The hiring of Butler’s Brad Stevens was a huge surprise, but now that the new Celtics coach has been given the keys to the team, it’s time to get to work.
It won’t be easy for the 36-year-old coach without veteran leaders Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The Celtics are rebuilding, and the roster Stevens inherited is much different than the one last manned by departing coach Doc Rivers. There are still holdovers, however, and there are things Stevens can do with the remaining players and a new system that Rivers could not. The players acquired in the Pierce/KG trade and the Celtics’ draft picks also provide a clean slate.
It’s fun to imagine Stevens arriving at his desk with little Post-It notes from general manager Danny Ainge that read something like “Talk to Rondo.” In that vein, below are the tasks, in order, I would leave for Stevens if I were Ainge.
— Talk to Rondo: The first one is the most obvious, but it’s also the most important. With Pierce and Garnett gone, Rondo is the Celtics’ undisputed best player, as well as the team’s longest tenured member. It’s imperative that the coach and the point guard are on the same page. Both are students of the game, and they can learn from each other. If Stevens wants to install his system in Boston with any kind of success, he’ll need Rondo on his side.
— Solidify his coaching staff: Stevens has already made an unconventional move, bringing 23-year-old stats guru Drew Cannon with him from Butler. When Stevens hired Cannon last year, he was the first stats-only hire on any coaching staff in college basketball. As far as the rest of his staff, so far the only two commitments Stevens has secured are Rivers holdovers Jay Larranaga and Jamie Young.
Should Stevens bring in a long-time NBAer as an assistant? Should he continue to push his own guys, even if they’re unproven? Either way, it’s important he solidifies his staff soon.
— Build the confidence of the young players: Stevens needs to determine if his young players might also be his best players. Rivers was known for going with veterans over youth, for burying Rajon Rondo on the bench early on and favoring guys like Jason Terry later. Rondo turned out to be the team’s best player after a while. Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, or Kelly Olynyk (below in Summer League highlights) could be one of Boston’s best players right now, but they’ll need a chance. Bradley in particular could use a boost of confidence and a fresh start.
— Reinvigorate Courtney Lee: Of the returning players, Lee is the one most in need of a new beginning. He fell out of favor with Rivers late last season after starting out as a major part of the rotation. On the surface it looked as though Lee meshed well with Rondo and Bradley and could play in an up-tempo system. Poor 3-point shooting early (.182 in November) sunk Lee somewhat. Maybe Stevens can figure out a better way to use him.
— Identify his starters: This doesn’t mean set a starting lineup. Stevens has a different approach to basketball than Rivers, and he’s likely to view the same players in a different light. It’s important for Stevens to determine who his best players might be, then start formulating lineups based around them. Stats guru Cannon is known for his analysis of various lineups and can help there.
— Establish a team identity: What’s going to define a Brad Stevens NBA team? Will they be defensive-minded like the teams of Rivers and his former assistant, Tom Thibodeau? Will they push the ball? Will the offense center around Rondo, or will it be more free-flowing? (Remember, that was a problem last season with Rivers.) The Celtics haven’t been a particularly good offensive basketball team for years, ranking 24th in the league in offensive efficiency last season. Stevens can make them much better.
— Turn Jeff Green into a No. 1 option: Green played his best basketball when Garnett or Pierce were off the floor last season. In the playoffs Green averaged 20.3 points, substantially higher than his averages of 11.8 and 7.3 in two seasons in Oklahoma City. Green has never been the focal point of any team, but he’s going to have the chance to be that now. Stevens can help him him greatly in that regard.
— Preach rebounding: Rebounding suffered in Rivers’s system. The Celtics were 22d in the NBA in total rebounding in 2013, which is right about where they’ve been the last few seasons. Using Sullinger more this season should help, but the Celtics need others to get on board. They need to rebound effectively even when they play small. Even if they decide to get out and run, they need the ball to be able to do so.
— Give his input on Fab Melo and the end of the roster: Melo has had one year of seasoning in the D-League, where the Celtics have had a good chance to look at him. Now Stevens gets his turn in the Summer League and in training camp. Melo clearly isn’t ready for the NBA, but Stevens and his staff will determine whether or not he’s worth putting more time into. The end of the roster, where Jordan Crawford, rookie Colton Iverson, and any number of players from the Summer League could reside, also needs sorting out.