Celtics Take a Chance on Brad Stevens ... Again

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge announced he is retiring, and coach Brad Stevens will take his place. But is this the right decision?
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BOSTON — Danny Ainge is out.

Brad Stevens is in.

And I have only one question:

Did anyone think about calling Sam Presti?

Ainge’s exit, formally announced by the Celtics on Wednesday, is unsurprising, with rumors that Ainge, Boston’s top front office exec since 2003, could step down rippling through the NBA for months. On Wednesday, Ainge said the idea of quitting germinated in '19, when Ainge suffered a mild heart attack, his second in 10 years. His family, Ainge says, urged him to consider leaving his job then. Two years later, he is.

“I’ve always trusted my instincts,” Ainge said. “And my instincts told me this was the right time.”

Ainge’s legacy in Boston—which includes one championship and arguably the biggest trade heist in recent NBA history—is secure. This season’s disappointing finish notwithstanding, the Celtics have a bright future, with Jayson Tatum, 23, emerging as one of the NBA’s best young players, Jaylen Brown, 24, right behind him and a mix of recent draft picks (Robert Williams, Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard) comprising a promising core.

As GMs go, Ainge has been excellent.

Stevens's elevation, on the other hand, is shocking. Stevens, 44, is a brilliant basketball mind. He’s coached the Celtics since 2013, when Ainge surprised the basketball world by hiring Stevens, then a coaching prodigy at Butler. He has quickly risen to the ranks of the coaching elite, and under different circumstances would be a credible candidate to fill a vacant position.

But, again: Sam Presti.

Not approaching Presti, arguably the NBA’s top executive, is tantamount to basketball malpractice. In 14 years with the Thunder—well, 13, as Presti has been around so long they were still the Sonics when he took over—Presti has built the small-market Thunder into an NBA powerhouse. He drafted Kevin Durant. He drafted Russell Westbrook. He drafted James Harden. He fleshed out the roster with less-heralded picks like Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson. He built an NBA Finals team from scratch, one that could have emerged as a mid-2010s dynasty if not for injuries, one bad trade (Harden) and Durant’s decision to defect to Golden State in '16.

Oh, and he’s from the Boston suburbs, played college basketball at Emerson and still has family in the area.

Would Presti have been interested? I don’t know. What I do know is there may not have been a better time for him to jump ship. Oklahoma City is as set up as a team can be for a rebuild. They have a pair of cornerstones in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a budding All-Star, and Lu Dort, a defensive menace. They have 17 first-round picks (and 18 second-rounders) through 2027, including what could be a top-three pick this summer. And there is a clear line of succession, with Rob Hennigan, a longtime Presti lieutenant and former GM in Orlando, set up to replace him.

It was worth a conversation.

On a Zoom call announcing the Celtics' new management, I asked owner Wyc Grousbeck why the Celtics chose not to have it, with Presti or anyone outside the organization.

“What we decided was that we would wait until the end of the season if we went that route,” Grousbeck explained. “Talking to Brad one day I said, ‘Let’s run a search together’ and I said, ‘You might want to throw your name in.’ From my standpoint, that’s when it started. I think Brad and Danny might have started tossing it around years ago, casually, but they never filled me in. It’s always probably been a possibility. It’s a natural promotion from within.”

I cringe saying anything critical of Brad Stevens. Stevens is a basketball savant. His track record over eight seasons as Boston’s coach is terrific. He turned a 25-win lottery team in his first season into a 48-win conference contender in his third. He turned previously unheralded talent (Isaiah Thomas, Evan Turner) into valuable ones. He’s had his rough spots—the disastrous 2018–19 season, that saw Boston, a Finals contender entering the season, drop-kicked out of the playoffs in the second round, was a lowlight—but ask around the NBA: If Stevens was a coaching free agent, a half dozen teams or more would be pursuing him.

And perhaps Stevens was burned out with coaching. The last few years have been stressful. The 2018–19 season was a disaster. The ’19–20 season was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and finished with Boston and 22 other teams sequestered in a bubble. This season never got untracked, and finished with Irving and the Nets pounding the Celtics in five games.

Would Stevens have been happy remaining as the team’s head coach?

“For sure,” Stevens said. “No doubt. I love basketball. I loved my time as a coach. I also want what is best for the Celtics. I want to do my part in ultimately helping us achieve what we want to achieve. That’s the driver for me. This ownership group, Danny, have treated me unbelievably and this organization means a lot to me and my family. Whatever they would have asked me to do, certainly, I would have done it with the same enthusiasm that I have.”

But a front-office job is different, and the skills required to be successful as a coach don’t always translate. Stevens may have them. Presti does. What’s more, Stevens could have worked with Presti. The two have a longstanding friendship. Presti has considered hiring Stevens in the past. The pair could have been formidable. Instead, Stevens, who will be fully empowered to hire his replacement, will go it alone.

Who will Stevens hire? He will interview internal candidates this week, sources told Sports Illustrated. There are strong options: Jay Larranaga has interviewed for head coaching jobs with other organizations while Jerome Allen and Scott Morrison have head coaching experience. Stevens will also look outside the organization, with Nets assistant Ime Udoka expected to get a long look.

And Ainge? Officially, Ainge “retired,” but those around him say he has no intention of leaving the business. “I don’t know what my future holds,” Ainge said. “I don’t have any plans.” Still, an organization to watch: Utah. Ainge, a former BYU star, has a strong relationship with new Jazz owner Ryan Smith. There are no openings in the Jazz front office right now—Dennis Lindsey, Utah’s vice president of basketball operations, is considered one of the NBA’s top execs, and GM Justin Zanik is highly regarded—but if there is, Ainge is a likely candidate to fill it.

An era ended in Boston on Wednesday. Grousbeck spoke emotionally about the contributions Ainge has made to the organization—he is the only person to win championships as both a player and a GM—declaring that Ainge “epitomizes” what it means to be a Celtic. A smooth transition has been made to the next one, with Stevens saying he was “invigorated” by the new challenge while acknowledging the work needed to push the Celtics to a championship level.

“We’re going to win banner No. 18,” Grousbeck said. “Or die trying.”

The Celtics took a chance on Stevens once.

Eight years later, they are taking another. 

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