Less than one year ago, Brad Stevens was leading the Celtics into the postseason for the seventh time in his eight seasons as their head coach. After a Play-In victory, Boston’s brief playoff appearance ended in five games, with Stevens shocking the basketball world by stepping down as head coach only to replace Danny Ainge as the franchise’s president of basketball operations.
Making the leap from being a college head coach to the NBA was one thing, but how would Stevens perform as an executive with no prior front office experience?
Early returns suggest that he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Fast forward 11 months from Boston’s first-round disappointment in 2021 and you have a team that’s very similar, yet vastly different. These nuances are the difference between a team that struggled to finish at .500 and a team that will be a legitimate title contender this season and beyond.
Here’s how Stevens has orchestrated it all.
Appointing a replacement
There’s nothing quite like picking your replacement as your first order of business.
Stevens, who assumed his front office role immediately after stepping down, made it clear that he would be active in Boston’s head coaching search.
After a thorough process that lasted nearly four weeks, it was decided that the Celtics would appoint first-time head coach Ime Udoka as the franchise’s 18th head coach.
Udoka, who had a preexisting relationship with Celtics stars Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum from working with Team USA, had long been linked to head coaching vacancies, but Boston gave him his first shot. After a rocky start, the coaching approach of Udoka allowed Boston to turn its season around to become one of the league’s most dangerous teams.
The head coach certainly deserves the majority of the credit, but Stevens choosing Udoka shows that there was an alignment of the vision between the two. Stevens clearly saw Udoka as having the ability to lead the franchise to new heights.
Coach 18 could be the one to bring upon Banner 18.
He might not be “Trader Danny” level just yet, but Stevens has been no stranger to working the phones, executing a number of savvy deals to advance this team’s roster.
It started with the return of a familiar face.
Last season, it became clear that Kemba Walker was no longer a good fit for this Celtics roster. On June 18, 2021, Boston sent Walker and a 2021 first-round pick to Oklahoma City in exchange for veteran center Al Horford, who enjoyed three seasons with the franchise from 2016-19.
Even at 35, Horford has been an X-Factor for the Celtics all season, serving as a defensive anchor and a veteran that provides invaluable leadership.
The move to re-acquire Horford has been Stevens’ biggest splash, but he’s also made savvy acquisitions that ended up being a part of a bigger picture, like using a trade exception to acquire Josh Richardson or the value signings of Dennis Schroder and Enes Freedom, who would later be sent to Houston in the deadline deal that saw Daniel Theis return to Boston.
The deadline also saw Stevens part ways with a draft pick, a former lottery pick in Romeo Langford and the recently-acquired Richardson to acquire Derrick White, bolstering Boston’s backcourt rotation.
Splashy as these moves have been, they’re far from short-sighted, given the fact that the Celtics are endlessly working to build around their young stars.
Trust in The Jays
Ultimately, Boston’s success comes down to the duo of 24-year-old Jayson Tatum and 25-year-old Jaylen Brown.
When the Celtics struggle, noise surrounding splitting the duo can become deafening at times, but it’s clear that is not in Stevens’ plans. From coaching to personnel decisions, Stevens has clearly prioritized what will put the franchise’s star duo in the best position to succeed, and the results support that fact.
Tatum is coming off of his best season as a pro, averaging 26.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. Brown, who missed the last playoff run with an injury, bounced back to average 23.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.
Parting ways with Walker freed up the offense for both Brown and Tatum while allowing Smart to shine even more, posting a career-high average of 5.9 assists per game while becoming the first guard to win Defensive Player of the Year in 26 years.
The biggest similarity from last year’s roster is that things go as The Jays go, but the biggest difference is how the team has been structured around the duo, and the subtleties with which Udoka can make things work.
With a duo of stars that have yet to reach their prime and the ideal head coach to lead the team to the promised land, Stevens’ job is simple: Make the right moves.
He’s succeeding with flying colors thus far.