Building A Case For Brad Stevens As Coach of The Year
The Boston Celtics have been one of the best teams in the NBA this season. Despite the massive adversity that has been thrown their way, they are currently 53-23 and are well within striking distance of the 1-seed in the Eastern Conference, and boast victories over the Thunder, Blazers, Jazz and Raptors. But of course they won these games you might say, they proudly employ the services of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart and… oh wait. The Celtics have pulled wins out of nowhere recently, getting quality production out of players like Semi Ojeleye, Guerschon Yabusele, Abdel Nader and Greg Monroe; which is certainly not where the front office envisioned the team sourcing its wins from, when they built the roster in the offseason. The snake-bitten Celts have won games through ingenuity, match-up exploitation, and a cohesion you only find through a group that has had to run a gauntlet of adversity.
The one constant through this season has been Brad Stevens, the former Butler coach has had another sensational season at the helm of the C’s. The Stevens-led Celtics have equaled the number of wins from last season and are now on the verge of posting their 5th consecutive season improving the win total from the previous one. Stevens’ impact on the game cannot be understated. Whilst it’s the players that have to go out and win the games, you can see his fingerprints all throughout the recent wins over playoff contending teams. This season’s success has firmly vaulted Stevens into the conversation for the Coach of the Year award and has cemented his status as one of the most valuable coaches in the league, every genius play-call or mismatch that can be exploited continues to validate Danny Ainge’s (at the time) controversial move to pluck Stevens from the College ranks.
The Case for Brad Stevens:
Evaluating a coach’s impact on a game can be difficult because you can’t point to a stat on a box score that says points scored by coach. To adequately evaluate the impact of a coach on a team’s success, you need to look at the things that the coach can control during the game.
One of the ways a coach can actively influence the game is the ATO (After Time-Out) play, where the scheme thought up by the coach is actively implemented by the players, it is a real litmus test of how we measure the prowess of the NBA’s coaches, and Stevens is one of the best. Look at the following play to see how Stevens can control the tempo of a crucial play in a close game, that results in an easy look for the C’s.
The next clip further evidences Stevens’ mastery of the ATO play, in this video during the dying seconds of the Celts thrilling win against Utah, the scheme used by Stevens to draw Gobert out of his comfort zone and forcing him to close out on a shooter completely confuses the Jazz who have the no 1 ranked defense since Gobert’s return.
Credit to Tomasz Kordylewski for both of these videos.
Stevens’ ATO Mastery has been the envy of the league for a while now. LeBron James noted during their Eastern Conference Finals bout last season that Brad had been "kind of been killing us on ATOs." Even the vaunted Gregg Popovich is a student of Brad's game, and has been quoted saying he still watches his Butler tapes looking for new wrinkles to add to his system.
Line-up management and Mismatches:
The Celts should have dropped several of the past few games against hot teams that are well within the playoff hunt of both conferences, instead they exploit mismatches and weaknesses in their opponents, and force them to play Boston’s style of basketball. This is not a mistake, Stevens’ design has the Celtics constantly hunting mismatch opportunities for easy baskets, maximising players’ strengths and hiding their weaknesses. Against the Raptors on Saturday night, the Celts went big for long stretches of the game putting Marcus Morris on C.J. Miles, Morris who finished with 25 points on 7-15 shooting was a major factor in the win, largely because his primary defender at the 3 was the smaller C.J. Miles. All season long we have watched ‘Iso-Mook’ cook defenders one-on-one, this game was no different and Miles had no answer for Morris on either end as he almost single-handedly delivered this loss to the Raps. After being burned in Toronto by their electric ‘bench mob’ earlier in the season, Stevens countered Saturday night with a bigger lineup and a zone defense that was designed to limit Toronto’s opportunities in the half-court, it worked to perfection, especially in the fourth quarter where the Raptors committed several key turnovers and settled for poor shots.
Against the Jazz who lined their star rookie Donovan Mitchell up at the 2, the Celts played through the much larger Jaylen Brown in the post, who was able to see over and exploit the mismatch all night.
All season long the Celts have used every advantage possible to grind wins out of this depleted group, and it has worked like a charm.
Play Style and Defense:
Brad Stevens is not a ‘system coach’. He doesn’t demand that players adhere to his style of play or leave, he builds line-ups and play styles to maximise the strengths of the players he has available, his ‘read and react’ style is designed to allow the players to do what they are both best and most comfortable with doing. The offense is an equal opportunity one in which sharing the ball and finding the best shot are valued above all else. Fans need look no further than the production Stevens was able to coax out of players like Jordan Crawford, Evan Turner, Tyler Zeller in addition to higher-level players like Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas who looked like stars under Stevens.
Since Brad arrived in Boston, his teams have worked their butts off on defense. This season however, the team has consistently been the best defense in the league, despite having no rim protection, the Celts switch everything and have the length and athleticism to hang with just about every team in the league.
Storylines are huge in the NBA, they attract clicks, they bring viewers, and they give a humanising and relatable touch to professional sports. The awards are no different, the most deserving player or coach may not win an award simply because their competition has a better story. This season the story favours Stevens; after an offseason that brought him two new All-Stars, including the prodigal son of his Butler days: Gordon Hayward via free agency. The Celts were supposed to be a day-one powerhouse, with multiple creators and a switchy, athletic defense, they were to run roughshod over the competition, only to see their title hopes dashed 6 minutes into the opener, with Gordon Hayward’s gruesome injury. Stevens was somehow able to salvage this disaster and still bring the Celtics great success, this bodes extremely well for his chances at the Coach of the Year award this year.
Brad is not the only coach in contention for this award this year, the field is stronger than ever with multiple coaches able to maximise their rosters to terrific effect. Guys like the incumbent winner Mike D’Antoni, the ever-present Gregg Popovich, Dwane Casey, Steve Kerr, Terry Stotts, Quinn Snyder, and even the coaches of young, overachieving teams like Brett Brown in Philly and Nate McMillan in Indiana will see some consideration for the award.
D’Antoni will suffer in the voting because he won it last year, but his Rockets are the toast of the league, playing stifling defense and burning teams with an absolute barrage of 3s. Voter fatigue will similarly affect both Kerr and Popovich’s chances at the award, having both won in the past. If the award was actually for the best coach in the NBA, Popovich would win it every single year, although some may argue that Brad is closing that gap.
Whilst the race has been fairly tight the whole season, Stevens’ and the Celtics’ late season burst will have voters hard pressed to vote against him.