The 15-2 Celtics sit atop the NBA with their best start through 17 games in franchise history. While the team’s performance is certainly attributable to contributions from their entire roster, it’s also undoubtedly due to the role of their head coach, Brad Stevens.
Jaylen Brown and Stevens both agree the coach’s pedagogy is “dope.” But why?
Prior to Thursday night’s game against the Golden State Warriors, Stevens discussed his approach to coaching at length. A member of the Positive Coaching Alliance’s national advisory board, he underlined the power of positivity as well as the importance of being yourself.
“I think the biggest thing is everybody has to coach to their personality,” Stevens said. “They have to coach to who they want to be.”
The 41-year-old explained that he realized he’s “not very effective when [he’s] angry,” which led him to develop a much more encouraging method of going about things. Stevens said he feels better about the direction the team is moving when the coaching staff comes from a perspective of positivity. However, he is still not afraid to lay down the law. In a productive manner, that is.
“Being positive doesn’t mean there’s not going to be criticism. That doesn’t mean there’s not going to be the need to be demanding and making sure we’re still on the right path,” he said. “But I think you can do that in a constructive way, and I think you also learn how to go about that within your personality and within your preparation.”
Stevens also emphasized the benefits of caring about his players beyond who they are on the court, arguing that doing so will facilitate more fruitful feedback.
“I think that you can really coach people, and be even more constructively critical, if you’ve shown that you’re invested in them as a person,” he said.
While Stevens preaches and manifests this idea toward all 15 members of the Celtics roster, he noted that the concept holds true before the NBA as well. And interestingly enough, one of his current players was also one of his players a decade ago while in the NCAA.
Prior to joining the pros, Stevens was the head coach of the Butler Bulldogs for six seasons. While there, the Bulldogs nearly pulled off a buzzer-beater upset against Duke in the 2010 national championship game. And the Hail Mary half-court heave was hurled by none other than a young Gordon Hayward.
Stevens and Hayward have of course now reunited in Boston, which makes their relationship a little different compared to the rest of the team.
“One of the things I think you see with all these guys, and a lot of the players in the NBA, is that the best coaching relationship they have is with their college coach,” Stevens said. “Because ultimately it’s different. You chose to play at a school, and you’re usually choosing the coach that you’re playing for.”
“It was unique going from not having had that much contact with Gordon over the years to being in that room again when he’s 27 years old and a totally different person than when he was 17,” he explained. “But we still shared that bond from what we got a chance to live through at those runs at Butler.”
Stevens said that when Hayward reached out to him prior to his decision during free agency, he knew that his former recruit wanted to talk to him as “someone other than the head coach of the Boston Celtics.” And Stevens gave him that opportunity as best he could.
“When we talked in that moment, it was more about, ‘OK, I need to take my Celtics hat off and look at it as unbiased as I can.’ But I still was pretty biased” he said, with a smile. “I understood that he was in a very good situation with a positive coach in Quinn Snyder, so I tried to just be a listener at that point.”
Hayward of course ended up reuniting with Stevens by signing with the Celtics in July. During his introductory press conference, the forward said of his coach: “Any time I needed him, he was there for me.” Although the waves of nostalgia may be heartwarming, both knew that it was time to focus on the now, and more specifically, winning a championship.
“For us, every day is about growing and getting better,” Stevens said. “Our jobs are taking the 15 guys on the team, focusing on what they do best, and helping them soar with what they do best.”
In order to maximize his team’s potential, Stevens said that he’ll watch other games across the league to study their plays and approach.
“I think any time I turn on an NBA game, I learn a lot. I mean, it’s like going to class every day for me,” he said. “I watch the film, and I try to pick a part what they’re doing. And I try to steal stuff that we can use with our team. So right then and there, without even knowing people personally, you’re gaining a great deal from people you’re competing against, just by learning what they do.”
With the additions of Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum along with the impressive returns of Jaylen Brown and Al Horford, the Celtics looked poised as ever to compete for the NBA title. Although the goal of championship is omnipresent — especially with the blank banner at the TD Garden — Stevens is primarily focused on the fundamentals at the end of the day.
“I think we all have been around successful leaders, managers, coaches, and you want to take what they did and make it happen again,” he said. “But I think that you just have to stay true to who you are, put your best foot forward, and work the right way. Let the chips fall where they may. If they aren’t in your favor, I think you can still be comfortable with the result if you go about it that way.”