There was a reason Danny Ainge offered no hints about his first coaching search in 10 years. There was a reason he appeared at ease with the quest to replace Doc Rivers while Celtics faithful were busy combing through NBA coaching staffs for young assistants who might have stepped into this monumental role.
Ainge already had his candidate pegged, eyeing Brad Stevens as a response to losing Rivers. The only roadblock was luring Stevens from Butler and onto the NBA stage. In this case, the Celtics job meant volumes. It was an opportunity for Stevens to expand his bright basketball mind in the ultimate forum; he’d already taken the Bulldogs to consecutive NCAA title games with a group of mid-level prospects from a mid-major conference.
It was the improbable, Richie Cunningham in a fine suit leading a bunch of athletically challenged players who were fundamentally impeccable against the giants of the NCAA, coming as close as inches — on a 45-foot shot from Gordon Hayward — to beating Duke in the NCAA final.
And when Stevens lost Hayward to the NBA draft two years early, Stevens proceeded to take Butler to the NCAA title game again. His apparent path was to a major Division 1 school, but he told schools such as UCLA he was comfortable in Indianapolis, playing in that rustic gym, coaching mostly players who never would taste the NBA.
The Celtics opportunity caused him to leave all that, and it’s a great hire by Ainge. While hiring Brett Brown from San Antonio or David Fizdale from Miami may have worked and may have taken this rebuilding franchise in a positive direction, it wouldn’t have brought the sizzle and splash of hiring Stevens, who is considered one of the bright young minds in the game.
Although Stevens is only 36, he will be coaching mostly younger guys who know exactly who he is. There will be no need for name recognition, but he will have to gain their respect, especially Rajon Rondo.
There is a perception that Rondo is going to consider the baby-faced Stevens as vulnerable prey with the point guard’s surly attitude, but Rondo is coming off an ACL injury and has now had a few weeks to digest the ending of the Big Three Era and his newly minted role as team leader.
Rondo will have to accept Stevens as his coach and it wouldn’t hurt if he would display leadership and excitement about the new phase. The fact the Celtics made a six-year commitment is evidence Stevens will have a major role in the direction of the franchise.
The other coaching candidates perhaps would have been stopgaps, but the Celtics want Stevens to be their Erik Spoelstra. If you recall, two major free agents three years ago signed with the Miami Heat to play for Spoelstra, and after some rough patches, things have worked out in South Beach.
Spoelstra never played in the NBA, worked his way from video coordinator to head coach, and now has emerged as one of the top coaches in the NBA, even outmaneuvering Gregg Popovich in the Finals this season. Another example of a neophyte coach achieving success is Indiana’s Frank Vogel, Rick Pitino’s former video coordinator.
The NBA landscape is changing. While former players have thrived as coaches, this generation of basketball leatherheads (equivalent of seamheads in baseball) is beginning to have a profound effect on the game, and the success of Spoelstra and Vogel has proven that.
You don’t need to be a former All-Star or even former player to have success coaching at the NBA level, you need to work well with players, have the right staff to aid in relating to players, and gain the respect of your roster with knowledge and patience.
Stevens looks more like a stockbroker than a coach, but there is a reason major Division 1 teams as well as NBA executives eyed him for the past few years. And Ainge has surrounded himself with an astute front office that will blend with Stevens.
This hire proves that the Celtics job still holds cachet. There was a perception that Stevens would remain at Butler for decades because of the challenge of the position and the underdog mentality of the program. There was perhaps only one job that could convince him that while the NBA world is more material and more grimy than the Horizon League, he is savvy enough to handle this new challenge.
It will take a few years. Stevens will have to become familiar with the NBA game and NBA personnel. He will have to develop practice schedules and pregame regimens; he will have to learn when to push a generation of prima donna players and when to trust them.
It will be a tedious process but one that should excite Celtics fans because Stevens is the perfect choice for the face of the franchise. With the area still reeling from the sudden departure of Rivers, this is a salve, a reason for optimism.
And it seems that Ainge knew all along a splash like this was possible.