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

"The first person on the list was 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 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 league’s best record but also the best team defensive rating. Boston is coming off a big win over the defending champion Golden State Warriors and will look to ride its 14-game win streak.

Prior to the game against the Warriors 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 how he and his colleagues decided to hire Stevens and discussed the leadership gains that ensued.

A farewell to Doc Rivers

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The arrival of Stevens, of course, starts with the departure of his predecessor, Doc Rivers, whose tenure in Boston was defined by the highest of highs — an NBA title — and the lowest of lows — the longest losing streak and second-worst record in franchise history. After nine seasons with the Celtics, Rivers accepted 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.”

Pagliuca said although the front office wanted Rivers to stay, the group also made it clear to the coach that he should take the job with the Clippers if he wasn’t excited by the prospect of staying in Boston.

“He went back and forth on it and, very late in the game, opted for the Clippers position,” Pagliuca said. “So we were left meeting with [president of basketball operations] 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 had to quickly assemble a roster of viable replacements. But one candidate emerged as 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.”

Why Stevens? Ainge had apparently been keeping his eye on him for quite some time. In 2010, he and Pagliuca attended the NCAA Div. I men’s basketball championship in Indianapolis to watch Pagliuca’s alma mater, Duke, take on the Butler Bulldogs. At the time, Stevens was in his third season as Butler’s head coach.

“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 chaos-inducing, half-court heave from future Celtic Gordon Hayward at the buzzer. But Ainge left impressed by Stevens, who led Butler to another runner-up finish in the tournament the following year.

“Getting to the finals twice is a miracle for programs of that size,” Pagliuca said. “They 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 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 out to Indiana four years later to present their “big pitch” with co-owner Wyc Grousbeck and assistant general manager Mike Zarren.

The quartet visited Stevens’s mother’s house in the small town of Zionsville, Ind., which Pagliuca called 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 approach.

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.”

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 accepted a six-year, $22 million deal to become the 17th head coach of the Boston Celtics.

A couple of concerns

Following Stevens’s 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, center Joel Anthony and forward Gerald Wallace.

His transition from the NCAA to the NBA: Well-aware of the fact that several successful college coaches have floundered at the NBA level, Pagliuca said the front office extensively examined the stud-turned-dud phenomenon.

“Our analysis showed the college coaches that didn’t make it were from big programs where it was all about them,” he explained. “They thought 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. He thought it was about the players, not about the coach.”

‘The proof is in the pudding.’

Stevens’s first season in the NBA was one of transition. He took over, as Pagliuca put it, “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 2013-14 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’s impact, Pagliuca highlighted a pair of 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. Isaiah Thomas is the 60th pick in the draft. He had been on three teams — and we thought he was 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.”

A stable foundation and a hopeful future

When describing what he likes most about Stevens, Pagliuca focused on his demeanor and approach — one that he hopes can facilitate sustained success for years to come.

“He is very even-keeled, never blames things on the players, and never takes credit for the wins,” Pagliuca 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. 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 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.”