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The Legend of Brad Stevens

Cataloging the known and unknown accomplishments of the Celtics head coach—from Terry Rozier to more animated subjects

Brad Stevens with players from the Celtics and Butler Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Terry Rozier’s come-up has been quick. Just two weeks ago, when Eric Bledsoe jokingly pretended not to know who Rozier was, Bledsoe’s ignorance was somewhat plausible. Yes, the Celtics guard had just torched Bledsoe for 23 points including a near game-winner, but the average NBA fan probably knew little about him. At the start of this season, Rozier’s career averages were 4.3 points per game on 34.8 percent shooting with zero career starts or 20-point games.

But in the playoffs, Rozier is averaging 19 points and 6.6 assists as a full-time starter for Boston, with four 20-point nights in eight games. After helping to eliminate Bledsoe’s Bucks with a 26-point outing in Game 7 of the first round, Rozier wore a Drew Bledsoe jersey to Game 1 of the Celtics’ second-round series against Philadelphia. Rozier would back up his smack with a 29-point performance against the 76ers. In less than a month, Rozier became the one who could plausibly joke about not knowing Bledsoe.

Boston would have been forgiven for having a poor postseason. The team you see now is not the one it was supposed to be. The Celtics’ major offseason acquisitions were Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, but Hayward fractured his tibia and dislocated his ankle in the first minutes of the season and Irving had season-ending knee surgery in April. But the Celtics have stayed afloat and thrived thanks to guys like Rozier. It’s just the latest instance in which Celtics coach Brad Stevens has managed to squeeze the most out of a limited roster of players on one of the biggest stages in basketball.

Ah, yes, Brad Stevens. As you probably know, Stevens is already widely considered the greatest coach in basketball history. On James Naismith’s deathbed, he turned to his loved ones and said, “My greatest achievement is inventing the sport that one day Brad Stevens will coach,” which confused everybody, because the name “Brad” wasn’t invented until 1974. Widely considered the inspiration for Norman Dale in Hoosiers, Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights, and Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, Stevens is the first—and to date, only—recipient of the Nobel Prize for coaching.

Give Stevens a ragtag band of NBA players with no stars, and he will advance through the playoffs. Give Stevens a mid-major college team, and that school will contend for the national title. He is Coaching MacGyver, and these are his greatest works:

2018: Rozier

As an NBA rookie and sophomore, Rozier barely seemed worthy of playing time. In his only year as a starter in college, he shot 30.6 percent from 3; he followed that up by shooting exactly 30.6 percent again from 3 in his first two years in the NBA.

And after scoring 20 or more points just seven times in 80 games this season, he’s had four 20-point games in the playoffs. He’s shooting a higher percentage from 3 in the playoffs (43.8 percent) than he shot from the field this year (39.5 percent).

Rozier credits Stevens for putting in effort to foster his development before his star turn, even showing up at off-day workouts to monitor Rozier’s progress. “He’d just always care,” Rozier told The Washington Post. “Sometimes he would jump in the drills.” Stevens isn’t just a brilliant basketball mastermind perpetually pushing the right buttons; he cares.

2017: Isaiah Thomas

Let’s go back in time 11 months. The Celtics are in the Eastern Conference finals and have also won the NBA draft lottery. And this caused a legit dilemma for Celtics fans, because the consensus top pick and the star who got the Celtics to the conference finals were both point guards. “We know Isaiah Thomas isn’t going anywhere,” one blog post wrote, “and Markelle Fultz isn’t going to stop being the no. 1 prospect, so can the two play together?” Thomas and Fultz both spoke to the media about how they could hypothetically work as a backcourt duo.

Let’s go back in time eight months. The Celtics have just traded Thomas for Irving. “Who ya got, Kyrie or Isaiah?” ESPN asked. They decided that Kyrie was the better option, because he was younger, but everybody acknowledged that Thomas was a big piece to give up in such a trade.

And let’s look at Thomas now. His four-month stint in Cleveland featured just about the worst basketball anybody in the NBA played this season. He was slightly more competent with the Lakers but still shot below 40 percent from the field with them while posting the 498th-best defensive rating in the league. Let’s take a look at the popular opinion on blogs now: “The Phoenix Suns should avoid Isaiah Thomas like the plague.” THE PHOENIX SUNS! LIKE THE PLAGUE!

Just a year ago, everybody in the NBA believed that Thomas was a superstar. Thomas has averaged double digits every year in his career, but in his two full seasons under Stevens, he was a legitimate franchise player. And he was unstoppable in the most critical moments—people were calling this guy “King in the Fourth” because in every fourth quarter, he got the ball and nobody could stop him. Last year, he had four 30-point games in the first two rounds of the playoffs, including a 53-point outing against the Wizards:

“He allowed me to be great,” Thomas said of Stevens. And now, just a year later, one of the league’s worst teams is being advised to treat Thomas like a deadly infectious illness.

2010 and 2011: Butler

We know that Stevens and Hayward got Butler to the NCAA championship game in 2010. Hayward almost hit that half-court shot that almost beat Duke!

Ah! I love college basketball, where a missed shot is legitimately one of the most famous plays of the last 20 years.

But that’s not even the most impressive thing Stevens did at Butler. Sure, getting the Bulldogs, a team then from the Horizon League that had been to the NCAA tournament only once before 1995 and had never been past the Sweet 16, all the way to the national title game, is incredible. But as it turned out, Hayward was a future NBA star, and so the team was really good. They went 18-0 in conference play.

When a player of Hayward’s caliber carries a college team deep into the tournament, we don’t necessarily praise the coach. (Anybody remember the name of Steph Curry’s coach at Davidson?)

After missing that shot, Hayward left Butler. The next year, Butler’s best player was Shelvin Mack, who is worse than Gordon Hayward. Their next best player was Matt Howard, whose greatest professional accomplishment has been winning Sixth Man of the Year in France. But they went right back to the national championship game, with Mack dropping 30 on top-seeded Pitt and 27 on second-seeded Florida.

Stevens left in 2013, forever leaving us wondering whether he could have gotten Butler to the national championship game with a future G Leaguer, a guy who went on to finish third in MVP voting in the Icelandic league, and some kids from the marching band.

1997: Air Bud

You don’t get college coaching jobs fresh out of college, so at 21, Stevens took a volunteer coaching gig—as the head coach for the Fernfield Timberwolves, a middle school team in Washington. Unfortunately, after getting the T-Wolves to the championship game, things fell apart for Stevens. Many of his team’s players were injured or had fouled out, and there were only four players remaining.

But Stevens had a backup plan: a golden retriever named Buddy. After consulting the rulebook and ensuring that there were no bylaws preventing a dog from playing basketball, Stevens crafted a role specifically for Buddy.

Buddy might be even shorter than Isaiah Thomas, but he was significantly faster and stronger than most 12-year-olds, and as a retriever, he was naturally driven to hit bouncing objects with his face. Stevens assigned the dog to press the opponents’ ball handlers for the length of the court, resulting in a slew of turnovers. And while Buddy couldn’t hold the ball in his hands, Stevens drew up a dribble hand-off play that allowed him to get an uncontested boop toward the rim:

Air Bud making a basket with his nose Buena Vista Pictures

The Timberwolves came from behind to take the title thanks to Stevens’s coaching. Air Bud never gave any quotes about how Stevens helped his surprisingly prolific career, but he did roll over and allow the coach to rub his belly in the presence of reporters.

1996: The Nerdlucks

But coaching middle school was an easy assignment for young Stevens, who just a year earlier had accepted a job coaching a cartoon basketball team for a megalomaniacal theme park owner from outer space. And worst of all, his players were trash: bumbling 1-foot-tall henchmen who, at the time of Stevens’s hiring, wore nothing besides bow ties and had never seen or played basketball. And worst of all, they had to play against one of the greatest players of all time, Michael Jordan.

Stevens’s squad quickly acclimated to their new sport, each growing several dozen feet. They mastered the fundamentals of Stevens’s offense, scoring so quickly that the scoreboard stopped displaying numbers and just displayed the text “kinda one-sided, isn’t it?” Unfortunately, the inexperienced coach couldn’t quite instill discipline in his team—at one point, his entire squad gave up on defense because Jordan held up a smelly skunk, leading to a fast-break bucket; on another possession, a player completely stopped playing defense because an opponent pulled down his shorts and yelled, “Nice butt!”

Jordan came back to win the game by a single point on a last-second dunk, but Stevens’s coaching job would never be forgotten. “Sayyy, dat skinny fella installed a two-tree zone dat had us poyplexed!” said a frustrated opponent.

Who’s next? It’s impossible to tell. Stevens’s ability to yoink players and teams from anonymity and make them into contenders at high levels is unrivaled. If every Celtic besides Guerschon Yabusele gets injured, Yabusele and a pack of dogs are going to beat the Sixers in five.