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Ball Don't Lie

Brad Stevens might be the first modern NCAA coach to pull off a successful switch to the NBA

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Brad Stevens, upon being introduced as Celtics coach (Getty Images)

For years, especially in the seasons following the rash of college coaches that attempted to convert their work to NBA sidelines from 1996 to Billy Donovan’s near-hire in 2007, I’ve contended that it genuinely isn’t a lack of authority over veteran players that do these coaches in. That’s a too-easy sportswriter script to lean on; pointing out that these grizzled NBA millionaires won’t be keen to listen to the same speeches college coaches are used to giving 18-year olds.

The answer to most college coaching failures is less exciting and hardly the stuff that sells newspapers or leads cable chat shows. The coaches just don’t know NBA personnel. They don’t know how to utilize their own players, they don’t know how to defend their opponents, and they certainly (in the case of college coaches with significant front office sway) how to deal for or sign it. It’s less about standing up to a 32-year old in his last big contract year in the locker room, and more about telling him where to go in the huddle.

For months now, new Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens has been huddling around his laptop, attempting to catch up with the 29 other NBA teams and 400-some players he’ll be charged with knowing more about than anyone in his particular huddle. The 36-year old former Butler Bulldogs coach was handed a borderline-shocking six-year deal by the Celtics in order to encourage trust in a slow rebuilding process, but that hasn’t stopped Stevens from trying to turn into the smartest man in the room by the time camp tips in October.

Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden recently profiled Stevens in a must-read feature. From the piece:

Now that laptop is open, and Stevens is running one of the three software programs that most pro and major-college teams use for scouting, while explaining how he studies a game between two of the NBA's better squads. (He asked that neither the teams nor the players be identified in this story.) Green letters in the lower corner of the screen specify the action Stevens is breaking down: SIDE PNR VS. SMALLS (side pick-and-roll plays against guards and small forwards).

Stevens narrates the action, succinctly summarizing various sets, options and movements by the defense. "Right here," says Stevens, pausing the video, "I'm watching how [Team A] defends [Team B's] different actions. Already there are three actions: [Player 1] sets a down screen for [Player 2], [Player 3] goes off a fake handoff, and there's a stagger for [Player 4] down here. What is [Team A] doing to defend this? Do you go under the down screen? Do you leave [Player 4] open when he's a very good shooter? You've got all these issues. It's a [defensive] system, and I think I've got a pretty good feel for what their system looks like." Here Stevens pauses, giving weight to the next sentence. "That doesn't mean it's easy to play against," he says. "Because it's not."

After a few more movements on the screen, Stevens closes the program and pulls up an Excel document, into which he has typed notes on every possession of another game involving a team that Boston will face early this season. The notations are copious, in a dense hoop-centric shorthand. One might reference the options off an offensive set, another might describe a particular player's movements in a very specific scenario.

Upon coming to the NBA to work, Stevens called a friend and told him that the amount of available information about the professional game was astonishing—there just aren't enough hours or days to study it. "I've learned a lot, and I've got a lot more to learn," says Stevens. "It's almost a little overwhelming with the amount of information to process in a short amount of time. I'm working every day to get myself up to speed."

[…]

"The whole Brad Stevens-ahead-of-the-curve-on-statistics thing is overblown," he says. "Anything I can get to make us better, I'm all ears. But everybody does this stuff."

Layden revealed that Stevens didn’t actually pick up the NBA’s League Pass package until his former Bulldog Gordon Hayward was drafted by the Utah Jazz in 2010. Stevens didn’t just stick to Jazz games, though, as his wife started finding “scraps of paper around the house, with plays scribbled on them.”

The entire piece, as I stated above, is a must-read. In it, several college coaches fawn over Stevens’ ability to work his Bulldogs toward peak execution, with creative and versatile defensive sets, and flawless communication coming out of timeouts. After Rajon Rondo’s ACL tear, a first round exit at the hands of the hated New York Knicks, and the deals that sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn, the interview is five internet pages of great news for Boston fans.

It remains to be seen, in the too-quick and too-smart NBA, if Stevens’ old Butler defensive schemes will work at the pro level. That’s not the point, though. The idea is that Stevens is adaptable, and that the schemes he breaks training camp with might look nothing like what took the Bulldogs to two Final Fours. And that those schemes won’t look anything like what the Celtics will be using in March, and those schemes won’t look anything like the ones being used by the C’s by the time the team works its way back to playoff contention, and on and on.

History has not been kind to college coaches attempting to make the leap to the NBA. Based on the Celtics’ situation, the pace established by their front office brain trust, and Stevens’ own intelligence, creativity, and work ethic, it seems like we may finally have ourselves a winner. The first guy to really pull it off.

Then again, it’s the offseason. Everyone looks stoppable on a laptop.

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