In his 2008 book, “Outliers: The Story of Success,” author Malcolm Gladwell explores how high achievers differ from the rest of society. Among his claims, Gladwell suggests that it typically takes a person 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in a given field.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens read the book several years ago, and he is a subscriber to that theory. Once, during his 13-year run as an assistant and head coach at Butler University, he attempted to figure out how many hours he had accumulated on the job. The exercise was ultimately futile, but it was clear he had surpassed the 10,000 mark.
But the differences between the NBA and college basketball are so vast, Stevens said, that it was important to reset his odometer to zero when he joined the Celtics. And as he enters his third year in Boston, he still has time to put in.
“Nobody is born with all the answers,” said Stevens. “We’ve got to learn and we’ve got to grow and we’ve got to work at it. I’m still learning and I’m still getting a feel for being good in this league, because it is a much different challenge. The players are better, the games come quicker, the practices are less and the game has to be played a bit differently.”
If Stevens has not yet mastered his craft, he is clearly progressing. After admittedly being overwhelmed at times during his first season, he found his rhythm last year, as the Celtics won 40 games — a 15-win improvement from the previous year — and improbably earned the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Stevens’s coaching acumen was on display, from his effective late-game play designs to his ability to balance analytics with simply creating a stable locker-room culture.
Coaches around the league began to rave about him as one of the game’s brightest minds. And in a recent NBA.com poll of general managers, Stevens, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, and Warriors coach Steve Kerr were the only ones to receive votes for having the best offense, the best defense, and the best in-game adjustments.
When praise is passed along to Stevens, he is generally appreciative. But he usually follows with self-deprecation. The response is partly his humility, but it is mostly because he does not believe he has reached any summit. He knows there are still plenty of hours to clock.
“The moment I stop evolving, I’ll quit,” he said. “I don’t want to be a guy that stops growing. Like, I have no interest in stagnating. It’s not fun. The fun part about coaching is the challenge the next day.”
Two essential questions
Surprisingly, Brad Stevens generally sleeps quite well. But he has nights — like most people — when he awakens in the wee hours thinking about work.
“And when I wake up, I’m up,” he said. “I’m thinking about too many things to go back to sleep. That’s the difference.”
Sometimes he will scrawl ideas on the notepad he keeps next to his bed. Sometimes he will record his thoughts on his iPhone. And sometimes, if his mind is racing or a big idea hits, he will just go downstairs to his office and get to work, regardless of the hour.
For much of this offseason, Stevens was focused on what he calls his “non-negotiables,” the areas of critical importance that will not change, regardless of the personnel on the court — defending the pick-and-roll in the middle of the floor, for example. He also studied what worked and what did not during the final three minutes of games last season.
As the Celtics’ roster took shape, with forwards David Lee and Amir Johnson and three draft picks joining an established core, two essential questions emerged.
Who would play? And, perhaps more important, who would play together?
This team is once again a group without a transcendent superstar, but the improvement of the young players combined with the arrivals of capable veterans clouded the picture. The distribution of minutes was not obvious.
Stevens sifted through the numbers and figures, the guesses and hunches, to try to piece together an effective rotation and find some clarity. He watched film of the returning Celtics as well as old footage of the team’s new arrivals.
He also had a mountain of data from last season that revealed the most productive lineups, but that did not provide all the answers, because last year’s roster was constantly in flux and this year’s was also altered. And even for an analytics guru such as Stevens, what once was is not always an accurate indicator of what will be.
Before considering powerful offensive groups, Stevens started with defense. He was aware of individual strengths and weaknesses, but he had to determine which players could defend well collectively. Then he looked at whether there were enough shooters within those groups, and enough players capable of getting into the paint, and enough rebounding.
“Brad is so smart that it didn’t take him that much time to adjust his philosophy to what he wanted to do and how it would work at this level,” said Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry. “Now, it’s more that he’s back in his element. He’s so comfortable now with the NBA game that he can really work on being better, learning different styles or ways to play.”
Isaiah Thomas is the Celtics’ most dynamic offensive player, so Stevens took special care in assembling clusters that would thrive with him. He wanted a post player capable of hitting a long jump shot after Thomas carved through the paint, and he wanted a player who was dynamic in the pick-and-roll.
“When he finds a group he likes,” center Tyler Zeller said, “he locks you in and plays those five guys together a lot.”
Slowly, the vision began to take shape, with Stevens sometimes breaking down just two-player groups.
“Does Marcus Smart do something that lifts up Jae Crowder?” he said. “Does Evan Turner do something that makes Avery Bradley better? How are you able to complement the guy next to you?
“Especially on a team with this kind of depth, that’s really big. Whether you have LeBron on your team or you’re a very even team, you’re always about how you complement each other.”
The sum of the parts
Of course, one potential problem with having so many very-good-but-not-great players is that some players inevitably will be on the bench longer than they would like. While the coach identifies the most efficient and effective groups, some millionaires will be left out.
Stevens would prefer not to dip beyond a 10-player rotation. And he would like to use a cycle of four big men. Last season Boston had great success with smaller lineups, sometimes playing Jonas Jerebko and Jae Crowder at center and power forward. Doing that this season, which is certainly an option, would pinch the rotation of post players even further.
Yes, there will be injuries and illnesses, but there is no way to promise the opportunities that emerge that way.
“This year is going to be challenging because of the equality,” said president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. “Even up to this point, there really hasn’t been clear-cut winners and losers, and I think that’s going to be a challenge. That’s going to be a tough thing for Brad to manage until guys clearly win jobs.”
But this is where the culture Ainge and Stevens created could be beneficial. The locker room is now filled with hard-working, high-character players who seem to buy into the notion that they are only as good as the sum of their parts. And when they witness the success Stevens has had, it makes it easier to believe in him.
“They’re pros. You’ve got to be a pro,” Stevens said. “I mean, it stinks. I’d like to play everybody equally. But they only let us play five at once, you know?
“We just have to make decisions. We just have to be able to say this is who we are and this is who we’ve got to be and this is a lot of fun when you do it this way. But it does require some sublimation of ego, right? And these guys have been great about that.”
The Celtics are the rare playoff team without a bona fide superstar or, for that matter, an All-Star. This summer, Ainge combed free agency and aggressively tried to move up in the draft to acquire a potentially transcendent player, but both attempts were fruitless.
So it could be argued that Stevens is currently the cornerstone of the Boston Celtics, the one who will be their foundation.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a great coach without great players,” Ainge said. “But I think a coach is an integral part of a team’s success and foundation, so I think you can build around a coach like you can build around good players.
“And we have a great coach who players respect, and I think that’s huge.”