It was about time, Celtics. It was about time coach Brad Stevens and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge took a different and more modern approach to hiring coaches. Namely, the hiring of former WNBA standout, ESPN college basketball and NBA analyst Kara Lawson as an assistant.
Stevens had a coaching opening when Micah Shrewsberry departed to become an assistant at Purdue, and in addition to hiring former West Virginia Joe Mazzulla, a bright young prospect, they went after Lawson, who spent two seasons as a TV analyst for the Washington Wizards.
It’s easy to detect Lawson’s basketball acumen after listening to her analyze games. She’s a brilliant basketball mind who has mastered the game after being a point guard in the WNBA for 13 years and then studying the men’s game with the express purpose of finding the right opportunity with the right franchise.
Boston chose her and she chose Boston. The Celtics needed a fresh voice. Stevens desperately needed to go outside of his Butler buddy box and hire someone he didn’t know well with a flawless reputation and who was a rising coaching prospect.
Lawson was that person, regardless of her gender. And she has dived right into the job in working with the Celtics’ summer league team. There are eight women throughout the NBA working in various coaching and front office jobs, and that number sorely needs to expand.
Lawson predictably said she does not want her gender to be an issue or even a factor in her job. She’s a coach, not a female coach. But the fact the NBA is opening doors, and that Stevens essentially randomly texted Lawson to talk about a job (Lawson said she wasn’t expecting to hear from Stevens), is a sign that women are indeed a growing part of the NBA game and culture.
“I knew Brad having covered his teams at Butler while I worked at ESPN and covered him in the playoffs a couple of times,” Lawson said. “Based off past precedent, I thought it would be something about a job. For me, I only ever got calls from NBA teams in the last two years and never before then. So that goes for television jobs or just basically any jobs with a team.
“So go from age 22 to age 36 and never get a phone call to now getting a lot of phone calls, just using my experience, there’s been a lot progress in teams reaching out and trying to see if different women are a good fit for their group.”
When reports surfaced that Lawson had been hired, Celtics rookie Grant Williams, also a Tennessee alumnus, tweeted congratulations. Lawson has worked extensively with rookie point guard Carsen Edwards over the past few days of drills. The younger players watch the WNBA, they have listened to her analyze, and there is a high level of familiarity.
Although Lawson has only gone through experiences on the WNBA side, she has still gone through those experiences as a professional player, and that’s critical to improving the Celtics’ locker room culture.
Last season’s unrest was partially caused by some of the players lacking respect for Stevens’s assistants because only Jerome Allen had played in the NBA.
Lawson played in the WNBA until age 34, the final few years also serving as an NBA analyst, so she’s been available and prepared for years.
“Everyone on this staff is elite and we all bring different perspectives,” Lawson said. “My perspective that I try to bring is I’ve been there. I’ve won a championship [2005 with the Sacramento Monarchs], I’ve played almost any role that you can possibly play on a team. I’ve been a rookie where I didn’t play a lot. I’ve been a point guard where I started every game and we made it to the conference finals, and I’ve been a sixth man more years than I wanted to be, so I can relate.
“Most of the things that they’ve experienced emotionally I’ve experienced, too. I cannot just understand but I can relate to their ups and downs.”
The past two years in Washington, Lawson attended practices and shootarounds, gaining knowledge on how the Wizards approached games. She scouted opponents with the help of coach Scott Brooks.
Lawson acknowledges there is a lot to learn. She was prepping for another season with the Wizards before Stevens’s text. She finally decided that after previous offers and discussions about positions with NBA teams that this was the right time, the right team, and the right moment to break another barrier. She’s the first female coach in Celtics history, a designation that’s been long overdue for an organization that has prided itself on diversity during its 70-year history.
Maybe during quiet times Lawson can reflect on the significance of joining an NBA coaching staff and the prospect of the league’s first female head coach in coming years. But for now, she’ll concentrate on learning the Celtics’ system, helping the players improve, and being a valuable asset on Stevens’s staff.
“The terminology I know is different than the terminology we use here and I need to be able to speak to the players in the terminology we use here,” she said. “That’s my biggest challenge and it will come eventually, but I’m not very patient. I’m not waiting for it. I want it to hurry up.”
Nets a big winner in the offseason
Most of the top free agents have been signed. Some had agreed to deals long before the June 29 date during which teams could officially contact prospective free agents for meetings. It’s time to grade six bona fide winners and four wait-until-next-summer losers.
Nets — When a team signs two maximum free agents who are NBA champions, All-NBA players, and have Hall of Fame credentials, they are indeed the winner of free agency. The Nets planned for this to happen for years, and made some salary-clearing moves in recent weeks because they knew Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving each were seriously considering them. The duo had long planned to play together and when Irving focused on the Nets, Durant followed. It’s one of the league’s greatest reclamation projects, by former San Antonio Spurs executive Sean Marks, after Brooklyn’s ill-fated trade with the Celtics gutted all of its assets. Marks also signed menacing defensive center DeAndre Jordan and veteran swingman Garrett Temple to put the Nets into Eastern Conference contention. And they expect Durant to return healthy in 2020-21.
Jazz — In addition to the Mike Conley trade, they were able to sign Pacers shooter Bojan Bogdanovic, workhorse rebounder Ed Davis, former lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay, and ex-Celtic Jeff Green to become a Western Conference contender. Utah had to part ways with Derrick Favors and Ricky Rubio but became a better offensive team. Salt Lake City is not a free agent destination. And the Jazz knew that they had to make improvements after two first-round playoff eliminations. Bogdanovic is coming off his best season with Indiana, flourishing in Victor Oladipo’s absence, while Davis has flourished for playoff teams.
Pelicans — The good news began when they hopped several teams to nab the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery. New general manager David Griffin then dumped the anchor-like contract of Solomon Hill to swap picks with the Hawks, signed veteran shooter J.J. Redick, and added the steady Favors to fill the void in the paint. New Orleans made a splash by moving Anthony Davis to the Lakers for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart, and then adding Zion Williamson in the draft. But the additions of Redick and Favors, who was acquired for a second-round pick, make the Pelicans a contender for a top-four seed in the Western Conference.
Kings — A few years ago, they used their cap space on aging veterans Vince Carter, Zach Randolph, and George Hill to add experience to a group of youngsters. Now that the Kings are on the verge of making the playoffs, they did something similar by adding Dewayne Dedmon, Trevor Ariza, and Cory Joseph. In addition to bringing back Harrison Barnes, the Kings have enhanced their roster to make the playoffs in the treacherous Western Conference. They are a franchise that’s not going to attract major free agents, so the Kings went moderate and signed three quality players who will work hard and add leadership.
Pacers — They have to be astute in improving in the offseason because Indianapolis is not a prime free agent destination. So they traded for Milwaukee restricted free agent Malcolm Brogdon to lead the team after losing Darren Collison to retirement and Joseph to free agency. They also added Jeremy Lamb to boost a sagging offense and added Philadelphia sparkplug T.J. McConnell as a backup to Brogdon. The Pacers used their salary cap space for a sign-and-trade to add to their roster, an intelligent way for small-market teams to improve knowing they won’t be on the lists of superstars who want to play in glitzier cities.
Clippers — They waited on Kawhi Leonard, and waited and waited, as those who had no idea what Leonard was thinking considered them out of the sweepstakes. And then suddenly late Friday night, the Clippers pull off one of the biggest deals in franchise history to get Paul George (a Nets-Celtics type of draft-pick swap) and then get Leonard, making them major winners and upstaging the rival Lakers, who thought they had a legitimate chance to pair Leonard with LeBron James. The Clippers may not have a first-round pick until 2057 (kidding), but they do have two top-10 players to make an NBA Finals run.
Mavericks — They were able to re-sign Kristaps Porzingis to a maximum deal and also brought back Dwight Powell, but there are still no major free agents going to Dallas and they still have $22 million in cap space. The Mavericks want to be a destination for superstar free agents. But that hasn’t happened. There is still talent there, but Dallas keeps striking out or is relegated to signing second-tier players. The post-Dirk Nowitzki era is not getting off to a promising start.
Hornets — They were not going to be in play for any major free agents, but they are losers here because they allowed Kemba Walker to walk away without adequate compensation. They were able to acquire former Celtic Terry Rozier in a sign-and-trade, but they had to pay Rozier $19 million per season, and who is to say he was their primary target as Walker’s replacement? But since management didn’t trade Walker at the deadline, when it was apparent they weren’t going to re-sign him, they took Rozier. He’d better work out in Charlotte or this could be considered another Michael Jordan failure.
Rockets — It’s not that they missed out on major free agents because they lack salary cap space. But their lone target, Jimmy Butler, bolted Philadelphia for the Heat in the same type of sign-and-trade deal Houston wanted to execute. So the Rockets are still holding on to Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, and P.J. Tucker, players they would have moved to make space for Butler. Essentially, the Rockets are the same team as last year after they re-signed Austin Rivers and Gerald Green. The Rockets made no significant moves, limited by the $40 million-per-season contract of point guard Chris Paul.
Knicks — They revamped their front office last year, hiring veteran executive Scott Perry as general manager and the astute David Fizdale as coach, in hopes of landing two maximum free agents with their cap space. But they were never seriously considered by any of the available franchise-changing free agents, including Irving, who instead chose rival Brooklyn with little hesitation. The Knicks instead used their cap space on Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Elfrid Payton, Taj Gibson, and Wayne Ellington, making them competitive for the short term but again wanting for star power. Will the Knicks have to rely on homegrown talent or will they finally cash in on a major free agent the next time? Whenever that is.
Jared Dudley agreed to a one-year minimum deal with the Lakers, as he continues his career with championship-contending team after helping Brooklyn to the playoffs last season. There was definite interest in the Celtics from Dudley, but the club wanted to re-sign point guard Brad Wanamaker to fill its roster. With Wanamaker, Enes Kanter, and Vincent Poirier, the Celtics’ roster was full. The Lakers had a maximum salary designated for Leonard and would have needed to fill the rest of their roster with mostly minimum deals. Another player who was waiting for Leonard’s decision was Marcus Morris, who could now agree to a multiyear deal with the Lakers with Leonard heading to the Clippers. His brother, Markieff, agreed to a deal with the Detroit Pistons, meaning the Morris twins won’t be reuniting as they had hoped . . . The Heat have accomplished two primary goals in the past week. They were able to acquire a legitimate star in Butler, who is headed to Miami through a sign-and-trade deal with the 76ers, Trail Blazers, and Mavericks that cost them Josh Richardson (to Philadelphia) and former Celtic Kelly Olynyk (to Dallas). But they were also able to rid themselves of the final year of the painful five-year, $94 million contract of Hassan Whiteside, the former second-round pick who had all the capability of being a frontline center and rim protector but was far too inconsistent for the Heat’s liking. Miami drafted Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo two years ago and he emerged as the starting center. Whiteside gets a new chance in Portland, which needs a center while Jusuf Nurkic recovers from a fractured fibula and tibia sustained on March 25 . . . Meanwhile, DeMarcus Cousins signed with the Lakers, while his former team, the Warriors, acquired Willie Cauley-Stein and re-signed Kevon Looney for their frontcourt. Cousins was not completely healthy during the playoffs and his injury history, along with his inability to defend the pick-and-roll (as many teams exposed, including Toronto in the NBA Finals), hampered him in free agency. Three years ago, Cousins was considered the best center in the NBA, but he has been supplanted by Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, among others . . . Among remaining free agents who may have to wait to be signed are 42-year-old Vince Carter, who played last season with the Hawks, and 39-year-old Jamal Crawford, who spent last season in Phoenix. It’s going to be a difficult summer for veterans who aren’t top tier or even second-tier free agents as the market is drying quickly. Many of those players will have to sign minimum contracts.