There is more than a generation of evidence which clearly illustrates that any NBA team hiring a head coach directly from college is making a huge mistake. P.J. Carlesimo. Tim Floyd. Leonard Hamilton. Lon Kruger. Mike Montgomery. Jerry Tarkanian. Rick Pitino, who failed twice. Even John Calipari, who is trying to make basketball history as we speak.
In fact, it had been a decade since any NBA team had hired a college coach to run the show. The collective track record was irrefutable. That ship had sailed. Come be an assistant or a D-League guy, like Kelvin Sampson or Quin Snyder. Pay your dues. Then we’ll talk.
So when Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge hired Brad Stevens directly from Butler University two summers ago, there were more than a few arched eyebrows.
Stevens got a six-year contract, which is virtually unheard of at the NBA level and had some folks wondering if he was striking while the iron was hot after two trips to the NCAA title game and going for the money, the way Pitino did. One of his initial tasks was mollifying Rajon Rondo, a moody star who often clashed with Doc Rivers, an NBA lifer who had a championship ring on his finger. And his long-term goal was to install stability and a winning culture to a storied franchise, even though the roster changed on a monthly basis and was littered with players who never had won before.
And you know what? Stevens is doing it. He is defying the odds, breaking the mold, becoming the outlier, debunking the myth, standing on his head – whatever you want to call it. He is making a successful transition from college coach to NBA coach.
There’s still a lot of work to do, and the forward progress of both Stevens and the Celtics will remain stuck in neutral until Ainge lands a bona fide star, either in the draft or free agency. But Stevens has quietly imposed his personality on the Celtics, who are clearly greater than the sum of their parts and winning the fight for an Eastern Conference playoff spot against teams much more talented that them.
“Brad is getting us all together, having us believe in one another,” Celtics guard Avery Bradley said. “We’re like a family out here. We’re a lot closer than we were and it shows on the court.”
“Man, they don’t quit,” said Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley, who knows a little bit about gritting and grinding. “They’re a team that fights. They’re going to play through every possession.”
The Celtics have had 27 players on their roster this season, none of whom is averaging more than 16 points per game. Their best rebounder is out for the season. No one on their current roster averages more than five assists. They have one player in the top 60 in 3-point shooting and no one in the top 60 in blocks.
But since Feb. 1 – a period that includes Jared Sullinger going down for the season and Ainge’s third huge trade of the season – the Celtics are 13-6 with wins over Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis and Indiana. Boston is 4-1 in the second half of back-to-back games during that stretch and 9-5 overall this season.
One of those wins was Saturday at Indiana, which had been the hottest team in the NBA. Coming off a home win over Orlando and looking ahead to a home game against Philadelphia, it would have been understandable if Boston gave in to the schedule, especially with Isaiah Thomas sidelined by a back injury.
But Boston took the lead in the first quarter and never relinquished it, making all the hustle plays down the stretch of a 93-89 victory, its fourth in a row. That goes to Stevens, who since his arrival has had a “no excuses” policy among his players, who clearly are buying in.
“These are the kind of games that I’ve always loved – just find a way,” he said afterward.
Regardless of who has suited up this season, Stevens has shown remarkable faith and belief in his players. He repeatedly shows he is far more interested in what they can do rather than what they cannot do. It is why Kelly Olynyk’s minutes remain steady through shooting slumps. It is why Phil Pressey puts up a double-double shortly after ringing up four straight DNPs. It is why Gigi Datome scored more points in a win over Miami than he did all season for Detroit.
But there’s much more to Stevens than the power of positive thinking. Without a stud to draw an automatic double-team and open the floor in conventional NBA fashion, Stevens constantly shuffles personnel to find a positional matchup that gives him just enough of an edge to steal a win, as he did with Evan Turner vs. Atlanta.
Stevens can X and O a little bit, too. In a recent win over New Orleans, Thomas made a couple of 3-pointers and drew a foul on another in a one-minute span. During an injury break, Stevens drew up what looked like a pindown for Thomas but actually had him set the screen, totally fooling the Pelicans and freeing Jae Crowder for a layup. And of course, there was this gem vs. Utah, which exploited the Jazz’s strategy of switching everything.
And once in a blue moon, Stevens will come out of character and light into his players, as he did at halftime of Friday’s win over Orlando, which had beaten Boston five days earlier and was on the verge of doing it again.
“I’ve never heard Brad really curse and he cursed us out pretty good,” Turner said. “We were messing up a little bit. … Some of our plays were lackadaisical. He thought we were playing too cool.”
If the Celtics make the playoffs, Stevens should be in the discussion for Coach of the Year. He doesn’t have the stars or the stability of the other candidates but has his team playing extremely hard and for each other with the right goal.
“The greatest thing you can become is the team that just plays the right way on the next play,” he said.
However, winning the Red Auerbach Trophy would be nothing compared to shattering the long-standing belief that the NBA is no place for a college coach.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: Brooklyn Nets rookie Cory Jefferson apparently has some trouble telling time.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Former NBA player Charles Oakley, on whether he was surprised that the Toronto Raptors created a bobblehead doll of him:
“Well, I have a head, so you never know what could happen.”
TANKS A LOT!: No one will notice because the NCAA Tournament will be taking place, but this is a huge week for ping-pong balls as the teams with the four worst records each play another at least once. On Thursday, Minnesota visits New York. On Friday, New York visits Philadelphia. And on Sunday, Philadelphia visits the Los Angeles Lakers.
LINE OF THE WEEK: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland at San Antonio, March 12: 47 minutes, 20-32 FGs, 7-7 3-pointers, 10-10 FTs, three rebounds, five assists, four steals, two turnovers, 57 points in a 128-125 overtime win. Irving scored 20 points in the last minute of regulation plus overtime as he surpassed his career high of 55 set Jan. 28 vs. Portland. His eruption was the most ever by a member of the Cavaliers, the most ever against the Spurs, the most by any player in the AT&T Center and marked the first time a player scored at least 50 against Gregg Popovich, who said afterward, “I don’t know how to guard that.”
LINE OF THE WEAK: Kirk Hinrich and E’Twaun Moore, Chicago at Charlotte, March 13: combined 26 minutes, 0-10 FGs, 0-1 3-pointers, 0-0 FTs, one rebound, zero assists, one steal, one block, five fouls, zero points in a 101-91 loss. Think the Bulls miss Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose? Among individuals, Hornets guard Brian Roberts was 0-of-10 in Monday’s loss to Washington, but to his credit returned to the Time Warner Cable Arena floor after the game to get up practice shots.
TRILLION WATCH: What a week! Clippers guard and convicted videobomber Dahntay Jones continued the team’s season-long tradition of getting absolutely nothing from its bench by racking up an amazing three consecutive 2 trillions on Monday vs. Minnesota, Wednesday at Oklahoma City and Friday at Dallas. Teammate Ekpe Udoh joined in with his own 2 trillion Wednesday. And on Friday, Blazers guard Steve Blake would have had a staggering 15 trillion if not for seven – yes, seven – assists. That’s right: 15 minutes and all zeros, except for seven assists. “I’ve never seen a line like that,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Atlanta at Golden State, March 18. The return meeting of the top teams in each conference was picked up by ESPN and is the last game on national TV for five days as the NBA cowers in fear of the shadow cast by the ridiculously overrated NCAA Tournament. Let’s hope it’s as good as the first meeting in Atlanta on Feb. 6, which saw the Hawks open a double-digit lead, the Warriors rally to tie it and the Hawks pull away down the stretch for a 124-116 win.
GAME OF THE WEAK: Brooklyn at Minnesota, March 16. These teams have a combined six players making eight figures either this season or next – which doesn’t include Thaddeus Young’s $9.4 million salary – and are both headed for the lottery.
TWO MINUTES: New Kings coach George Karl got his first up-close look at the Hawks, and it was a doozy. The Hawks dropped a buck-thirty on the Kings, setting season highs for points and threes (20) while shooting 60 percent with a league season-best 42 assists. “They play at a very quick pace,” he said. “Very seldom does your defense get in a comfort zone and they shoot the three. It’s almost as if they get yelled at if they don’t shoot the three. They’re told that if you’re open for a three ball, fire. Most teams have one guy out there that you can rotate to, but this team has everybody that you have to rotate to. They pass the ball so freely and so generously. They turn down good shots to get great shots. They have patience. And no one wants to give them credit, but they’re a good defensive team. They get their hands in the game, they create offensive defense. I think you’re seeing a very special basketball team.” … I know this note is now a week old, but Mo Williams winning Player of the Week in different conferences in the same season is nothing short of amazing. Williams had only one Player of the Week award in 11 years before this season. … After beating Golden State, the Nets lost the last four games of a five-game homestand, a stretch that will end up costing them a playoff spot. In those four games, Deron Williams averaged 9.3 points on 10-of-40 shooting, including 3-of-12 from the arc. He looks done as a star and – with two years and $43.3 million left on his deal – may be the most untradeable player in the league. … Even with Saturday’s home loss to Boston, the Pacers are 18-8 with George Hill in the lineup. … The Grizzlies were 39-14 at the All-Star break but just 7-6 since, turning their stronghold on the second seed in the West into a dogfight with Portland and Houston. Coach Dave Joerger believes the extended break didn’t help, evidenced by losses to Sacramento, Utah and Boston. “We had 11 days between games at the All-Star break,” he said. “That is like having three bye weeks in the NFL.” … When you look up unconscionable in the dictionary, there should be a picture of Jazz guard Trey Burke, who has shooting games since the new year of 0-of-8, 1-of-11, 0-of-10, 2-of-13, 1-of-10 and 2-of-19. As Ralph Lawler would say, yikes. … Third-year guard Will Barton averaged just 10 minutes and 3.0 points in 30 games for Portland before being dealt to Denver in the Arron Afflalo trade. In 13 games with the Nuggets, Barton is averaging 28.2 minutes, 14.0 points and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 48 percent from the field. He had a career-high 25 points with nine boards in Sunday’s double-OT win at New Orleans. … The Sixers are the fourth team this season for Ish Smith, who was waived by Houston, signed by Oklahoma City and traded to New Orleans, where he was waived again. Undeterred, he is averaging 12.1 points and 6.0 assists in his last eight games for his latest club. “Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m doing out there. I’m just going,” Smith said after a recent rare win. “Y’all are writing, ‘What the (heck) is he doing? No wonder he’s been on 25 teams.'”
Trivia Answer: Allen Iverson was first in scoring, fifth in assists and second in steals in 2004-05. … Happy 26th Birthday, Blake Griffin. … Anyone still think Hassan Whiteside is worth 65 million dollars?
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.