On Friday night, the Celtics came back from an 18-point deficit and defeated the OKC Thunder by seven points, registering their seventh straight win in the process. With the win, the Celtics now boast the sole best record in the NBA for the first time since 2009. This may not have been completely surprising in the pre-season, but after losing their best two-way player in Gordon Hayward – and their first two games – in the opening two days of the season, surprise doesn’t even begin to cover it.
So what is the reason behind this league-topping form? How does a team who only returned four of its players from last season, including one starter, get off to the start that the Celtics have had? Simple. The Coach.
Since his introduction into the NBA in 2013, Brad Stevens has often been called as a basketball savant; a man who knows the game as much as anyone in the world. His coaching style and ability to relate to every player on his roster has earned him the moniker of the next-great-coach-in-the-NBA. This has been the narrative for the last four years, but has this narrative finally shifted? Based on what we have seen so far this season, are we ready to label Stevens as the best coach in the league?
Some people might consider that question as more tongue-in-cheek than legitimate. But think about it. What he has managed to accomplish since Danny Ainge hired him all those years ago, has been nothing short of spectacular. And now that he has finally gotten over that dreaded Pop hump and had his first victory over San Antonio on Monday night (and the Celtics first victory over them since 2011), the question as to whether the torch has been passed must be asked.
So in order to answer whether Stevens has truly become the best coach in the NBA, we must first ask another question; what actually makes a coach the best in the NBA? For me, the argument is akin to how we decide who the best player in the league is: if you’re starting a franchise tomorrow, which coach would you choose to take the helm?
The obvious contenders, Stevens aside, are Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr and if you’re willing to look past his current team's performance, Rick Carlisle. All of these coaches should be future Hall of Famers, with all except Stevens having already won at least one NBA championship. So what sets Stevens apart from them?
Firstly, while Stevens has an incredible understanding of the modern NBA game, the same goes for all of these guys, so pure basketball x’s and o’s doesn’t get him over the line. Nor does his ability to mold game styles around his personnel or being able to adjust these game styles mid-game. What sets him apart is what he does away from the television cameras. It’s what he is able to do behind the scenes. This includes Brad Stevens’ ability to get so much out of so little.
In his four years at the Celtics, only one of Stevens’ players (Isaiah Thomas) has been an All-NBA caliber player, yet for the last two years, his teams have won 48 or more games. Compare that to Pop and Kerr who, since 2013 have had four All-NBA caliber players each. Who else would be able to get the performances out of players such as Jordan Crawford, Evan Turner and even, by the looks of this still early season Jae Crowder, than Brad Stevens? Every year, his team overachieves, and it seems to be the case again this year.
Along with this, he’s a great mentor for younger players. This is what made him such a successful college coach, and it’s how he is able to get so many young players on his current roster to click. He is able to get through to these players more than most coaches are able to get through to their young stars.
It’s not just the young players that he is able to get to buy into his system either, it’s the older players as well. The most obvious (and current) example of this is Kyrie Irving. Brad Stevens has somehow managed to get Aussie Kyrie to buy in on playing defense, something that we seldom saw when Irving was on the Cavs. And whenever we hear Kyrie speak post-game, he always gushes about Stevens’ system and how great it is.
Even players who don’t play for the Celtics realize his genius. Players from all around the league just want to play for him. Look at the last two off-seasons. More All-Star free agents have taken their talents to Beantown in the Brad Stevens era than ever before, with the Celtics acquiring both Al Horford and Gordon Hayward (not to mention how close the Celtics reportedly were of securing Kevin Durant’s services). These weren’t just one of a number of star free agents however, they were the second and first most sought-after free agents of their year respectively.
Finally, Stevens cares about his players arguably more than any other coach in the league. Take the recent injury of Gordon Hayward for incidence. After the game, when Hayward was on a stretcher and getting carried onto the team plane, Brad Stevens was one of the four people who helped carry him up. Hayward said, “There were probably 25 other people there that all wanted to help, but he wanted to make sure he was one of the people to do it. I mean… that’s just the person he is.” This is only one example of many as to why every player loves to be around Stevens. He has created one of the best cultures in the league where every player plays hard every night.
All of this is to say that, while coaches like Popovic, Carlisle and Kerr are still fantastic coaches, and highly respected by those both within NBA circles and those outside (and rightly so), we should be ready to officially hand the mantle over to Stevens. I understand that this may be a tough concept for some people to swallow, but it’s true, and Monday night’s win was the metaphorical passing of the torch.
It still may be another twelve months before we see a Celtics team that is truly ready to compete for a Championship, but the pieces are there. If Stevens can do what he is doing with this current roster, imagine what he’d be able to accomplish with Hayward, a possible 2018 top-five draft pick and perhaps another free agent added into the mix. The sky is the limit for the Greek Freak of the coaching fraternity, and he’s only just beginning to hit his straps.