Celtics co-owner shares the ‘inside story’ behind hiring Brad Stevens

Kyrie Irving Gordon Hayward Boston Celtics
Left to right: president Rich Gotham, head coach Brad Stevens, owner Wyc Grousbeck, Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, general manager Danny Ainge, and co-owner and managing partner Steve Pagliuca. –AP Photo/Winslow Townson

April is a long ways away, but Celtics head coach Brad Stevens already seems to be dominating the NBA Coach of the Year discussion.

Stevens — who finished fourth in the award’s results last season — has led the Celtics to not only the best record in the NBA but also the best team defensive rating in the league. Boston is coming off a big win over the defending NBA champions and will look to ride its 14-game win streak as long as possible.

Prior to the game against the Warriors on Thursday night, Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca spoke about the importance of a coach’s role in developing talent and earning success. Pagliuca, a long-time supporter of the Positive Coaching Alliance, explained to Boston.com how he and his colleagues came to the decision to hire Stevens and discussed the leadership gains that ensued.

A farewell to Doc Rivers

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Of course the “inside story” of Stevens starts with the departure of his predecessor: Doc Rivers.

Rivers’ tenure in Boston was defined by the highest of highs — an NBA Championship — and the lowest of lows — the longest losing streak and second-worst record in franchise history. After nine seasons with the Celtics, Rivers received an opportunity to move across the coast to coach the Los Angeles Clippers.

“I talked to him the day before he decided, and he was on the fence,” Pagliuca said. “And I told him, ‘Look, if you’re not into a rebuild — who would’ve known the rebuild would have been as quick as it is — but if you’re not into a rebuild, and you’ve done it once already, but you have to wake up every day wanting to rebuild and start from scratch again if you want to have a championship team.”

“We wanted him here, but if he wasn’t excited about it, he should take the Clippers position and get us a draft pick as well since he’s a great coach,” Pagliuca continued. “He went back and forth on it and, very late in the game, opted for the Clippers position. So we were left meeting with Danny [Ainge], saying ‘OK, we need a coach’ because this was right before training camp was starting. That’s very late to get a coach at that point and time.”

The very short list

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After Rivers left at the end of June 2013, the Celtics front office quickly had to assemble a roster of viable replacements. But one candidate appeared to be an obvious frontrunner from the beginning.

“Danny put together a list,” Pagliuca said. “The first person on the list was Brad Stevens, and the second person on the list was Brad Stevens, and the third person on the list was Brad Stevens. There wasn’t really much beyond Brad Stevens.”

So why Stevens? Ainge apparently had been keeping his eye on him for quite some time. In 2010, Pagliuca and Ainge attended the NCAA men’s basketball national championship to watch Pagliuca’s alma mater, Duke, take on the Butler Bulldogs in Indianapolis. At the time, Stevens was in his third season as Butler’s head coach after six years as an assistant.

“Danny and I were up in the stands watching the game,” Pagliuca said. “Before the game started, Danny said to me, ‘Look down at the court. The best coach in college basketball is down there.’ I said, ‘Of course, it’s Coach K.’ He said, ‘No, it’s Brad Stevens.’ This was 2010.”

The Blue Devils defeated the Bulldogs, 61-59, despite a nearly successful half-court heave from Gordon Hayward at the buzzer. But Ainge still left impressed by Stevens, who led Butler to its second consecutive runner-up finish the following tournament.

“Getting to the finals twice is a miracle for programs of that size,” Pagliuca said. “They just don’t have the marketing and the might of the Dukes and the perennial contenders. Danny had identified Brad in 2010 as someone, who long-term, even shortly, would be a great pro coach because of his demeanor, his ethics, and just the way he worked with players to cultivate extraordinary success at a very small college.”

The big pitch

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Knowing that Stevens was the one that they wanted, Pagliuca and Ainge ventured back out to Indiana four years later to present their “big pitch” with co-owner Wyc Grousbeck and assistant general manager Mike Zarren.

The quad visited Stevens’ mother’s house in the small town of Zionsville, which Pagliuca equated to a Leave it to Beaver-style neighborhood. Once there, they sat down at the kitchen table to talk all things Celtics, from the franchise’s storied tradition to their current way of going about things.

Pagliuca said Stevens voiced his love for the team and its extensive basketball history, as well as his confidence that he could make a difference for the organization. But there was also a specific stipulation should he accept the job.

“The one thing he wouldn’t do going forward was try to lose a game, or you know, ‘tank,'” Pagliuca said. “So if we were going to have a strategy, maybe like ‘The Process,’ he was not going to participate in that.”

But the group reassured Stevens he would not be put in such position in Boston.

“We said, ‘No, we’re always trying to win. We’re going to try to win on the fly and rebuild on the fly,'” Pagliuca said. “Who knows if we can do that or not, but that was certainly going to be the strategy. Tanking is different than developing talent. We try to keep all the good talent.”

And with that, Stevens, at 36 years old, accepted a six-year, $22 million deal to become the 17th head coach of the Boston Celtics in July 2013.

A couple of concerns

Following Stevens’ hire, there were two chief worries regarding the move.

His age: After becoming the second-youngest individual to coach Div. I basketball, Stevens was coming to the pros at the age of 36. During his first season, he was just five years older than two of his players, Joel Anthony and Gerald Wallace, but Pagliuca said they trusted Ainge’s decision.

“He really knows what he’s doing.”

His transition from the NCAA to the NBA: Rick Pitino, John Calipari, and Billy Donovan are all examples of successfull college coaches. But in the NBA? Not so much. In order to avoid that same steep decline from Stevens, Pagliuca said the front office examined the stud-turned-dud pattern extensively.

“Our analysis showed that the college coaches that didn’t make it were from big programs where it was all about them,” he shared. “They thought that they had won all of those games because of their great coaching, because they were who they were.”

“What we saw about Brad was that he was the opposite of that model,” Pagliuca said. “He thought it was about the players, not about the coach.”

‘The proof is in the pudding.’

Stevens’ first season in the NBA was one of transition. As Pagliuca put it, he “took over what was arguably not that great of a team.” Boston’s starting lineup rotated throughout the season, but featured the likes of Brandon Bass, Avery Bradley, Jordon Crawford, Jeff Green, Kris Humphries, Rajon Rondo, and Jared Sullinger.

“He won a lot of games with a team that had young people and people who are not in the NBA anymore on it,” Pagliuca said.

The 2013-2014 Celtics finished the season with a 25-57 record, but Stevens has since only improved upon that mark. Last year, he led the group to its first 50-plus win season in five years. Boston also returned to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in five years.

“The rest is kind of history,” Pagliuca said “We made some great draft choices, and he got the team better. Players wanted to come play with the team.”

To underline Stevens’ tremendous impact, Pagliuca highlighted a few key paragons.

“Evan Turner is a great example,” he said. “Evan Turner had a very up-and-down time in Philadelphia. Then Evan Turner came to Boston. We paid him $6 million over two years. He got a four-year, $70 million contract after playing for Brad Stevens. Same guy, but Brad utilized him a different way, gave him more confidence, developed his three shot, and developed him as a player.”

“Then we trade for Isaiah Thomas,” Pagliuca continued. “Isaiah Thomas is the 60th pick in the draft. He had been on three teams — and we thought he was a good — but people thought he was just a spark plug off the bench. Under Brad Stevens and the system, he becomes an All-Star, two years in a row.”

His final illustration was short but sweet: “Then we trade for Kyrie Irving, who now is playing better than he played in Cleveland.”

A stable foundation, a hopeful future

When describing what he likes most about Stevens, Pagliuca emphasized the 41-year-old’s demeanor and approach.

“He is very even-keeled, never blames things on the players, and never takes credit for the wins,” he said. “Players feel that he has his back, but at the same time, he’s tough on them as far as what they need to do to get ready for the games. He’s incredibly transparent and honest, and that has paid huge dividends for him.”

“He never embarrasses the players and is always on top of what’s happening in the game,” Pagliuca continued. “He knows the game is very important, but it’s not life or death. He never resorts to demeaning the players, or screaming at them, or doing anything that would make the players look bad. Instead, he takes it behind closed doors after the game to show them film and teach them.”

Stevens is a member of the Positive Coaching Alliance’s national advisory board — a volunteer role that Pagliuca views as a major asset. PCA is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to fostering a supportive, mutually beneficial culture among coaches and players. According to Pagliuca, “it gives coaches the tools to put coaching in the right perspective and make sure they’re developing the young talent.”