When Larry Bird won his 1st NBA championship with the Boston Celtics in 1981 at the beginning of the “Bird Era,” there was a young 5 year old boy in Zionsville, IN who was watching taped Indiana Hosiers basketball games before he would go to Kindergarten. That boy’s name was Brad Stevens.
Fast forward the clock 20 years, Stevens had just finished a college career at Division 3 school, DePauw University; a 4-year varsity letter-winner, 3-time Academic All-American, Team Captain, and recipient of the Coaches Award given to the most selfless, team-oriented player.
Stevens graduated with Honors from DePauw with a degree in Economics and an excellent job at the prestigious global health care company Eli Lilly.
Only a year into his first job out of college, the Indiana native realized something was missing … and that something was basketball. He quit his job and became a volunteer assistant in the Butler University basketball office. Butler quickly gave Stevens a low paying administrative basketball operations coordinator position. One year later, Stevens was promoted into a full time assistant role, where they would go 131-61 over the course of the next 5 years, before Stevens took over the Head Coaching job and became the second youngest Head Coach in Division 1 college basketball.
In his first season as a head coach, Stevens set a Butler school and Horizon League record, rattling off 30 wins, as Stevens was a finalist for the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year award. His next year, despite losing 4 starters and projected to finish 5th in the Horizon League, the mid-major school went to the Big Dance once again, with Stevens being named Horizon League Coach of the Year and once again earning several finalist votes for National Coach of the Year.
In his third season as the Head Coach (2009-10 season), Stevens became the second youngest head coach to lead his team to a National Championship where they narrowly lost to Duke 61-59 on a narrowly missed half court heave from current Celtic Gordon Hayward.
The very next year, Stevens somehow managed to bring the mid-major team all the way back to the National Championship, this time losing to UConn. Back to back national championships are unheard of in today’s college basketball world, let alone from a mid-major school.
Fast forward the clock to July 3, 2013 when Brad Stevens was signed on as Head Coach of the Boston Celtics. In his second season as Head Coach, Stevens led a rebuilding Celtics team to the Eastern Conference Playoffs as the 7th seed. One year later, the Celtics returned to the playoffs, this time finishing 5th in the Eastern Conference. And in 2016-17, Stevens brought the Celtics all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference, finishing 1st in the Eastern Conference.
This brings us to now … the 2017-18 season. With a team that had been steadily building to contend to bring Boston it’s 18th banner. 6 minutes into the season, the team lost their 2nd best player in Gordon Hayward; followed only a few months later losing their best player in Kyrie Irving. The team has been inundated with extended injuries to key players like Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris. And yet it appears Stevens has pressed every right button through the course of what was an extremely challenging season in regards to injuries.
This Celtics team won eight games in which they trailed by 15 points, the third-highest single-season total since 1996. This team has seen the emergence of former role players like Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown along with the emergence of Jayson Tatum to produce the Eastern Conference’s 2nd best regular season record.
How? Stevens’ believes all his players on his roster can fit into their sets and run the offense. His belief in Rozier and even Larkin to run the point has been well documented. When Hayward went down, Tatum became the starter in his “Next Man Up” philosophy.
Stevens actions on the sidelines are cool and collected, earning him the nickname “Even Stevens.” He analyzes the game and watches intently from the sideline. Make no mistake about it, Stevens gets animated about bad calls occasionally, but picks those spots wisely. His composure has seemingly carried over to his teams’ resiliency in coming back this year.
Nurturing such a strong culture while returning only 4 players from last year’s team is an enormous challenge. It starts with Danny Ainge drafting tough players (Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum). Ainge picks the players but Brad Stevens is the arbiter of playing time. His stoic demeanor and play-calling genius is what he is known for, but make no mistake about it, Stevens is an all school hard-ass … if you don’t play hard, you come out.
The players still feel Stevens is with them, even as he holds them and himself to almost impossible standards, which is an almost impossible balance to strike. Stevens, Ainge and the veteran players have created a culture of serious, consistent tough work. Toughness and mental strength without talent don’t get you very far in the world’s best league, but when you combine all of them you get a team that punches above their weight. Boston just makes fewer mistakes than any rival. It starts on the defensive end, they are ultra switchable on defense, always moving on a string. Their greatness on defense lies in the absence of spatial mistakes. A team this big and this attuned can close windows faster than anyone else. They show a similar composure in tense moments; game 7 against the Bucks, 3 close games against the 76ers, culminating in an almost perfect final 90 seconds to close out Game 5.
Brad Stevens didn’t receive a single vote for this year National Basketball Coaches Association trophy, which was awarded to Toronto’s Dwane Casey (who has since been fired after getting swept by the Cavaliers last round). When the Red Auerbach Trophy as the NBA’s Coach of the Year award is announced next month, expect Stevens to be at the top of the list.
Stevens’ ability behind the helm has started to draw comparisons to that other coach in Boston, Bill Belichick. And while the red-hot Lebron and the Cavs seem to pose a formidable challenge in the upcoming Eastern Conference Finals, don’t bet against Stevens and the C’s.
It’s not always the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of fight in the dog.