Column: Brad Stevens’s case for Coach of the Year and coach of the century

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Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens directs his players during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Sunday, March 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Steve Yeater)

Brad Stevens is this season’s Coach of the Year. He might be the Coach of the Year until the heat death of the universe.

With one more win this season he will have improved his coaching record every single year he’s been in the NBA. His plays out of timeouts are scrutinized by five-star military generals. But what separates Stevens from the rest of the pack this year is what’s always been his most valuable asset. His ability to maximize every ounce of talent a player has while also complementing the other four players on the floor seamlessly.

There are plenty of deserving candidates for the Coach of the Year this season. Quinn Snyder’s Jazz have blown preseason projections out of the water after losing Gordon Hayward in free agency. Gregg Popovich once again has San Antonio in the upper echelon of the West despite missing Kawhi Leonard for most of the season. If I had to have Stevens lose, it would probably be to Dwane Casey, but the Raptors’ success is indicative of the work of general manager Masai Ujui more than anything else. But nobody has had to deal with roster turnover and overcome injuries’ like Brad Steven’s club has.

Yes, history will probably glance over 2018 Celtics’ season. It’s likely to be remembered as just another top-two finish in the conference in a long stretch of great seasons. But what Stevens has done this year is nothing short of miraculous. After making the Eastern Conference Finals last season, a whirlwind summer left the Celtics with just four returning faces this year – something no conference finalist had ever done. Not to mention he’s had to juggle injuries to the two best players on the roster. Hayward was lost just five minutes into year and Kyrie Irving has missed 17 games as well. Key role players like Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart have also missed over 20 games each. There really is no way the Celtics should be this good.

But like always, Stevens had made the best of what he’s got. Look no further than last Wednesday’s win against Utah. The Jazz caught fire during the third quarter, outscoring the Celtics 32-19. To regain control of the game, Steven’s switched to a 2-3 zone defense that is rarely ever seen in the NBA, and if you do see it, it’s not normally run with players like Semi Ojeleye, Greg Monroe and Aron Baynes. The Celtics ended up stealing the victory on a Jaylen Brown game winner that was drawn up perfectly. Shane Larkin penetrated the paint and swung the ball to Ojeleye who was coming off Brown’s pick. Brown’s man switched onto Ojeleye and Brown then retreated from the foul-line, pulling probable-Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert out into space. The ball found Brown and the second-year swingman buried the game-winning triple.

It was the textbook Brad Stevens game. He constantly recreates “Mona Lisa” out of macaroni bits and rarely ever puts a lineup on the floor that doesn’t have meticulous thought behind it.

Everyone underestimated Isaiah Thomas in Sacramento and Phoenix but is he actually as good as his top-five finish in MVP voting last year would indicate? He’s partly a product of Stevens’ system. Players like Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Evan Turner are others that have had career years under Stevens but have yet to recapture that magic elsewhere.  He guided a team that had Tyler Zeller leading them in win shares to the playoffs. He even made Jordan Crawford into an Eastern Conference Player of the Week once.

Rarely does Stevens ever have a player out on the floor that isn’t in a clearly defined role. One of the few times I’ve ever openly questioned him was during last year’s opening round series against Chicago. Forward Amir Johnson was doing little to contain the Bulls’ Robin Lopez and he wasn’t adding anything close to enough offensively to justify his continued playing time as the Celtics lost the first two games of the series. But like always, Stevens made the unconventional change. He inserted forward Gerald Green into the starting lineup despite having never played that lineup during the course of the season. The Celtics went on to win the next four games and win the series.

Everything Brad Stevens touches turns to gold. He could feasibly win Coach of the Year every season of his career just like Popovich could. But just like Pop, he won’t.  Coach of the Year goes to the coach whose team surpasses preseason expectations the most. And that will never be Stevens’ team. The Celtics are too stocked with the talent for the future and Steven is too great of a coach for deficits in talent to even show when the roster gets thin. If he doesn’t win it in a year full of roster turnover and injuries like this one, when can he ever win it?


Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at bryan.lambert@uconn.edu.

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