By Michael Parente
Boston’s hiring of Brad Stevens as the youngest head coach in professional basketball is about as progressive as it gets these days in the NBA. This is not a league known for hiring head coaches directly out of college without any previous experience at the professional level. That kind of forward thinking is typically reserved for the NFL, albeit with an amazing failure rate (ask Bobby Petrino or Steve Spurrier).
Not only is the 36-year-old Stevens the youngest head coach in the NBA, edging Orlando’s Jacque Vaughn by more than a year and a half, he’s one of only two head coaches with no prior experience as an assistant. The other is recently-hired Nets’ head coach Jason Kidd, who at least played in the NBA last year with the New York Knicks before moving from one end of the bench to the other. The other 10 head coaches with new jobs this summer (soon to be 11 once the 76ers replace Doug Collins) have some NBA coaching experience, whether it’s as much as the Clippers’ new boss Doc Rivers, who has already won more than 1,000 games, or as little as Phoenix’s Jeff Hornacek, a 14-year veteran on the court who parlayed a three-year gig as an assistant in Utah into a decent pay raise with the Suns.
Until Stevens got the job in Boston, it had been six years since an NBA team hired a college coach to run its franchise without any experience of any kind at the NBA level, probably because most, if not all, of the previous crash-test dummies asked to make the transition failed miserably. The last one was Reggie Theus, who landed in Sacramento in 2007 after leading New Mexico State to the NCAA Tournament the previous year. His fictional career as coach Bill Fuller on the Saturday morning sitcom “Hang Time” was more successful than his short-lived stint with the Kings, who fired him in 2008 following a 44-62 start.
Lon Kruger (Atlanta), Tim Floyd (Chicago) and Leonard Hamilton (Washington) all flamed out in similar fashion. Even Rick Pitino, arguably the most decorated coach in college basketball history, failed twice at the NBA level, including an ill-fated four-year stretch with the Celtics in which he gave the infamous, “Larry Bird isn’t walking through that door!” speech before that same door hit him in the ass on the way out after he failed to bring Boston back to the playoffs.
You’d have to be a complete shill to not question Danny Ainge’s decision to run with the inexperienced Stevens, especially after he just gutted his team’s entire roster by trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. It might have made more sense for Ainge to get up from behind his desk and coach the team himself for a couple of years during the rebuilding process before hiring Boston’s “coach of the future,” though it’s not entirely impossible to understand his vision.
After trading Garnett, Pierce, and Rivers, their former coach, the Celtics now have additional first-round draft picks in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018. Who better to analyze the incoming talent than Stevens, who spent 13 years at Butler recruiting and coaching while leading the Bulldogs to back-to-back appearances in the NCAA title game in 2010 and 2011? To suggest Ainge is simply using Stevens’ expertise of the college game to rebuild the roster overnight is a stretch, but it’s not entirely unrealistic to suggest that with the right draft choices the Celtics could be in position to contend for the postseason again within two years. At that point, they’d still have enough first- and second-round draft picks – and, more importantly, enough money after clearing some expiring contracts off the books – to pull off a couple of blockbuster deals similar to the ones that brought both Garnett and Ray Allen to Boston six years ago. Draft picks are just as much trade chips as they are useful rebuilding tools.
The question is whether or not Stevens will be around long enough to enjoy the fruits of his labor. This team will be bad next year, and probably again in 2015. Stevens is signed for six years. Will Ainge have more patience than the Maloof brothers, who, during their time as owners in Sacramento, gave Theus his walking papers just 24 games into his second season with the Kings? More importantly, is Stevens the right guy to lead this storied franchise to its next world title once all the pieces are in place? Sometimes the guy who lays the foundation isn’t the one who gets to live in the house; remember, Al Skinner and Tim O’Shea recruited Cuttino Mobley, Tyson Wheeler, etc., during their tenure at Rhode Island, but Jim Harrick led them to the Elite 8.
As progressive and refreshing as Stevens’ hiring was, it’s risky, too. Coaches with no prior NBA experience haven’t fared well at the next level, whether it’s because they entered irreparable situations from the start or couldn’t handle the egos and entitlement of today’s modern-day athlete. The Celtics are making a bold move, but they’ve got a blueprint for how to rebuild this franchise with enough firepower and leeway with the fan base to do it. Only time will tell how big a role Stevens plays in Ainge’s master plan.
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