As they took their seats at the 2010 NCAA men's national championship game, Danny Ainge, the Boston Celtics' director of basketball operations, made a declaration to team owner Steve Pagliuca. They were about to watch Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Blue Devils take on the upstart Butler Bulldogs, coached by then 33-year-old Brad Stevens.
“I said to Steve at the time, ‘That’s the best coach in college basketball right down there,’” Ainge recalled years later. “He thought I was talking about Coach K.”
Ainge, like much of the basketball world, was enamored with Stevens. Three years year later — after Stevens got Butler back to another championship game — Ainge and Pagliuca lured him to the NBA and made him the Celtics' head coach.
It was a bold move. Stevens had no NBA experience. It was also expected to pay off. Big.
It didn’t, at least not to the standards of the Celtics, who own 17 NBA championships. That’s part of the deal in Boston, where it's almost all or nothing. Stevens proved to be a good coach. There is no questioning that. He never got to the Finals though. His eighth season ended Tuesday night in a blowout loss and a gentleman's sweep at the hands of Brooklyn.
By morning, Ainge was resigning and Stevens was moving into the front office to take the job. Boston will look for a new coach.
The move was dizzying, a shock across the NBA and left as many questions as answers.
Start with this: exactly what experience or track record has Stevens displayed to get him an immediate promotion to run a franchise that is rivaled only by the Los Angeles Lakes as the most storied in NBA history? He was impressive at drawing up plays, but does that translate? Is this a job he'll be good at? If so, how?
Pagliuca and primary owner Wyc Grousbeck felt the team needed a reboot. Ainge, in 18 years on the job, built the 2008 NBA championship team, but never capitalized on a recent boatload of draft picks and the franchise’s numerous advantages to get back there.
As such, wouldn’t looking at a pool of candidates make sense? If Stevens was being groomed for the job, then he was involved in some of the missteps — big or small — that left the roster hamstrung.
This was a backroom, planned-out deal … the old boy network at work.
That Stevens is white in a league that is so predominantly Black will be of great interest across the sport. Even if you believe the hire was 100 percent justified professionally and ethically, as a simple practical and competitive matter, how it came about is significant.
In the modern NBA, attracting star free agents is as important as drafts and development. Narratives matter. Reputation matters. Stevens may prove to be the greatest general manager of all time, but the Celtics walked right into this punch. The way he got the job made doing the job more difficult.
After all, it was Brooklyn that Ainge fleeced in 2013, sending aging stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Nets for a run of top draft picks. As recently as 2018, Brooklyn had little hope and few draft picks. Boston had a supposed title contender.
It is on Pagliuca and Grousbeck to explain their thinking, to sell the decision and the process.
Stevens is a very smart guy and a very creative Xs and Os coach. Again, he may be great. He is widely respected within the NBA and being offered control of the Celtics sure isn’t his fault. Anyone would take it.
But from the outside, here is a coach who never got the team over the top. His only NBA front office experience would be working with Ainge, who during Stevens' time couldn’t piece enough of the puzzle together to get them there.
Did he learn from Ainge’s recent mistakes? Or are the Celtics fine with their current construct and are writing off this season to injuries and the reality that perhaps no one can handle the Brooklyn buzzsaw anyway?
If so, that’s fine. Boston’s roster has youth and talent. This year’s early exit notwithstanding, this is hardly some cratering mess.
If nothing else, this should continue to stomp out whatever faint hope college basketball fans hold that Stevens will return to that level and save their program. Despite not wanting to be an NBA coach for the foreseeable future, Stevens wasn’t even interested in taking over Indiana University, in his home state.
He’s an NBA guy at this point. The college game, where coaches can get caught discussing “strong ass” recruiting offers on FBI wiretaps and still maintain their employment isn’t very appealing to those who don’t want to wade into the muck. It’s part of what sent him to the NBA. It’s gotten only worse since.
For Stevens, just 44, this is the new challenge, making the moves from the front office, not the sideline, to get Boston back to hanging banners at North Station.
The way he got the job was wild, unexpected and will raise eyebrows across the league. There’s nothing to do now but prove he was the man for the job anyway.
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