Danny Ainge was fascinated by front office machinations when he was an NBA player. He would sit and talk with his team’s executives whenever possible, and sometimes even squeezed into their meetings.
After he was hired as the Celtics’ president of basketball operations in 2003 those informal experiences and his three-year stint as the Suns’ head coach served as his only real training. He then went on to become one of the most accomplished executives in the NBA over 18 seasons in Boston.
So Ainge chuckled when he retired this past week and heard some suggest that his replacement, Celtics coach Brad Stevens, might not be qualified for this new post.
“Brad was in so many of our meetings over the years,” Ainge said. “He had salary-cap questions, he had ideas, he spoke to agents for us, and he was in any really big discussions that we had. He’s not somebody fresh that’s never been in this position before. He’s basically been an assistant general manager, and I think this is a good progression. I don’t think that it’s as big of a jump as some people say it is.”
Nevertheless, Stevens’s hiring sent shockwaves through the NBA, mostly because one of the game’s brightest young tactical minds had decided to step away from coaching, where he had worked in some capacity at Butler and then in Boston for the last 20 years.
He has never held a front office position and now jumps into this new role with new challenges. Instead of drawing up a last-second play, he will work to fortify the Celtics’ roster during free agency. Instead of devising a plan to stop LeBron James, he will scout college players and try to find the next LeBron James.
The one true constant is that he will still be focused on leading the Celtics to the top.
Brian Scalabrine, who was an NBA player and assistant coach before becoming the color commentator on Celtics broadcasts, said he was unsure what qualities make a general manager successful. Roster construction, he said, can be a jigsaw puzzle. And luck is involved.
“But I think that Brad grasps and understands the big picture better than most,” Scalabrine said. “Sports are emotional, from fans to players to family members to front offices, it’s an emotional thing. I think he controls his emotions and makes calculated, measured decisions based on what he feels like matters, and he pushes aside things that don’t.”
The basketball world will be watching closely to see how Stevens assimilates. Will he be a shrewd deal-maker? Can he build a team full of players that complement one another? Will he have an eye for talent?
One man who has had a bit of success as both a coach and an executive and still fills both roles believes that Stevens’s background should help.
“There’s a lot of lines that run together there,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “You can’t be the head coach and not be aware of contracts and acquisitions and things like that. I don’t know exactly how they’re set up, and each situation is a little bit different, but Brad has enough experience in basketball and with the Celtics and with the NBA to handle all the things that he’ll need to be handling.”
Stevens joins a short list of current lead NBA executives with head coaching experience. Pat Riley coached the Lakers, Knicks, and Heat and remains the Heat’s president, Lawrence Frank coached the Nets and now runs the Clippers’ basketball operations, and Gregg Popovich is still the Spurs’ head coach and president.
Doc Rivers left his job as Celtics coach in 2013 to become the Clippers’ coach and vice president of basketball operations. He was promoted to president a year later before relinquishing the front office role in 2017.
Rivers, who now coaches the 76ers, said that when he spoke to Stevens this past week, the two laughed when Stevens said he had no desire to fill two demanding jobs at the same time, as Rivers once did.
“Brad is such a great mind,” Rivers said. “I was surprised like everyone else that he wanted to walk away from coaching, because I thought he was so good there. But I think he’ll be absolutely wonderful in what he’s doing … Brad is so darn smart.”
Stevens’s experience at Butler, where he was head coach from 2007-13, could give him a unique vantage point, too, because college coaches are tasked with both constructing teams and leading them.
Ronald Nored played for Stevens there before spending two years as an assistant in the Celtics organization, and he said Stevens’s ability to prioritize what’s important and build genuine, lasting relationships will serve him well.
“There’s going to be a learning curve, as there was when he came into the NBA as a coach, but he’ll crush the learning curve,” said Nored, now a Hornets assistant. “Having at least a bit of experience as a college recruiter and building a team should benefit him. He’s obviously never done this job, but he’s built teams before.”