Through Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer
It was exactly one year ago today when the Boston Celticsafter a disappointing first-round loss to the Brooklyn netsannounced an uproar from their front office.
The first half of the press release — that Danny Ainge, the team’s president of basketball operations, would be stepping down — didn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, Ainge had held that role since 2003. Who could blame him for wanting to try something new?
The second half of the news, however, was shocking. Brad Stevens would quit his job as the Celtics head coach — one he’s held since 2013 — and move to the front office to oversee the team’s basketball operations.
Questions arose as to whether Stevens was fit to succeed in this new position. He was a natural coach, meaning he thought like a coach, a mindset that doesn’t always lend itself to success in a job that requires more long-term thinking.
But it was also unclear exactly why Stevens moved to the front office. There were reports that coaching during the pandemic — and the NBA’s condensed schedule — had left him feeling burned out. If so, was the grueling task of running a basketball team really the right choice?
A year later, it’s clear that the answer was – and is – a resounding yes. It’s not just that Stevens is the man in charge of a Celtics team that, after a 100-96 win over the Miami Heat in Game 7 on Sunday night, is now heading for the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. . wouldn’t be there if Stevens didn’t make every major decision he made in his first year on the job.
Yes, he inherited a roster that had advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the previous five seasons, thanks to some brilliant moves from Ainge. Acting first choice to draft Jayson Tatum in place of Markelle Fultz. Drafting Jaylen Brown at number 3, a lock many considered a reach at the time. Robert Williams and then Grant Williams jam in successive checkers with picks in the 1920s. Hire Stevens to coach the group.
But as the longtime Celtics coach, it’s clear that Stevens was uniquely qualified to determine exactly what the team needed to get over the hump. He alluded to this last year during the press conference announcing the uproar.
“I think I have a good understanding of our team as Danny is leaving now,” Stevens told reporters at the time. “I feel like I have a good idea of what we’re doing well, what we’re not doing so well, and I’ve been doing this for eight years. I’ve been in that locker room with some of those guys for a long time.”
Being there, clearly, gave him insight into what kind of adjustments he could make along the margins. No reset buttons were pressed. No major transactions were made.
On the face of it, this Celtics team is no different from the ones we’ve seen fall short in recent years. It is built around the two-way greatness of Tatum and Brown, with Marcus Smart and Al Horford along the edges.
But this is not the same Boston team and watching the Celtics hold off the Heat in Game 7, you could see Stevens’ impression all over the floor.
There was Horford, just two years after looking crops and having basically spent the entire previous season playing 44 minutes of lockdown defence.
There was Smart—who signed Stevens to extra time in the offseason and then moved to point guard, a shift that unlocked the team at both ends of the floor—who racked up 24 points and served as the snake’s head for a stifling Celtics defense .
There was Derrick White—whom Stevens traded for in February, a move that is part of a mini-roster overhaul intended to add defense and size and remove ball-stoppers like Dennis Schroder—who got eight points and a strong defense from the bank contributed.
And there was the league’s No. 1 defense, which was built by freshman coach Ime Udoka, who hired Stevens as his replacement, and kept the Heat at an ugly 42 percent of the field and 6-for-30 from deep.
In fact, picking Udoka off the sidelines of the Nets might have been Stevens’ best move. Udoka seems to be one of those rare coaches who can beat opponents with his X’s-and-O’s, but also knows how to manage the personalities of his players.
However, where Stevens really deserves credit is maintaining his patience. Remember, this Celtics season got off to a bumpy start. Players bickered through the press. Udoka criticized the game and his group’s decision-making. There was talk about whether it was time to break the Tatum-Brown core. On January 21, after losing four points to Portland, the Celtics fell to 23-24.
Shortly thereafter, thanks to some defensive adjustments (shifting a little less, shifting from Robert Williams to more of an auxiliary role) and roster maneuvering, the Celtics turned into the NBA’s best team. They finished the season with the second best record in the East, but, more importantly, the second best net score in the entire NBA.
They have been a juggernaut all year and now, after knocking out Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler, there are only four wins to a title.
Brad Stevens’ decision-making from the front office is not why. But it’s definitely one of the most important, which I think a year ago wasn’t something many thought any of us would say.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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