WALTHAM — Coincidentally, Rick Pitino was in town Wednesday night with his Louisville team facing Boston College, and he applauded the patience of Brad Stevens during this latest Celtics rebuilding project.
Of course, Pitino’s impatience may have led to his premature departure as Celtics president and coach. An example was giving up on Chauncey Billups before he developed into an All-Star. Stevens has labored through his first 1½ seasons of this reshaping, having to run out a plethora of creative rotations and rosters as team president Danny Ainge shuttles veterans in and out.
The Celtics are back from a 3-3 trip, perhaps the most successful stretch in Stevens’s tenure, given the Celtics were 9-32 away from TD Garden last season but are 7-15 this campaign. It was a progressive trip for an organization taking baby steps and trying avoid backslides.
Wednesday’s loss to the 7-37 Timberwolves was a backslide, but it didn’t overshadow that the Celtics are back to that group that plays hard for Stevens. And the six-game trip did galvanize a team that was unsure of itself after losing at home to the Bulls on Jan. 16.
The players didn’t know how this trip would work out. Would they would crawl home 0-6 with their wills stripped? Instead, they eked out wins against the Trail Blazers, Nuggets, and Jazz.
It was a successful ride, but Stevens refuses to acknowledge it as a positive surge because he wants the players to expect to win. In his eyes, you don’t credit yourself for being 16-28 or being average on the road. Those are the standards he held while at Butler. A winning record in the Horizon League wouldn’t move Stevens’s stone-faced expression, and competing in the NBA doesn’t, either.
“When I first decided to come, I knew there was going to be a building process, we talked about that,” he said. “You can’t project the timeline and that’s the toughest, but there are days like [against Portland and Denver] where you eke out those 1-point games and you hope that spearheads something. I don’t know how patient anybody is in this business, but I do enjoy progress being made. The focus for me has to be for me to coach this team as well as I possibly can.
“You’re not hired to ride the wave of a good time and you’re not hired to moan about what’s not going right.”
The expectations may vary nightly because of personnel but Stevens has maintained he is intent on winning every game. While it may not be in the organization’s best interest to compete for a playoff spot if it wants a high lottery pick, Stevens is going to utilize all of his resources to win, including veterans Tayshaun Prince, Marcus Thornton, and Brandon Bass, despite all being on expiring contracts.
Stevens believes winning is the most effective method of development, and he has steadfastly attempted to instill a winner’s attitude into a collection of players who are unsure about the team’s short-term direction.
They were passionate enough to be angry following Wednesday’s loss, despite a solid trip. Earlier in the season with Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green present in the locker room, the players took losses much lighter. There appeared to be a lack of accountability because the team wasn’t expected to win anyway, right?
“We had a good West Coast trip,” Bass said. “I just think we need to continue to build on it, not just celebrate us having a good trip, just keep going.”
Some of the younger players are emerging as leaders. Jared Sullinger has occasionally taken himself and his teammates to task for inconsistent efforts. Avery Bradley was visibly disappointed following the Minnesota loss because the team showed lapses in concentration.
It seems with the removal of Rondo and Green, the younger players are seizing the opportunity to determine their own fate. Because they are in a rebuilding situation does not mean they should become accustomed to losing. Because they watched some veteran teammates laugh off losses doesn’t mean they have to follow suit.
This trip allowed these players to form fresh bonds and reassess their responsibility to the team. It also allowed Prince to change the culture of the team without ever having spent a day in Boston. Friday night’s game against the Rockets will be his first at home as a Celtic.
Stevens is keeping a cautious approach. He has reiterated that he hopes most of the roster changes are over. How many trades can Ainge make in a season? Until there is more stability, Stevens will temper his enthusiasm, a fair and predictable response.
“It’s hard to know the progress of our group because our group hasn’t been together very long,” Stevens said. “It’s hard to say what this means without knowing what the future holds. There’s so much of the unknowns. We had our moments where we played well. We have a lot to work on but there was at least some progress made.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.