Boston Celtics: Brad Stevens Finding His NBA Identity

Two years ago, Boston Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens was viewed as one of the best young coaches in college basketball. One of the brightest minds in the game, Stevens had overachieved every season with the Butler Bulldogs and managed to take a school that had never reached the Final Four to back-to-back appearances in the championship game.

In July 2013, general manager Danny Ainge made Stevens the youngest coach in the NBA and locked him up to a six-year, $22 million contract to lead a new generation of Celtics. Like any rookie in the NBA, Stevens struggled through ups-and-downs in his first year.

The team managed just 25 wins in 2013-14–his 57 losses were more than he had amassed throughout his entire NCAA career–but the signs were encouraging for the young coach. Now, after a year to adjust to the game and lifestyle of the NBA, Brad Stevens is forging an identify and proving he could become one of the best coaches in the entire league.

Oct 29, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens directs his team during the first quarter against the Brooklyn Nets at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

With that six-year deal locked up, Stevens had the security of knowing that no matter how he performed in his first year, Ainge planned on having him in charge long-term. After trading away two franchise legends in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Celtics were always going to struggle in the first season of a new rebuilding project.

With All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo sidelined with a knee injury for the majority of the season and a young roster with significant shortcomings, the odds were always stacked against Stevens finding much in the way of success in the win column.

So, instead Stevens focused on the individual development of his players and worked to accustom himself with the rigors of the NBA’s 82-game season.

He worked extensively with Jared Sullinger and encouraged him to expand his shooting range out to the 3-point line. Despite limited success in the way of efficiency, Stevens pushed Sullinger to keep shooting last season and it now appears as though that work is paying off.

Sullinger is now shooting the 3-ball with confidence and efficiency throughout the preseason and has added a dangerous weapon to his already impressive inside game. Stevens also managed to turn Jordan Crawford, a gunner with poor shot-selection into a serviceable point guard for just long enough for Ainge to trade him for a additional draft picks.

The same player that Stevens had averaging 13.7 points and 5.7 assists as a Celtic found himself unable to make an NBA roster this season and recently signed a deal in China.

Apr 2, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens (M) talks to his team during a stoppage in play against the Washington Wizards in the second quarter at Verizon Center. The Wizards won 118-92 and qualified for the NBA playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Now, after a year of adjustment and individual player development, Stevens looks set to return to what he does best and that is coaching winning basketball. The young coach and his players appear to have an entirely new demeanor this season. They are calm, confident and sharing the ball like a team that has been together for years.

Throughout the preseason, there was an obvious focus on ball movement, team defense and an increase in outside shooting. This carried over to the opening game where the young Celtics blew-out an experienced Nets team 121-105, showing they will not be the push-over that they were at times last season.Posted on the Celtics’ locker room door was this list of what is obviously becoming the team’s focus this season. Stevens knows that he does not have the most talented team in the league, but that never stopped him from finding success in the NCAA.

He is now using the same philosophies that made him one of college’s most successful coaches and is employing them at the highest level. A team that plays together, out-works their opponent and competes for every possession will find a way to win despite what can be a gap in individual talent.

The Celtics had eight players score in double-digits in Wednesday’s victory, with Brandon Bass (eight) and Tyler Zeller (six) just falling short of having every rotation player crack double figures. They ran the Nets off the court, reaching 100 points by the end of the third quarter, and had opened up a 29-point lead before coasting to an easy win.

The Celtics are still one of the youngest teams in the NBA and with a brutal early schedule, they could once again struggle to find victories with any real consistency. However, Stevens has his team focused and playing with a purpose that will make them a dangerous opponent night-in, night-out for any opposition.

The way that the Celtics are sharing the load offensively will make them extremely hard to defend and it appears they are trying to somewhat replicate the impeccable offensive system that the defending-champion Spurs used with such great success last season.

Without a true rim-protector in the paint, the Celtics will struggle to become an elite defensive team but with their coach constantly preaching effort and energy on the sidelines it won’t be for a lack of effort. Dominating the effort plays, playing with pace and space, staying tough and executing on both ends of the floor.

This is the new generation of Boston Celtics and the biggest part of this transition is the baby-faced coaching prodigy working the sidelines.