It happened overnight.
The soft and annoying Boston Celtics of 2020-21 were eliminated from the playoffs Tuesday evening in Brooklyn, a 123-109 noncompetitive whimper at the end of one of the most disappointing local sports seasons of all time.
And then, after a meeting back in Boston Wednesday morning, the team issued a press release at 11:01 a.m. announcing that Danny Ainge was retiring and coach Brad Stevens would be leaving the bench and moving into Ainge’s position as president of basketball operations.
Just like that. After 18 seasons running the Celtics, Ainge was done. And after eight seasons coaching the Celtics, Stevens was done.
Nobody got fired. Ainge was allowed to step down (“It’s completely his decision,” said Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck) and Stevens — who is signed through 2026 at big dollars — “voluntarily” left the bench to take over for Ainge. Flanked by owners Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca, Ainge and Stevens appeared at a noon press conference at the Celtics’ practice facility in Brighton.
“Today’s not a great day,” said Ainge. “I wish we would have finished the year on a better note, but I feel like there’s so much hope looking forward. I’m excited for Brad. I feel like he was born for this … This is a great day for the Celtics. This is actually a big step forward.”
Wow. These are indeed interesting times on Causeway Street.
So now the Celtics are searching for a new coach, somebody who will be able to get through to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, game-management Kemba Walker, and the raft of Boston players who believe they are better than they are.
Good luck to the next coach of this team. Clearly, it’s not enough to be a master of game-planning and hoop strategy. An NBA coach today has to be a therapist, accommodator, motivator, psychologist, mind reader, and mentor. It helps if he’s an ex-NBA player. A guy like Doc Rivers comes to mind. Guys like Kendrick Perkins and Chauncey Billups come to mind. If the Celtics really wanted to think outside the box, they could consider Duke women’s coach Kara Lawson, a former Celtics assistant coach.
Stevens never had a chance with this crew. He was saddled with Gordon Hayward, who got hurt in his first game and never indicated that he wanted to be here. He was burdened for two years with Kyrie Irving, who could never be pleased, no matter how much the Celtics tried to accommodate him. While he was here, Kyrie lied and pouted and poisoned the minds of other young Celtics players. Then he left Boston and built his Super Team in Brooklyn.
Tuesday at Barclays Center, Kyrie’s “new” team killed off what was left of what Ainge and Stevens were trying to build in Boston. When it was over, Kyrie hugged all the Celtics — Michael Corleone style — and his young admirers in Celtics uniforms hugged him back.
In the end, the 2021 Celtics players loved Kyrie more than they loved the Celtics. Certainly they loved Kyrie more than Stevens, Ainge, or Celtics fans. It was wildly disrespectful. Changes had to be made.
So now we have change. Ainge is gone. And we are going to find out if Stevens can be an NBA team-builder. Stevens’s first job is to find a head coach.
Call me a dope, but I feel Stevens’s skills are misused in the front office of an NBA franchise. Brad Stevens is a coach — best employed as a college coach. He’s a sculptor of young basketball souls. We saw the best of him in his years at Butler. He’s only 44 years old and now he’s taking his talents to the swampland of NBA player procurement. I wish I felt better about him as a pro basketball boss.
“I understand and am looking forward to this new challenge and great responsibility,” said Stevens. “We’re driven to compete for championships … This morning is a hard day and I know that there’s a lot of work ahead … I really have enjoyed coaching, but this is the new challenge and this is what we need to do to hopefully be even better.”
Stevens coached the Celtics for eight seasons. He took them to the conference finals in three of the four seasons leading into the 2021 disaster. He drew up great plays after timeouts. He never said anything bad about any of his players. But he didn’t seem to have the gravitas needed to coach young NBA stars who come to the league after a decade of getting their butts kissed by AAU programs.
Poor Brad Stevens. NBA coaching was too much for the man. Now he’s on the midnight train to salary-cap hell, mid-level exceptions, and a league with a culture of superstars who want to relocate, poach friends from other teams, and create an instant superpower — rather than build something with the teams that draft them.
This goes down as a weird, abrupt ending for the 62-year-old Ainge, who first came to the Celtics when Red Auerbach made him Boston’s second-round draft pick while Ainge was playing infield for the Toronto Blue Jays in the spring of 1981.
Ainge played eight seasons for the Celtics, starting alongside Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, and Dennis Johnson, winning two championships and appearing in four NBA Finals with Boston. Red traded Ainge to Sacramento in 1989, but Ainge came back to become Auerbach’s ultimate successor in 2003, three years before Red’s death.
Ainge has a great eye for basketball talent. He drafted and cultivated Rajon Rondo. He acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce for the 2007-08 championship season. In 2013, he fleeced Brooklyn, dealing the aging Pierce and Garnett for a raft of draft picks.
It was Ainge who hired Rivers as head coach. It was Ainge who hired Stevens from Butler. It was Ainge who drafted Brown and Tatum. It was Ainge who went out and got Hayward. And Al Horford. And Kyrie Irving. And Walker.
None of it worked out after 2008. Ainge never got another ring. Stevens never got to the Finals.
Now Ainge is gone (time to put his No. 44 in the rafters). And Stevens is about to find out that running the Celtics from the front office might be an even tougher job than trying to coach these guys.