By Mark Paulette
I’m all about the body of work argument when it comes to deciding whether one thing is greater than the other. You want to tell me Aaron Rodgers is the greatest quarterback because of the unparalleled skill he possesses at the position? That’s cool, so if he’s the greatest, why only the one ring?
You want to tell me Joe Montana is unarguably better than Tom Brady because he was 4-for-4 in Super Bowl appearances? So, I guess four trips to the Super Bowl holds greater weight than seven? Not to mention five victories.
It’s nit picking like this which makes the entire point of this piece difficult to defend, but I shall try anyways. I don’t care if it’s perceived as too soon to say it; Brad Stevens is the best coach in the NBA.
But how can you say that? What has he won?? I know, I’ve already built the case against this argument, but hear me out. When Stevens took control of the Celtics in 2013-14, it was a transitional team which featured Jordan Crawford as its second-leading scorer (13.7ppg), saw Phil Pressey appear in 75 games, and had just three players’ eclipse 58 starts during the campaign. Hell, Vitor Faverini, Chris Johnson (not the running back, though not entirely sure) MarShon Brooks and Vander Blue made 90 combined appearances.
The fact Stevens guided that squad to a 13-18 record by New Year’s and 25 wins overall is semi-remarkable, as we’ve seen teams like Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Phoenix and the Lakers barely make it to double-digit win totals in similar circumstances. As we’ve heard countless times from the likes of Chris Forsberg, Sean Grande and Cedric Maxwell, the people imbedded within the organization during this period, his misfit players fully bought into Stevens’ methods from day one, at a time when he was merely a few years older than half the team’s roster.
After finishing the 2013-’14 season fourth-worst record in the conference, by April 2015, Stevens had the Celtics in the postseason as the 7th seed, and the trajectory has yet to find its peak.
40 wins, followed by 48, followed by 53 and the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics’ rebound from near-worst-to-first has been meteoric and can be attributed to the one-court man who has spanned the 4-year process.
The Celtics are unique from the rest of the NBA’s elite in that they’re winning without the benefit of a super team. The players on the floor don’t dictate the outcome at their own will. They are not the Golden State Warriors, who for as wonderful of a coach as I’m sure Steve Kerr is, could be managed by a toddler to some degree of success. Take the start to 2015-16 for example, when the Warriors began the year 24-0 and posted a record of 39-4 while Kerr was away from the team recovering from multiple back surgeries. The run was no more Kerr’s doing than it was assistant coach, Luke Walton’s, who paced along courtside as his team ran roughshod over the competition due to their overwhelming talent, rather than his magical touch.
Across the league, the pattern is the same: James Harden and (eventually a healthy) Chris Paul in Houston; OKC’s big three of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony; Minnesota’s slightly less big three of Jimmy Butler, Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Even in the dysfunctional land of Cleve, where LeBron has been said to hold more sway than either David Blatch or Ty Lue during their respective tenures as coach. None of these teams see their outcomes more directly influenced by their head coaches than we see in Boston on a nightly basis.
Take Monday’s victory for example. Displeased by the opening two possessions of the second half, Stevens called a timeout less than 50 seconds into the third quarter in Atlanta to patch the leaks and send the ship on its way. Shine a black light on this current 9-game win streak of the Celtics and you’ll see Stevens’ finger prints all over it.
Under his guidance, the Celtics have begun to resemble (albeit until Gordon Hayward returns next year) Gregg Popovich’s Spurs teams of recent years, where one superstar is surrounded by many pieces which the coach molds into a cohesive unit. So why isn’t Stevens second to Pop if he’s simply following in the mastermind’s footsteps? We’ll let’s look at the players Stevens has built his success on in Boston.
– Isaiah Thomas was floating adrift in his NBA career until he came to Beantown and thrived under Stevens, who put the 5’9” guard in position to succeed and average 29 points per night.
– Evan Turner earned a $75-million contract after spending 2014-16 in Boston, and has averaged 9.0/3.8/3.2 and 8.6/4.6/3.0 in the one-plus year since leaving.
– Jae Crowder has been lost this year in Cleveland and has been relegated to bench duties, an idea he scoffed at while in Boston, after being heralded as one of the best two-way forwards in the league under Stevens.
– Jared Sullinger has played in 11 games and scored 37 total points over the last calendar year. He averaged 25 minutes per game, 12 points and nearly eight rebounds per game under Stevens.
– Tyler Zeller became a bonafide bench option after floundering in his first two seasons in Cleveland.
The list of Stevens’ reclamation projects can be found throughout many of the players he’s coached in his first four years in the league, to the point where a Bill Belichickian-esque system has been implemented, improving one’s value drastically during their stay in Boston as opposed to their output elsewhere.
In the span of 27-hours to begin this year, Stevens suffered the loss of a top-20 player in the NBA, was forced to scrap his previously laid plans, and was tasked with pulling his team from the depths of a deflating 0-2 hole. Instead of struggling to patch the holes of their suddenly sinking ship and revert to the middle of the pack in the East, the team hasn’t lost since.
While his resume may not stack up with the Popovich’s or Kerr’s, the transformation from the 25-win Celtics of 2014 to the 2017-18 conference front runners is enough to receive my vote for best coach currently in the NBA.
Mark Paulette is the executive producer of The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.