal that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn in exchange for first-round picks in 2014, '16 and '18, plus Boston's option to swap picks with the Nets in 2017. Even now, it feels like there has to be a mistake.
I definitely don't believe Ainge when he claims he had no idea how valuable the picks would become, but he denies any officewide bacchanalia after the trade. "It seemed like a really good opportunity for everybody," he says.
In any case, let the record state that Ainge traded two superstars well past their primes for what could turn into three top 10 picks in the next three drafts, all while courting the guy who would become the best coach the NBA has seen since Gregg Popovich. It's as if Boston found two winning lottery tickets in the span of a week. One has a jackpot that should come in the next few years, and the other is Stevens, the annuity that pays off with teams that win everyone over in the meantime. See how this is unfair?
The next move is unclear. Ainge says he wants a "transcendent" player to take this team to the next level, but thus far the success has made it complicated. Last year's team was too good to land a top 10 pick in a loaded draft. Likewise, this year's team is good enough to make you wonder: Does it make sense to pursue a trade for someone like Kevin Love or Blake Griffin if you have to give away Crowder and Bradley? What about a Boogie Cousins experiment?
Draft picks will cost nothing, but they need time. Boston might be close enough to the Finals to start getting impatient. "We're in a position to make trades," Ainge says, "but you know, you gotta find trade partners."
Then the question turns to free agency. The Celtics have cap room, and Al Horford will be available. He'd be a good fit, at least as long his body holds up. The name Durant has been thrown around, too. If that sounds ridiculous, it's less so than it was six months ago. He'd join a contender full of history but without any of the risks associated with jumping on the Warriors' bandwagon.
Boston has never been a huge draw in free agency. Will winning make a difference? "It's hard to know," Ainge says. "I certainly would want to play for Brad and play this kind of basketball."
That's when you remember that, with 10 different scenarios in play, there may not be a bad outcome. Whatever the next step is, Brad Stevens isn't leaving. Good players will look even better in Boston. If you have questions about what's coming, just look at what's already here.