About a week before the Celtics announced the stunning hire of 36-year-old Brad Stevens as their new head coach, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge interviewed assistant coach Jay Larranaga for the position.
It was clear before the interview, though, that Larranaga, who had just completed his first season with the Celtics, was being seriously considered to become the team’s next head coach after Doc Rivers left after nine seasons to join the Los Angeles Clippers.
Not only had Larranaga been placed in charge of the team’s predraft workouts, he was also receiving an audition of sorts as the head coach of their summer league team, which began practicing Thursday in Orlando and opens play Sunday against the Magic at the Amway Center.
When Rivers left to become the Clippers’ new head coach and vice president of basketball operations, Rivers put in a good word with the Celtics about Larranaga, a league source said.
“Doc recommended they hire Jay as the head coach,” the source said.
But if Larranaga wanted to leave, for whatever reason, league sources said Rivers told Larranaga he had a job waiting for him on Rivers’s new staff.
At some point, though, Ainge had been seriously considering another candidate to become the next head coach of the Celtics, a candidate that Ainge had, in fact, been eyeing all along in case Rivers ultimately departed: Butler University’s Brad Stevens.
“Danny had said to Doc that [Stevens] was the one guy he was trying to look at,” another league source said. “I didn’t take it that seriously. I thought it was a ploy.”
With Ainge’s well-known reputation around the league as an aggressive dealmaker who often plays all the angles and is notoriously deceptive, it easily could have been a ploy.
But it didn’t seem plausible because Stevens hadn’t given any real indication — at least publicly — he was interested in the NBA or in any coaching position outside of the Indianapolis-based private school where he got his start as a head coach in 2007.
Even if Ainge was interested, a league source said Ainge still wasn’t sure he could lure Stevens from Butler, where he had worked since 2000 and signed a 12-year extension in 2010. “[Ainge] had said that there was a guy he was thinking about, but he was acting like it was a 50/50 shot,” the source said.
There was also a strong league-wide perception that because the Celtics were facing a long rebuilding effort, their head coaching position was less attractive and wouldn’t draw in some of the “name” coaches that could potentially be a splash hire.
Just the same, there were 11 NBA teams that already hired new head coaches before the Celtics this offseason, leaving a smaller number of potential candidates.
“When you look at the pool and the guys you want for rebuilding, it was pretty weak,” one league source said. “There wasn’t one guy that jumped off the page.”
Further, a league source familiar with the Celtics’ thinking had said this week the team was unlikely to hire anyone with previous experience as an NBA head coach.
Obviously, the Celtics’ options were limited.
“They had to get creative,” another league source said. “That was the only way.”
However, league sources said, Ainge’s reputation as a fearless outside-the-box thinker, as perhaps the most maverick executive in the NBA, meant that being “creative” also meant taking a risk under these circumstances, one likely to be viewed as both bold and, perhaps, eccentric.
As such, the possibility the Celtics would dip into the college ranks seemed more reasonable. Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg, who had NBA experience, was an option, but Stevens, who has none, still seemed so unrealistic that few even mentioned him when discussing the job.
And then Wednesday, the Celtics shocked all but a few by announcing Stevens was their next head coach, signing him to a deal that league sources said is for six years and $22 million.
The Celtics will introduce Stevens and his family Friday at a news conference in Waltham.
Though the move was perhaps more stunning because it was kept under wraps in an age when few secrets are kept, it was also generally applauded by those across the league.
“You always have those questions, ‘Does the transition from college to the pros work?’ and all that,” a league source said.
“[But] he’s the anti-[John] Calipari, the anti-[Rick] Pitino. Those guys, they think it’s about them. He’s going to learn that it’s about the players and that’s going to help.
“Everything is a risk, but this is a good risk.”