WHAT, EXACTLY? CELTICS COACH BRAD STEVENS IS A MYSTERY. HE MAY OR MAY NOT BE AT THE FOREFRONT OF THE ANALYTICS MOVEMENT, AND HE HAS NO NBA EXPERIENCE. ONE THING THAT'S CERTAIN: HE'S A LIFELONG STUDENT OF THE GAME—FITTING, BECAUSE HE COULD PASS FOR A COLLEGE KID
This is an article from the Aug. 26, 2013 issue
FORTY-ONE DAYS into his tenure as coach of the Celtics, Brad Stevens's second-floor office looks essentially the same as when it was vacated by its previous occupant. The walls are bare except for a corkboard covered with schedules, a dusty flat screen mounted at eye level and the small hooks from which Doc Rivers had hung family photographs. A couple of windows overlook the parking lot of the health club that shares the building, SUVs baking in early-August sunshine; three others offer views of the team's weight room and practice floor. Two leather couches and two leather armchairs occupy seemingly random spaces. The office lacks the cachet of Stevens's previous digs, if only because those were in Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse, with its unassailable roundball cool. Not that Stevens was much on decorating that space, either.
His L-shaped light-wood desk is swept clean but for a slender, silver MacBook Pro, a white legal pad with a Celtics logo and, in a corner, a small row of binders pushed against a window. In early July, Celtics president Danny Ainge stunned the basketball community by offering one of the most prized jobs in the NBA—and a six-year contract reportedly worth $22 million—to a 36-year-old mid-major college coach (albeit one with two appearances in the NCAA title game). Stevens stunned that same community no less by signing on. While he will soon move into a house with his wife and two children, since July 14 he has lived in a hotel near the Celtics' facility in Waltham, Mass., 12 traffic-choked miles west of the TD Garden and, for many hours, at his desk in front of the laptop.
Now that laptop is open, and Stevens is running one of the three software programs that most pro and major-college teams use for scouting, while explaining how he studies a game between two of the NBA's better squads. (He asked that neither the teams nor the players be identified in this story.) Green letters in the lower corner of the screen specify the action Stevens is breaking down: SIDE PNR VS. SMALLS (side pick-and-roll plays against guards and small forwards). Stevens narrates the action, succinctly summarizing various sets, options and movements by the defense. "Right here," says Stevens, pausing the video, "I'm watching how [Team A] defends [Team B's] different actions. Already there are three actions: [Player 1] sets a down screen for [Player 2], [Player 3] goes off a fake handoff, and there's a stagger for [Player 4] down here. What is [Team A] doing to defend this? Do you go under the down screen? Do you leave [Player 4] open when he's a very good shooter? You've got all these issues. It's a [defensive] system, and I think I've got a pretty good feel for what their system looks like." Here Stevens pauses, giving weight to the next sentence. "That doesn't mean it's easy to play against," he says. "Because it's not."
After a few more movements on the screen, Stevens closes the program and pulls up an Excel document, into which he has typed notes on every possession of another game involving a team that Boston will face early this season. The notations are copious, in a dense hoop-centric shorthand. One might reference the options off an offensive set, another might describe a particular player's movements in a very specific scenario. Upon coming to the NBA to work, Stevens called a friend and told him that the amount of available information about the professional game was astonishing—there just aren't enough hours or days to study it. "I've learned a lot, and I've got a lot more to learn," says Stevens. "It's almost a little overwhelming with the amount of information to process in a short amount of time. I'm working every day to get myself up to speed."
Since 2010, when Stevens took Butler to its first Final Four (the Bulldogs lost to Duke 61--59 in the championship game), all forms of media have searched for ways to describe his ascension. Because he looks younger than he is (although he acts much older), forms of the word prodigy bubbled to the surface with some regularity, as if he walked into Hinkle, sprinkled fairy dust on top of whatever was left behind by Milan High and Bobby Plump in 1954, and—poof!—Butler was a national power. This narrative rose in step with Stevens's anointing as a savant in analytics, which remain relatively new to basketball. He is believed to have been the first college coach to hire a staff member strictly to track statistics, but that label is accurate only to a point. And Stevens resists it. "The whole Brad Stevens-ahead-of-the-curve-on-statistics thing is overblown," he says. "Anything I can get to make us better, I'm all ears. But everybody does this stuff."
Still, there are grains of truth in most good myth making. Stevens was very good very young: He took over a strong Butler program at 30, won 30 games in his first season and missed the NCAA tournament only once in six years. His two title-game appearances were unprecedented for a non-BCS school in the modern era. Yet there was little magic. There were good mentors, good assistants and good players; there were long hours. (There were also, history excuses, 49 losses.) While it's true that Stevens embraces analytics, he values digitization no more than camaraderie and the hoary canon of what was known as the Butler Way long before he took over. "To me, all the intangible, subjective things you can't measure," says Stevens, "are more important than the things you can."
So he is not prodigy nor magician nor genius, although being any one of those would be useful in rebuilding a Celtics team that in the off-season unloaded veteran superstars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Stevens's wife, Tracy, offers up a more apt label: "He's a lifelong learner," she says. Stevens comes to Boston with more questions than answers, but he's been forming those questions since he first picked up a basketball.
BILL FENLON has been the coach at DePauw, a Division III school in Greencastle, Ind., for 21 seasons, including the four—from 1995 through '99—when Stevens was a guard. They remain close friends, so it wasn't surprising that as Fenlon traveled this summer's AAU circuit looking for players, he was routinely approached by peers incredulous that Stevens had made the leap from Hinkle to the Garden. "I've seen two or three hundred coaches this summer," says Fenlon, 56, "and I'm old enough that I know a lot of them. Everybody wanted to talk about Brad. I know when I heard it, it was surreal."
Yet Stevens's jump to the NBA really wasn't sudden at all; it started six years ago, in the spring of 2007, when he was hired at Butler but hadn't yet coached a single game. Stevens went to a coaching retreat in Gainesville arranged by Florida coach Billy Donovan and attended by dozens of coaches from all levels, including current and former NBA coaches and assistants such as Lawrence Frank, Del Harris, Kevin Eastman, Ron Adams and Tim Grgurich. Stevens was floored by what he heard. "The depth of their knowledge of the game was astounding," Stevens says. "I know I was astounded. Not just from an X's and O's standpoint but from a game management standpoint."
On the way out of Gainesville after the retreat, Stevens found Eastman, then an assistant with the Celtics, at the airport, picked his brain and got his cell number. Later that summer, Stevens talked shop with then Pacers coach Jim O'Brien and his assistant Frank Vogel, who would become Indiana's coach in 2011. "The three of us just sat there talking basketball," says Vogel. "Just exchanging ideas. I think that day we were talking zone defense and fast-break offense. It was pretty clear that Brad was trying to improve himself as a coach. But at the same time, it was pretty mutual."
Stevens sustained the relationships. Eastman recalls hustling through an airport in the spring of 2008 and getting a cell call from Stevens. He hunched down in a corner to escape the background noise and talked pick-and-roll angles with Stevens for 20 minutes.
Two years later forward Gordon Hayward, the best player on Stevens's first Final Four team, left Butler for the NBA after his sophomore season and was drafted ninth by the Jazz. Stevens bought the NBA cable package to catch Utah's games, but found himself watching other teams too. "He wasn't watching them as a fan," Tracy says. "He was watching them as a student." She would find scraps of paper around the house, with plays scribbled on them.
With Butler's success, Stevens was predictably pursued by brand-name programs in search of a miracle. Oregon, Clemson, Wake Forest, Illinois and, last spring, UCLA were among the suitors whose identities were made public. As Stevens declined ever more offers—he concedes there were more than 10—he and Tracy came to realize, without ever voicing it, that they would probably never leave the Bulldogs for another college job. "And then," says Tracy, "with the UCLA thing, you had to think, If we wouldn't leave to go there, where would we go?"
The NBA stuck in the back of Brad's mind. In a phone conversation last spring with Josh Burch, a college teammate at DePauw and a close friend since, Burch recalls that Stevens said, "Nothing is going to happen unless it's NBA-related." Burch hung up the phone and said to his wife, "Brad just said the weirdest thing," because he had never before heard Stevens mention moving to the pros. In fact, he had been moving in that direction for most of his life.
STEVENS MOVED from Greenville, S.C., to Zionsville, Ind., half an hour north of Indianapolis, as a four-year-old, and it's difficult to imagine a kid who subsequently drank more deeply of the state's basketball obsession. The only child of Mark, an orthopedic surgeon, and Jan, a professor, he lived in a subdivision near a boy named Brandon Monk, whose family built a 50-foot-long full court in the backyard. Stevens and his crew would play all morning, mow some lawns to make a little cash, eat grilled-cheese sandwiches for lunch and then play more games into the night. The movie Hoosiers was released when Stevens and his buddies were 10 years old, and while it's true that they memorized every word and every moment in the film, that doesn't do justice to their experience. "That movie wasn't a throwback for us," says Monk. "That was our life."
Stevens made the Zionsville High varsity as a 6'1" freshman. The downtown school had been replaced with a sleeker version on the outskirts of town, but the gym was left standing, and it was a gem. "The locker room was downstairs," says Stevens. "You had to duck or you'd hit your head." They played games in a few gyms that were featured in Hoosiers. Stevens became friends with a retired coach named Jim Rosenstihl, who had coached Rick Mount at nearby Lebanon High. Together they watched films of Mount's All-America career at Purdue in Rosenstihl's basement.
Like the fictional Hickory High (and the very real Milan High), Stevens and his peers played when the Indiana state tournament was one class, and winning the eight-team sectional made any season a success. In Stevens's junior year Zionsville lost in the sectional final to North Montgomery High, and Stevens and Monk went directly to Monk's house to drown their sorrows in jump shots. "Freezing our butts off in the dark, outdoors in the middle of February," says Monk. A year later Zionsville won its sectional for just the third time since 1959. Playing against defenses designed to stop him, Stevens scored 97 points in three sectional games. His career totals of 1,508 points, 444 assists and 156 steals remain school records to this day.
It would fit the narrative of the future coaching prodigy if Stevens had been a thinking man's high school player. He wasn't. At least not in the truest sense. "He was a very intelligent kid, really smart," says Phil Isenbarger, an attorney who played on Indiana's 1981 NCAA championship team and worked with Zionsville High as a volunteer when Stevens was a player. "But I'm not sure he relied on that as a high school player. He was more, I'm going to figure out how to score, than, Let's attack their weaknesses. He was a scorer, that's what he was."
STEVENS HAD hoped to receive a Division I scholarship but received only a single offer, from Mercer in Macon, Ga. (an offer that Stevens suspects was arranged by Rosenstihl, who died in 2008). It came late, and Stevens says that upon visiting Mercer, with an acceptance to a combined degree-internship program at DePauw already in hand, he decided to decline it. After all, he could be a star at DePauw. Except that he couldn't. "I think it sunk in pretty early for Brad that even though it's Division III," says Burch, "there are some pretty good basketball players."
Stevens had been a do-everything high school player. He could shoot like any Hoosier, but he could also post up smaller guards, grab offensive rebounds, drive and get fouled. "But his high school game," says Fenlon, the DePauw coach, "didn't always translate well as a college player." Stevens averaged a fairly steady 18 minutes and eight points in his first three years at DePauw, peaking as a sophomore on the first of two consecutive 12--13 teams. In Stevens's senior year he started several early games, but Fenlon had recruited a strong freshman class and Stevens's minutes declined as the year played out. He responded by beating the underclassmen in scrimmages. After one such episode, Fenlon called Stevens and Burch into his office and explained to them that their role wasn't to defeat the young starters but rather to make them better.
It was a watershed moment for Stevens. "In team sports you have to overcome human nature to a degree," says Fenlon. "Anybody would struggle with what Brad struggled with. He was being asked to lead in a different way than he ever had previously. And, eventually, he got really good at it."
Two years later, in Stevens's first year at Butler, then assistant and future coach Todd Lickliter would introduce Stevens to Bill Russell's book Russell Rules: 11 Lessons on Leadership from the Twentieth Century's Greatest Winner. In it Russell sets forth the concept of "team ego," writing, "I was the most egotistical player they would ever meet. My ego is not a personal ego, it's a team ego. My ego demands—for myself—the success of my team."
Stevens says, "You have a choice to make when you're not playing: Either you're invested and a great teammate, or you're not. There were times, early on, where I wasn't a great teammate. It's a difficult concept, learning the we over me attitude. I'm glad I got to that point, because it really helped me as a coach."
THE STEVENS legend holds that he left DePauw with an economics degree and took a $44,000-per-year job as a marketing associate with the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, based in Indianapolis, and then a year later suddenly left for an unpaid gig as a graduate manager for the Butler basketball program, the bottom rung of the college coaching ladder. Those basics are true, but his career shift wasn't sudden. The coaching seeds had been planted during that transformative senior year at DePauw; even while working at Lilly, he volunteered at a high school and coached an AAU team. "He was talking about basketball that entire year," says Tracy, who met Stevens at DePauw.
In the spring of 2000, Butler coach Thad Matta granted him the graduate-manager slot. Soon the program lost its director of operations, and Stevens was elevated to that position at a salary of $18,000 per year. It would take him five years to climb back to $44,000, by which time the Stevenses were married. They had a little celebration to mark the moment.
At Butler, Stevens joined a basketball staff that included future Xavier and Ohio State coach Matta, future Butler and Iowa coach Lickliter, future Ohio and Illinois coach John Groce and former Butler player Mike Marshall. The gaps in Stevens's basketball knowledge were laid open, much like six years later at his first coaching retreat. "My first couple of meetings at Butler, those guys would throw on film, and I felt like I had gone from Spanish 1 to Spanish 4," says Stevens. "It was eye-opening." Stevens attached himself to Lickliter, who in turn assigned Stevens to put together instructional video packages that also incorporated statistical tendencies. These were the predigital days; Stevens would spend long hours in a small room behind the receptionist's desk, using a stack of three VCRs to create fresh tapes. Lickliter often kicked the videos back to Stevens with orders that the plays be sequenced differently to facilitate teaching. Lickliter took over when Matta went to Xavier in 2001, and when Lickliter went to Iowa in 2007, once again the Bulldogs' new coach came from within: Stevens.
He didn't have to rebuild. Lickliter had twice reached the NCAA Sweet 16. Yet Stevens climbed on Lickliter's shoulders and carried the program to absurd heights for a mid-major. Media seized on Butler's Hoosier charm and painted the Bulldogs as a latter-day Hickory High, which was a simplistic notion. In fact, Stevens's teams thrived most pointedly with a complex and punishing defensive system. As Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski told SI in an interview about the 2010 national championship game, "We emphasized to our guys that when you study Butler, they look like choirboys, but they play the game incredibly physically and hard. That was a huge factor in the tournament. Butler took the fight to people, and people were absolutely not prepared for it."
Fenlon often drove from DePauw to watch Butler practices. "Their defensive schemes were so much more sophisticated than what you see in most of college basketball," he says. "It was stunning at times, the way those Butler kids were able to see things before they happened and communicate with each other."
Zach Hahn, a 6'1" guard from New Castle, Ind., was in Stevens's first recruiting class and played on both of Butler's Final Four teams. "Playing defense at Butler was the hardest thing I ever had to do as a basketball player," says Hahn. "Not really because there was so much thinking, but because we were moving for the entire 35 seconds. We zoned up certain people, we recognized tendencies in other people, and a lot of it was getting into gaps early and often, just to discourage a guy from making the next pass or trying to dribble into the lane after he catches a pass." As for playing a physical game, consider that Hahn played at 170 pounds and bench-pressed 280; all of the Butler guards could lift big stacks of weight.
Just as creatively (and as important), Stevens kept his players in situations—offensively and defensively—where they had a high probability of success. Shelvin Mack, a thick 6'3" guard, was seldom asked to guard an explosive dribbler (a duty that usually fell to Ronald Nored or Shawn Vanzant); Matt Howard, a 6'8" forward on both Final Four teams with a propensity for overplaying and fouling, was usually assigned to an opponent's weakest forward (while Hayward or Willie Veasley would guard more athletic players). Hahn, strong and slow, sometimes guarded players who were six inches taller but not highly skilled. "They were really, really good at cross-matching on defense," says Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew, who was an assistant under his father, Homer, during Stevens's Butler era. "They would play a one with a three, or a four with a two, just to limit your best players. They really knew who they were."
Offensively, Butler ran precise sets, especially on out-of-bounds plays. "I don't want to say they were flawless," says Cleveland State coach Gary Waters, "but Brad's teams were absolutely great in situational execution." Preparation was exceptional, but Stevens regularly scribbled up whiteboard plays during timeouts. In the Bulldogs' 2010 Sweet 16 win over Syracuse, Stevens designed an out-of-bounds play on the fly where four players ran in around the offensive circle and then simply cut wherever they pleased when the referee handed off the ball; Howard slipped loose for a layup. They were never better than on the final possession of the 2010 national championship game, when they ran a slick sequence off a missed Duke free throw, leading to Hayward's half-court near-miss, all without the benefit of a timeout.
Through it all Stevens's chill persona never changed. "When he was really getting on us, he would tell us we had to play with more moxie," says Hahn, "like that was the meanest, nastiest thing you could say to somebody." In Stevens's first season as coach, Butler trailed Ohio State at halftime after shooting 1 for 16 on three-pointers. Stevens placed a trash can in the locker room and handed the players wadded-up scraps of paper with which to practice "shooting," but more to help them relax. Butler outscored Ohio State 45--16 in the second half and won by 19.
When tough decisions had to be made, Stevens came armed with numbers to back his moves, such as in December 2010 when he moved Hahn from starter to reserve by showing him his stats in each role. But more than anything, he sold loyalty and team belief at every turn. In the 2011 Elite Eight, Butler trailed Florida by 11 with just over nine minutes to play. On a free throw Stevens called Howard to the sideline and told him, "Get the guys together and tell them we're going to win this game. I want you to do that. We're going get a couple of stops, knock it down to a small margin and then win it."
Howard recalled the moment (Butler won the game 74--71 in overtime) as a small piece in a bigger puzzle. "Brad expressed little things over and over," says Howard, "like being a good teammate and a good friend. So many games are decided by a few possessions. When you get to those situations, you don't want to let people down. We had that, and I don't think you can overstate it."
Yet even as Stevens turned aside college job offers to remain in this Hoosier Valhalla, he remained intrigued by the intellectual and technical challenge of the NBA. Ainge, who first met Stevens while scouting Hayward in 2010, called in late June. Stevens was intrigued on multiple levels. "There was certainly the Celtics' tradition," he says. "But there was also that intrigue with the NBA game." He welcomed Ainge and Celtics executives Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca into his mother's home, where Brad and Tracy were living, having recently sold their house. Despite all the college job offers, Stevens had never met with any representative in person. On the morning of July 3, after talking with the Boston trio, and as Tracy sat in her husband's Hinkle Fieldhouse office writing checks for the camp payroll, Stevens walked in and said, "I'm gonna do it."
IN THE summer of 1994, the Trail Blazers hired P.J. Carlesimo away from Seton Hall, launching the modern era of NBA experimentation with successful college coaches who had no experience in professional coaching. (Rick Pitino coached the Knicks in 1987--88 and '88--89 but had previously been a New York assistant in the early '80s.) Carlesimo was followed by John Calipari (from UMass to the Nets, 1996), Tim Floyd (from Iowa State to the Bulls, '98), Lon Kruger (from Illinois to the Hawks in 2000), Leonard Hamilton (from Miami to the Wizards in '00) and Mike Montgomery (from Stanford to the Warriors in '04). Only Carlesimo was above .500 in his initial job (137--109), and he was also the only one to win a postseason game, going 3--9. (Calipari was 0--3, and none of the others made the playoffs.)
A creeping sense developed that college coaches are overmatched by the complexity of the NBA game and often steamrollered by wealthy, entitled players who treat them like substitute teachers. "I inherited a pretty good team," says Carlesimo. "I had Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey. And those guys were accepting of me. Most of the college guys who have come in since me have had expansion-type teams. The NBA is all about the players. Some of those teams, you could have had Red [Auerbach] and Phil [Jackson] both on the bench and still won 25 games."
Stevens inherits one such team, gutted primarily by the loss of veterans Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. It's uncertain if point guard Rajon Rondo, who hasn't played since tearing his right ACL in January, will return, or if he'll be the next All-Star shipped out of Boston. It's almost certain that the Celtics will struggle to win consistently under any circumstances. "Look, Brad has the intellect and he's got a very good temperament, so he'll have a good way with players," says one NBA assistant coach who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "His head is going to be spinning, but that's O.K. He's working for the perfect guy, and he's got a six-year commitment. Danny has his back. It's an ideal place for Brad to coach."
There's little doubt Stevens brings ample brainpower to the job. "He's obviously a great tactician, and that translates [to the NBA]," says Vogel. During his visits to Butler, Fenlon had seen NBA executives in the stands, some of whom came over and asked about Stevens. One of Stevens's assistants is Ron Adams, who has 20 years of NBA experience and with whom Stevens had forged a friendship. Building trust through personal relationships with players—central to Stevens's approach—will be more challenging.
"There's no cookie cutter on player relationships," says Carlesimo (see: Latrell Sprewell). "Guys like Phil or Pat Riley, you might see more personal motivational stuff. The players will drink it up if it helps them win. If it's not helping them win, they will see right through it and check out on you completely."
THE GYMNASIUM in the Celtics' practice facility is rimmed at ceiling level with the franchise's 14 original championship banners and two other sheets honoring the team's retired numbers. (The flags were too long to hang in the TD Garden, where they were replaced by smaller versions.) As Stevens stands for an August photo shoot, boys from the team's summer basketball camp press their faces against windows. Asked if he can name the retired numbers, Stevens says, "No," without hesitation. But also this: "I asked [first-round draft pick Kelly] Olynyk [of Gonzaga] why he took number 41, and he said, 'That's all that was left.' "
He kids. The lifelong learner spent his first six weeks engrossed in not just the details of NBA play and the skills of his personnel, but in grasping the immeasurable mystique of the leprechaun. "Trying to wrap my arms around why it's special to be a Celtic," says Stevens. He sat for an hour with Hall of Fame player, former coach and current broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn and talked on the phone with John Havlicek. He's exchanged texts with Dave Cowens. Much more in the present, he met with Rondo in July at Rondo's camp. "He's a big, big thinker," says Stevens. "Very intelligent, and a numbers guy. Just great talking with him."
In those early weeks Stevens worked to keep his foot near the brake pedal. The task is far too large to conquer quickly. "We're young," he says, "so developing as a team and as individuals is paramount." The schedule mocks him: just six days of training camp before the first exhibition game and 18 games in the first 30 days of the season, 10 of them on the road. "Holy smokes," says Stevens. "Very little time for practice."
Youth will sustain him. When he coached at Butler, he often invited friends like Monk and Burch to play pickup games at Hinkle on weekend mornings, never losing his wonder at working in such a place. Not long ago, Stevens explained the privilege of the game to second-year forward Jared Sullinger. "Man, I miss playing," said Stevens. "I miss trying to win 15 games in a row in open gym. Jogging on a treadmill is not near as much fun." Way back at Zionsville High, Isenbarger instructed him to never leave a gym without making his last shot. Here he stands with a ball in his hands and his laptop waiting on the second floor, wise enough not to take the first shot that would demand he shoot until the last one had fallen, but surely tempted.
He walks through the weight room and up the stairs toward his office. Overlooking the single flight of carpeted steps is a giant portrait of Auerbach, standing in the rafters of the new Garden with a cigar clenched between the teeth of his wicked smile, banners over his head and parquet in the distance. Stevens lifts his chin and smiles at the photo without breaking stride. "No pressure there," he says. And then he is back to his work. Chasing it, thinking it, learning it.
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