“First off,” Avery Bradley began, “I can say that every team that we’ve played — everybody loves him and respects him.”
The Celtics guard was referring to one of the team’s many new pieces this season, but one that a veteran Western Conference scout said was Boston’s best addition overall.
“For me,” Bradley continued, “that’s so cool that he’s on our coaching staff, and everybody respects him so much and says how good of a coach he is.”
He is a coach who is intelligent and measured, who believes in defense and that success is in the details. These are all traits that belong to rookie head coach Brad Stevens, but the particular coach Bradley was referring to is not Brad Stevens.
“I mean, I have people that walk up to me and say, ‘That guy, right there — listen to him,’ ” Bradley said. “Everybody — everybody says that. It’s pretty cool. It says a lot about him.”
Bradley was referring to assistant coach Ron Adams, whom Celtics players have raved about since training camp, noting his basketball IQ and hands-on approach.
“Every player I’ve seen him work with, they’ve always got something to say about the little things that he’s talked to them about, or the little details that they can add to their game from him,” said forward Brandon Bass. “He’s been a great addition.”
Adams has also been a steady influence with Stevens. The two constantly chat during practice and on the bench during games, where they sit side by side.
“What I love about Ron is he understands the process, he understands the big picture, but he challenges you to be great every day,” Stevens said.
“He is the first guy to tell you that you did something right, but he’s also not afraid to say, ‘We need to do this differently, or we need to change this, or this probably will be tough to do.’
“It’s not easy to be the guy who says that. And I really appreciate that. It’s one of the reasons I brought him on.”
Said Adams, “That’s part of my job, to encourage, to edit things that perhaps aren’t workable, and just to give him my viewpoints, certainly of my own philosophy but also of the philosophies of many great coaches that I’ve been around at his level.”
Adams, known as one of the league’s top defensive minds, joined the Celtics after spending last season as Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau’s lead assistant. Reportedly, a messy divorce with management suddenly ended Adams’s tenure with the Bulls.
Other teams started calling, vying for the services of an assistant consistently ranked as one of the best in the league, according to an annual poll of general managers the NBA releases.
In fact, league sources said Adams was the hottest assistant on the open market, a respected veteran that many of the 13 coaches taking over new teams wanted as the centerpiece on their staff.
For Stevens, Adams was a high priority. They met at a coaching clinic in Florida back when Stevens took over at Butler at the age of 30, making him the second-youngest head coach in Division 1. Stevens visited Adams in Chicago some, and Adams stopped by Stevens’s Butler practices some, then more when Adams’s daughter started attending the university.
“I thought he was a very bright young guy,” Adams recalled. “He had a big task ahead of him because he was inheriting a program that had won a lot.”
The same would be true when Stevens was named Celtics coach this summer at the age of 36, making him the youngest head coach in the NBA.
There are many reasons why Stevens sought Adams: his experience, defensive expertise, and more. But Adams had also coached on many rebuilding teams during his more than two decades in the NBA, and the Celtics were about to enter such a phase.
“My pitch was, ‘I’m going to need your help,’ ” Stevens said.
Adams describes the Celtics’ rebuilding situation as a “pretty big one” but he likes the pieces in place and believes this will be “an interesting challenge.”
Adams also wanted to coach alongside Stevens, whom he called “a wonderfully bright human being who is unique in terms of how he approaches things, humble and doesn’t fool himself.”
Stevens said Adams is just as humble.
“He could say that he’s got all the answers — and he’d probably be right — but he doesn’t always think that way,” Stevens said. “He says, ‘Here is what I’ve seen in the past. I liked that idea. Let’s try it.’ Or, ‘I don’t think that will work.’ He’s great to run ideas by.”
There is no secret to rebuilding a team, Adams said.
“The key is always, in this sport or any other sport, trying to get the right people on the bus,” he said. “You have to have a group that is willing to join in the process of getting better. You’re at a certain level, there’s a process. This is a process: We have to get better.”
And for Stevens, Adams’s experience handling such processes has been invaluable.
“He knows where the red flags are,” Stevens said. “He knows what the good days are supposed to look like. I may think it’s a red flag day, he may think it’s a great day. I might think it’s a great day, he might think we didn’t get anything accomplished. It’s been a really good mix.”
Thibodeau wrote a letter that was read aloud during Adams’s 2011 induction into the hall of fame at his alma mater, Fresno Pacific University. In the letter, Thibodeau called Adams “as fine a teacher as there is in the game today.”
Indeed, Adams, who is in his mid-60s, would seem at home in a university classroom, as he carries a strong professorial demeanor.
“He really is a college professor,” Stevens said.
All that’s missing is the tweed jacket with elbow patches.
Adams and Stevens are similar in that regard: Both more interested in teaching than “coaching,” in the details and defense, in being measured versus fiery.
They’re so similar that Bass said it’s as though they’re the same person, separated only by age. Later in life, Stevens will probably be just like Adams, Bass said.
Stevens was flattered when told of the comparison, and it reminded him of a story from his first days with the Celtics.
One day, Stevens worked out one of his players, and on the next day, Adams did the same.
But on that second day, the player was asked which coach he had worked with.
His reply: “Brad’s dad.”
That might make Adams feel a bit dated, but it captures how aligned the coaches’ views and values truly are.
And while Stevens has a lot to learn about the NBA, few seem better suited to help him than the veteran professor by his side.