During Brad Stevens’s eight seasons as Celtics coach, whether drawing up a last-second play or making a lineup adjustment, he was able to mold his team with daily tweaks and tinkers.
Now he is the president of basketball operations, and he operates from a distance. His fingerprints on the franchise’s future will become more noticeable in this role, but there is also more time spent sitting back and watching. And Stevens, much like the Celtics’ uneasy fan base, is certainly hoping for more after this frustrating 16-19 start.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Globe on Thursday, Stevens spoke about how he will approach his first trade deadline as the team’s lead decision-maker, voiced his support for first-year coach Ime Udoka, and made it clear that despite the hurdles that have led to this point, he is not satisfied with the results.
“I think we’d be lying if anyone in here said we didn’t wish we’d be in a better spot from a record standpoint,” Stevens said. “I think the biggest thing is obviously we’ve had good moments. Those moments have not been consistent from game to game, let alone within a game. We have to improve.”
With the Feb. 10 trade deadline approaching, the Celtics could find themselves at a bit of a crossroads.
After finishing .500 last season, they’ve continued to wobble. So, the Celtics’ brass will have to consider whether to pursue bigger-picture moves that might dent the team in the near term, or to look at options that could also bolster the present for a team that has rarely been evaluated at full strength.
“Every decision that we make and are tasked with is, what does that decision mean — when you’re talking about roster or anything else — what does that decision mean with regard to focusing on your next best chance at hanging a banner?” Stevens said. “Ultimately, there are short-term things and there are long-term things. You have to look at everything that gives you an option to do that and make that your driver.”
Stevens acknowledged that there is room to upgrade the team’s shooting — the 4-for-42 effort on 3-pointers against the Clippers on Wednesday further solidified this — but he also believes some of the Celtics’ good shooters will improve.
Stevens thinks Boston is among 10-15 teams that could be in a much better spot if not for some unfortunate and even fluky circumstances, and he’s curious to see how other squads approach the next few weeks. But he does not plan to just sit back and watch.
“I think you just look at it as, does it help you get closer to the ultimate goal?” Stevens said. “That’s what you have to ask when you’re looking at any of these opportunities. You just want to be as close as you can to maximizing your group and being in the mix. Anything that gives us an opportunity to do that that we feel is feasible, we’re going to look at exceptionally hard.”
Stevens thinks there are reasons for optimism, too. The team showed at the start of this season that it can be elite defensively, and there are enough offensive playmakers to ignite a hot streak. Stevens also pointed out how the Celtics have generally held their ground against the top teams in the East, and while this recent downturn has been disappointing, they held fourth-quarter leads in each of their last five losses, so success isn’t too distant.
“I think that’s something that gives you hope,” Stevens said, “and it also says we just need to play better to find a way.”
This has all been set against the backdrop of a franchise that has been ravaged by COVID-19. Stevens said that more than 40 players, coaches, and family members have been infected by the coronavirus this season. In addition to players being sidelined in league protocols, the circumstances have taken a mental toll.
But Stevens knows that this pandemic is hardly isolated to the Celtics. Each night, rosters across the league are filled with players signed to 10-day contracts using hardship exceptions. They’ve mostly played on.
“I really believe great teams find a way to win more often than not, no matter who’s available,” Stevens said. “Good teams can really get through those patches and do so in a way that ultimately they then can take advantage of their time of good health. And mediocre-to-bad teams drop a bunch of games. We ultimately have to be a little better than we’ve been to be a good team, a team that we want to be. I do think we’re capable. We’ve seen that. But we just have to play better more consistently.”
Stevens left Butler University and was hired as Celtics coach in 2013, and he said that by March of his first season the travel, roster turnover, and, frankly, the losing had left him feeling “gassed” and “cooked.”
But for Udoka, who played in the NBA and served as an assistant coach for nearly a decade, the rhythms of NBA life did not require as much of an adjustment. Still, his first season holding a top job has been filled with unprecedented challenges created by the pandemic.
“I have a lot of admiration for him,” Stevens said. “He’s seen a lot in his first 35 games as a head coach, right? He’s seen the wild swings of ups and downs and has every right to be super-emotional and riding the roller coaster and all that, and he’s pretty darn even. He’s always going back to work. So whether we win or lose, he just goes back to work the next day and tries to help this team get a little bit better. It is not easy.
“He’s a guy I believe in. I just think it’s so important not to get into celebrating your success or bemoaning your losses. It’s about, go find solutions. And he does that. He’s constantly searching, constantly thinking.”
Stevens is searching for solutions, too. And he knows that some fans are getting a bit impatient. This is a Celtics team that reached the conference finals in three of four years and appeared to be ascending behind young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown before hitting a bit of a roadblock over the past year and a half.
“I think the thing I’d say [to fans] directly is we share that frustration,” Stevens said. “We’re also hopeful we can put together our individual capabilities and really play well collectively. But no one here is making excuses or skirting the fact that we’re not record-wise where we want to be. We’ve had moments, but they’ve been too few and far between and not consistent enough, and it’s all of our jobs to work to change that.”