So, Brad Stevens is going to conduct the search for his successor. That’s a statement that would have been laughed at just 24 hours ago.
But now? Not so much. Stevens is the Celtics’ new president of basketball operations after Danny Ainge decided to retire in a meeting Wednesday morning with team ownership. Stevens has been elevated to Ainge’s job, and his first decision may be his most important.
It was evident that Stevens wanted more say in personnel decisions as this season progressed, and if Ainge had not retired Stevens would have asked for more input. Now he’ll have most of the say, and choosing the right coach won’t be an easy decision because of the changing NBA landscape.
Gone are the crotchety coaches who yelled and screamed and immediately commanded respect from young players. Today’s NBA coaches have to be mentors, friends, life coaches, disciplinarians, father figures, and tutors. Young NBA players want to relate to their coach, and respect is not automatically granted.
Inasmuch as Stevens was a stellar X’s-and-O’s coach, he could never completely gain the full deference of his roster because he never played in the NBA. NBA playing experience along with a strong grip on analytics and the ability to relate and reach players is the blueprint for the modern coach.
Look for Stevens to search outside of his comfort zone for the Celtics’ next coach. He’s aware enough to select someone who doesn’t look or act like him. Stevens is very aware that he didn’t play the game; the NBA player has changed considerably in his eight years in the league, and it takes high energy and patience to succeed as coach.
“One of the things I’ve learned being in coaching, coaching against other great coaches, and learning things from the people that you coach against is there’s a lot of different ways to coach and there’s a lot of different ways to be successful as a coach,” Stevens said. “Danny and I have talked many times about we had done things over the last seven or eight years that Danny wouldn’t necessarily have done. When it works out, it’s the right thing for that group and that team.
“I’m really looking forward to diving into this process. The good news about who we hire is they don’t have to fill Doc Rivers’s shoes.”
But the Celtics may be seeking a coach similar to who Rivers was nearly 20 years ago when he took the Boston job. There are a handful of former players who are grinding as assistants, waiting for their opportunity for a prime NBA head job. Sam Cassell, now on Rivers’s staff in Philadelphia, is a top candidate, as is another ex-Celtic, Chauncey Billups, who is on the Clippers’ staff.
Ime Udoka just watched the Celtics for five games as a member of Steve Nash’s staff with the Nets. The former NBA player has been seeking his first head coaching job for a few years. Jason Kidd would be interested, as would Bucks assistant Darvin Ham.
The common denominator is these are former NBA players who aren’t part of the league’s perceived good ol’ boys network. The Celtics need a commanding voice, someone who has been where Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are now, provides discipline and a fresh voice, as well as encouragement and consolation at times.
The Celtics’ brass had become old and antiquated. This is an opportunity for Stevens to make some diverse hires, bring in new faces and authoritative figures who can add different and refreshing perspectives as the team attempts to rebound from a disappointing season.
Stevens attempted to add those types of voices to his coaching staff over the past few years with Kara Lawson — who left for Duke after one season, which was more damaging than expected — and ex-Celtic Evan Turner, who may not have had the expected impact because he was just a few years older than many of the players.
Stevens will take his time with this hire. His cellphone is certainly already blowing up from interested parties because this is a premium coaching job, perhaps the only one that will be open this offseason. There have been no coaching changes since the regular season ended, and there could be a few openings when the playoffs conclude.
For example, Atlanta’s Nate McMillan has yet to sign a contract extension despite the Hawks being on the verge of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Plenty of candidates could emerge in the coming weeks, and Stevens should have his choice of qualified candidates.
Would Stevens take a chance on a college coach? The only candidate likely worthy of such consideration is Villanova’s Jay Wright, who was just elected to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. Wright has long been considered a future NBA coach, but would Stevens take a chance on a coach with no professional experience? But Stevens was in that same position eight years ago and it worked out nicely for the Celtics.
Patience and meticulousness are Stevens’s best allies right now. It’s doubtful he has one preferred target for the job, so it’s best to take the proper time, interview as many candidates as desired, and find the right fit.
Who is the right fit to be the Celtics next coach? Stevens will have a plethora of options. But the best candidate is someone who can reach and relate to the players, who knows the game immensely, and will implement a style that is conducive to this roster.
Stevens needs to look outside of his comfort zone, and if he does he will find his ideal successor.