In a stunning and bold move to reinvigorate a rebuilding franchise, the Celtics hired one of college basketball’s brightest young stars Wednesday, naming 36-year-old Brad Stevens as the 17th head coach in their storied history.
Stevens rose to prominence during Butler University’s consecutive Cinderella runs to the national title game in 2010 and 2011, after which blue-blood college teams tried to lure him away from the Indianapolis-based private school that sits about 20 miles from where he grew up in suburban Zionsville.
But the Celtics shocked the basketball landscape when they announced their hiring of a college coach with no prior NBA experience as the successor for Doc Rivers. The announcement came two days after Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said the team wasn’t in a rush to select a new coach.
Rivers, 51, recently left the Celtics after nine seasons to join the Los Angeles Clippers as their head coach and a front-office executive. Stevens and his family will be introduced at a news conference Friday morning.
“Brad and I share a lot of the same values,” Ainge said in a statement. “Though he is young, I see Brad as a great leader who leads with impeccable character and a strong work ethic.
“His teams always play hard and execute on both ends of the court. Brad is a coach who has already enjoyed lots of success, and I look forward to working with him towards Banner 18.”
In a statement on the Butler website, Stevens, who worked for the school since 2001-02, said, “Our family is thrilled for the opportunity given to us by the leadership of the Boston Celtics, but it is emotional to leave a place that we have called home the past 13 years.”
A league source confirmed that Stevens’s contract with the Celtics is for six years, the same length of time he spent as Butler’s head coach, compiling a .772 winning percentage (166-49).
After playing Division 3 basketball at DePauw University, Stevens joined Butler as a coordinator of basketball operations in 2000-01. He was offered a full-time assistant position in 2001-02. He was named head coach in April 2007, replacing Todd Lickliter. Stevens signed a 12-year contract with Butler in 2010.
Around the NBA, the outside-the-box hire, one that several league sources said should have been expected under Ainge, was met with surprise and tempered expectations. College coaches long have struggled when making the leap to the professional level. An example Celtics fans will note is Rick Pitino, who posted an underwhelming 102-146 record from 1997 to 2001 as the Celtics’ head coach.
Then factor in that Stevens will be coaching a rebuilding team without two veteran stars, as Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett — who is just five months older than Stevens — are both being traded to the Brooklyn Nets.
“It’s just a tall order,” a league source said.
However, several league sources said they were fans of the hire and Stevens, praising his work ethic and basketball IQ. “He’s smart, innovative and dynamic,” said one league executive. “It’s a huge upside hire. Big kudos to Danny Ainge.”
When asked what one factor would define whether Stevens is successful, a league source said, simply, “players,” referencing a key difference between college and professional basketball, which is known as a player’s league.
“It’s no offense to him,” the source added. “You swap places with him and [Miami head coach Erik] Spoelstra, I still think the Heat win 50 or 60 games next year. He has a system, but it’s who’s carrying out the orders?
“He ain’t out-coaching nobody. That ain’t happening. You’ve got to get your guys to play in an effective system, but he’s got to get the right blends of guys or he has no shot.”
Still, the unexpected hire was deemed to be a safe one for Stevens, at the very least, “because he can always return to college and get a top-five job,” one league source said. Several league sources expressed doubt that Stevens would stay with the Celtics for the full duration of his contract.
“He’ll line it up right and leave around the time Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski are done at North Carolina or Duke and he’ll take one of those jobs in a couple years,” a league source said. “I bet my house on that one.”
Stevens is leaving Butler as that team moves from the Atlantic 10 Conference to the Big East.
Another league source who has known Stevens for more than a decade, dating to when Stevens was an assistant at Butler, said he is confident that the new Celtics coach can win.
“He’s a very smart and grounded guy and he will be a great in-game decision maker,” the source said. “If he can put together a strong coaching staff with NBA experience, he has a chance to be very good.”
Rivers has taken several members of the Celtics’ coaching staff with him to LA, so it’s unclear whom Stevens will keep. Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga, who was thought to be in the running for the head coaching job, is under contract with the Celtics for next season.
Larranaga will guide the Celtics’ summer league team in Orlando, which begins practicing there Thursday.
“The biggest problem he’ll face will be the shorter shot clock,” said the source close to Stevens. “His sets at Butler lent themselves to late shot-clock opportunities. He’s going to have to come in with new offensive ideas.”
The NBA shot clock is 24 seconds compared with the 35-second shot clock in the college game.
Another key for Stevens is whether the players, especially strong-headed point guard Rajon Rondo, will respect a new coach who neither played professionally nor has basketball coaching experience beyond Butler.
“You can gain that if you win,” a league source said, flatly. “If you come in and lose, guys are going to start shaking their heads.”
Considering that the Celtics will have nine first-round draft picks over the next five seasons, the ability to coach and develop young talent is no doubt a priority for the franchise.
“I think their spin will be, ‘This is going to take time and we’re going to give him time,’ ” a league source said. “ ‘We’re going to learn him, he’s going to learn us, he’ll learn the league and we’ll grow together.’ ”
“That’s all fine and good,” the source added, “but if you lose 10 in the row on the road and you’re getting beat by 40, what are you going to do?”