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The Coaching Genius Of Brad Stevens

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Stevens will be an all-time legendary coach by the time he retires. How? By doing what he always does- win.

Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Steve Kerr…. and Brad Stevens? To skeptics, putting a 39-year-old head coach in the middle of his third NBA season in the same sentence as surefire first ballot Hall of Fame coaches like the ones previously mentioned borderlines on blasphemy. Why stop there, though? Why not put Stevens in the conversation with all-time great coaches like Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, and Pat Riley? Because that’s where he’s headed. 

“Hold your horses,” most will argue. “It’s crazy to compare a coach whose NBA teams have not yet reached the second round of the playoffs to legendary coaches who have won a combined 25 NBA Championships.” The funny thing is, though, it really isn’t. In fact, it might be the most logical step a basketball fan could make. 

To understand the true brilliance of Stevens’ coaching, we must go back to the beginning. After growing up and attending college in Indianapolis, Stevens stayed within the state and took a job at Eli Lilly and Company. Interested in the ins-and-outs of basketball coaching, he decided to leave his job and became an assistant at Butler University. After serving as an assistant for many years, he was eventually promoted to head coach in 2007 after the previous coach left for Iowa. Incredibly, Stevens was the second youngest head coach in all of NCAA Division I basketball. 

Often mistaken as a student on Butler’s campus due to his young age and “babyface,” Stevens led Butler to a 30-win season in his first year and became the third youngest NCAA Division 1 head coach to win 30 games in his debut season. By the time his six-year coaching career at Butler was finished, he had become the youngest coach to lead his teams to two NCAA Division I Championship games and had broken the national record for most wins in the first three years of coaching. 

After the national championship games, the coaching reputation of Stevens spread nationwide, eventually reaching the office of Boston Celtics President of Basketball Operations, Danny Ainge. He pegged Stevens as his coach of the future and gave him a six-year deal. Thus, Stevens made the transition from collegiate basketball to the professional world.

In just his second year as the Celtics’ front man, Stevens delivered, leading the team to the playoffs and finishing fourth in the NBA Coach of the Year voting. Currently he has his team of misfits and castoffs in position to be in the NBA playoffs once again, despite the fact that there is only one potential All-Star on the entire Celtics’ roster. Those are the logistical facts of Stevens’ accomplishments. “But that still doesn’t prove that he should be in today’s top echelon of coaches,” one might say, “let alone among the top coaches of all time.” Correct. However, through a statistical breakdown and understanding of how Stevens accomplished these feats, a clearer picture of his brilliance comes into focus.

During Stevens’ time at Butler, the school was not known as a collegiate powerhouse, so Stevens understandably had difficulty recruiting top flight five-star recruits. Instead, he was stuck with undersized players who were always labeled with red flags by top ranked programs. Interestingly enough, this description perfectly describes the Celtics’ roster as well. With an extremely undersized point guard in Isaiah Thomas, a former second round pick thought to not have many offensive skills in Jae Crowder, an overpaid role player according to numerous experts in Avery Bradley, and a variety of undersized big men, Stevens has essentially performed the same magic trick in Boston that he accomplished at Butler.

A staple of a Brad Stevens-coached team is to shoot more frequently than an opponent, both in two-point shots and three-pointers, thereby creating numerous opportunities for offensive rebounds and easy put-backs around the rim. Unlike teams such as the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs, who thrive on beautifully orchestrated offense to find the perfect shot, the Celtics simply shoot the first decent look they get and then crash the glass like wild banshees to rebound their misses. 

For example, how are the Spurs ranked first in two-point field goal percentage, second in three-point percentage, and first in overall field goal percentage in the NBA, yet are only averaging 103.9 points per game? Likewise, how are the Celtics ranked 17th in two-point field goal percentage, 27th in three-point field goal percentage, and 23rd in overall field goal percentage, yet are right behind the Spurs for seventh in the NBA in points per game with 103.7? San Antonio Spurs 2016 statistics

Boston Celtics 2016 statistics

The answer to both questions is one of the first commandments in the Brad Stevens coaching Bible: offensive rebounds. San Antonio? 24th in the NBA with 9.5. The Golden State offense? 13th in the NBA with 10.4 per game. But what about those pesky Celtics? 11.7 per game, good for fifth in the NBA. And that is the heart of the issue and the focal point of Stevens’ genius. 

Because Stevens has never had the most talented players, he has instilled in his teams the desire to rebound the ball with a passion and a fury. Less talented players miss shots. A lot of them. Instead of using this as a weakness, though, Stevens has managed to transform these misses into major team strengths. 

Rather than look at each missed shot as a defeat, like 99 percent of the basketball coaches in America, Stevens views a miss as an opportunity to score again. If a Celtics player is able to rebound the miss, he will either be closer to the basket than the original shot if he goes straight back up with the ball, or if he passes it to a teammate, that player will usually be wide open with a higher percentage shot than the first one. Instead of viewing each shot like an extra point in football where accuracy is the number one goal, Stevens sees each shot like a corner kick in soccer. Essentially, just put the ball into the mix and see what happens.

This pattern has been tried and true for Stevens, too, tracing back to his days at Butler. Despite giving up an average of two or three inches at each position for Steven’s second runner-up National Championship team, for example, Butler still ranked 45th out of 347 teams in offensive rebounding. True to form, the team also ranked 156th in two-point field goal percentage, 133rd in three-point field goal percentage, and 186th in overall field goal percentage. 

Butler University 2016 statistics

Like any Brad Stevens team, however, they were 17th in total field goals attempted and 39th in total field goals made. Easy math, right? The more times a team shoots, the more opportunities they have to score. Stevens took an equation so simple an elementary-aged student could understand it, and has used it to propel his teams to victory time and time again.

Stevens is also one of the best out-of-bounds coaches in the nation across any level. Another problem with teams that have less talent than their opponents is that players lack the ability to get off their own shots. Stevens compensates for this by creating brilliant set piece and side-out schemes that consistently aid his players in having wide open short-range shots or layups. Proof? Just take a look at his work at Butler and now with the Celtics.

However, this is simply on the offensive side of the ball. Defensively, there is a reason that Stevens-coached teams are known as “scrappy, grinders.” Defense is an easy lesson for any team lacking in the talent department. Why are upsets able to happen during March Madness each year? It does not take talent to play defense. It simply takes the will to work hard and heart, no matter how cheesy it sounds.

Year-in and year-out, basketball teams across the nation are able to bridge the talent gap by simply outworking their opponents on the defensive end of the ball. The difference between these teams and Stevens’ teams? The ability he has to command his troops to wholeheartedly commit to defense every single night. This is the reason that the Celtics’ rag-tag bunch is able to rank in the top 10 of almost every single defensive shooting category.

In the end, no one is crazy enough to predict an NBA championship run from the Celtics, at least not this season. However, after taking last year’s NBA champion Warriors into double overtime earlier this season, the potential for the Celtics to compete with top teams is certainly attainable, especially as Ainge adds to the Celtics’ talent level. This is the first year Stevens will be able to coach an All-Star player, yet he is still on his way to piloting the team to their second straight playoff appearance. The Miami Heat had two All-Stars last year and were still not able to make the playoffs. Imagine what Stevens could do with two players at this talent level!

“So what?” doubters may still question. “Stevens has done well with little talent. Plenty of coaches have done this for a season here and there. Why should he be lumped into discussion as a legendary coach?” 

Stevens is special because of the consistent nature by which he has done so. All of Stevens’ success has occurred in the span of a nine-year head coaching career. Nine years! Because Stevens has had consistent success throughout his coaching career, there is little doubt that he will be unable to continue his winning ways while improving on past success with each star player that the Celtics are able to sign or trade. Stevens is already a phenomenal coach; now it is up to Celtics’ management to get him a few decent pieces he can use. 

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The fact of the matter is that no matter how good a coach is, he still needs quality personnel. Auerbach had Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. Jackson had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and, later on, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Riley had Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Popovich has had Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Kerr has Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Rivers had Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The list goes on and on, but one thing is clear: if Stevens is given a superstar player, he will join this list by the end of his head coaching career.

Very few coaches, if any, have ever experienced success in college basketball and the NBA like Stevens. Doubters may say that he has never had superstar talent, so he might not be able to manage big egos, but because Stevens has coached so many different types of players, he has been extremely flexible in his coaching style. Plus, every player who has ever played for Stevens has come away from the experience with glowing reviews. 

With a coach as cerebral and relatable as Stevens, it’s hard to bet against him, whether it be this NBA season or one 20 years down the line. Like any good strategic gambler, he always holds his cards close to his chest. However, with Stevens, it’s always a pretty safe bet that he has the best cards in the house. 

Edited by Jeremy Losak, Julian Boireau.

What college did Brad Stevens attend?
Created 1/22/16
  1. Butler University
  2. DePauw University
  3. Indiana University
  4. Purdue University

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