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Can Brad Stevens get the best out of superstars?

Trevor Drake
John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Since Brad Stevens started his NBA coaching career with the Boston Celtics in 2013, he has been labeled as one of the best young coaches in league.

His ability to take average players and make them great is one thing that has at times separated him from other coaches in the league. Though, at least one Celtics great isn’t sold on him.

Butler days: When Stevens took over as coach at Butler, he was the youngest coach in the NCAA at age 30. He led them to the National Championship in 2010 and 2011, where they lost both games. But it showed how good of a coach Stevens was at a non-Power 5 school. 

There were two notable guys that Stevens coached that excelled into the next level:

  • Gordon Hayward: Hayward was a 6-foot-7 forward from Brownsburg, Indiana who was not rated by ESPN. He came onto the scene in the 2010 NCAA tournament, where he averaged 16 points per game in the tournament. That led to him being chosen ninth overall by the Utah Jazz, where he went on to become an All-Star.
  • Shelvin Mack: Another guy who was not high recruit coming out of college, Mack proved that he could play in the NBA after leading the Bulldogs to the 2011 national championship. Mack was drafted 34th overall where he has become a decent backup point guard for many NBA teams over the course of his career. 

His start in the NBA: When Brad Stevens first started with the Celtics, he was given the task of developing a playoff team with no All-Stars. With his offense mainly run by spreading the floor to open up the paint, many guys excelled and it was tough to stop. 

During that season, there were some guys who excelled under Stevens:  

  • Isaiah Thomas: When Thomas was traded to the Celtics in 2015, no one thought much of it. When he joined the team, they ended the season 20-9 thanks to Thomas’ offense. IT did a great job of driving down the lane and making tough shots, but was also a great at driving and dishing when the shooters were open. 
  • Jae Crowder: Crowder was just a throw-in piece when the Mavericks traded for Rajon Rondo. He eventually worked his way into the starting lineup due to his stout defense and his ability to space the floor and hit three point shots. Because of his gritty play, Crowder was a fan favorite that excelled in a defensive lineup. 
  • Avery Bradley: When Stevens got the job with the Celtics, Bradley was not averaging more than 9.2 points per game in his first few seasons. That changed when Stevens started to play him more and the former No. 1 recruit excelled, not only only the offensive end, but on the defensive end earning first team All-defense honors. 

The recent struggles: In one of the worst playoff series in recent Celtics history, the Celtics were eliminated in the five games by the Milwaukee Bucks. Many Celtics fans pointed the finger at Stevens, blaming him for not utilizing this talented roster well enough. 

Some Celtics stars struggled more than others over the course of the series: 

  • Kyrie Irving: The main contributor to the Celtics offense fell flat in games 2-5 against the Bucks as he only made 25 out of 83 field goals in those games. Stevens continued to play the struggling point guard but Irving could never find his rhythm. When the Celtics’ best player could not hit shots, it affected the team on the offensive end. 
  • Gordon Hayward: After a great end to the regular season, Hayward was another guy that struggled in the postseason, shooting an abysmal 24.5% from the field. Stevens continued to play him, even after he became a defensive liability posting a plus/minus total of -43 in the second round. 
  • Jayson Tatum: After having a great rookie campaign in the 2018 playoffs, all of Tatum’s numbers dipped in 2019. He made only two threes, was taking tons of mid-range shots, and saw less minutes because of it. Tatum’s game changed drastically from a dribble/drive player to more of a mid-range jump shooter. He has shown glimpses where it works at times but can go cold at any moment, like he did against the Bucks. 

How to change it: Stevens did not make enough adjustments against the Bucks and the Celtics seemed to panic at times when they were down. What does he need to do to get the best out of his superstars?

  • Motivation: Stevens needs to light a fire under these guys and be more motivating toward the players. When guys are missing shots and struggling, he needs to find a way to instill confidence in them. There were far too many times during the series where players missed shots and Stevens did not take them out.
  • Control: Similar to motivating, he needs to preach unselfish basketball. That may be hard to do when you have a lot of talent, but in Game 1 against the Bucks, the Celtics did just that and looked unbeatable. In that situation, he needs to be more of a coach and less of a strategist. There were too many times where the Celtics went up the floor and took a low-percentage shot within the first ten seconds of the shot clock. 
  • Pressure: Whenever he is the underdog, Stevens excels because he always has a team that has been written off. When the pressure is on Stevens, he does not do well. It shows with the every team he coached, especially this 2018-19 Celtics team that was projected to make a deep run to the NBA finals. 

The bottom line: When the Celtics space the floor and set pick ‘n’ rolls, they are tough to stop. Just by watching Game 1 highlights, you can see that the Celtics were unstoppable when they did this. When they started to take contested jumpers in games 2-5, there would be more misses and the Celts needed to rely on their defense against the Bucks.

Stevens need to emphasize more unselfish basketball if he wants to get the most out of his superstars. At this point, he has something to prove when it comes to doing just that.