When Indiana University fired its men’s basketball coach earlier this week, a lot of folks floated the idea of former Butler University and current Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens perhaps being targeted for the open position.
After all, Stevens was born and raised in Zionsville, Indiana, attended DePauw University (also in Indiana), and coached for six seasons at Butler, where he took the less-than-glamorous school to back-to-back NCAA men’s championships games, with both resulting in losses.
The Celtics stunned the NBA in 2013 when they inked the then 36-year-old to a six-year, $36 million contract to coach the team. Stevens has had success at the Celtics’ helm, and has led the team to winning records in each of the past five seasons, including reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the past four seasons.
But Stevens’ Celtics were just 20-21 after falling at home against the 16-24 Sacramento Kings, and that was on the heels of a disappointing loss to the 15-25 Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this week. This current season would have to be deemed a whopping disappointment for the legendary hoops franchise after its appearance in the East Finals just last season.
So when the Indiana job opened, it seemed like a convenient way for Stevens to have an easy out in a season that finds Boston eighth in the East behind a Knicks team that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since 2013, and was coming off a 21-45 season in 2020.
Given the downward spiral that the team has taken since this season began, I don’t think most C’s fans would mind, or blame Stevens if he chose to depart Boston for Bloomington, Ind., and return to his Hoosier roots and become the sixth mentor of the program since the legendary Bobby Knight was booted off-campus in 2000.
But Stevens earlier Friday quelled that speculation, saying that he had no intention of leaving the Celtics, issuing a statement that put the kibosh on the rumors, finishing up with, “I’m a 44-year-old Masshole. I swerve around others when I’m driving. I eat Dunkin Donuts and root for the Patriots. I’m, unfortunately, skewed in a lot of ways. I guess.”
If I’m Celtics head honcho Danny Ainge, however, I’m telling Stevens, “Hey Brad, I don’t want you to rush into any rash decisions. Take the rest of the weekend and perhaps the coming weeks to think about this, because I know that the state of Indiana holds a special place in your and your family’s hearts, and I don’t want you to feel obligated to stay here when the rest of your professional coaching career is at stake. And right now, Brad, I can’t imagine that a high-profile post like the Indiana job would not be something that you haven’t thought about when you were in your early days of coaching. Just take some time and give it some real consideration.”
I doubt that Ainge really would ignore Stevens’ commitment to Boston and urge him to reconsider staying, but as the days and weeks go by, I wonder whether Stevens is the long-term answer for the Celtics despite the fact that he signed a contract extension just last August.
Because right now, I think that a lot of Celtics fans have their doubts about their team’s future under Stevens’ watch.
This team that was a conference finalist last year should be a lot better than 20-21 at this point, and too often it plays up to, or down to the level of its competition. Yes, the Celtics have beaten the Bucks, Raptors, Heat, Clippers (twice) and Warriors, but they’ve also suffered a pair of defeats to the East’s worst team, the Pistons (11-29), and also dropped contests to the 15-25 Wizards, the 16-24 Kings, the 17-24 Pelicans, and those improved Knicks, who blew Boston out by 30 at TD Garden in mid-January.
I have great admiration for Stevens, who took the Celtics to the postseason in just his second season here (improving the team’s record by 15 wins from his first season), and then in 2016 led the team to a 53-29 mark and reached East Finals. When he returned to the court to coach the 2016-17 team, Ainge had almost completely remade the team, with only four players returning from the previous roster. Yet Stevens still managed to coach that revamped roster to an even better regular-season record (55-27) and got them back into the conference finals again, where again the team was competitive but ultimately overmatched by the LeBron James-led Cavaliers.
But Stevens, now 44, is already the fifth-longest-tenured coach in the NBA, and lately it seems like his young stars are beginning to tune him out — particularly 24-year-old Jaylen Brown, 23-year-old Jayson Tatum, and 27-year-old Marcus Smart, all of whom Stevens has coached for the entirety of their pro careers.
I really don’t think that Stevens has, or is, doing a poor job coaching the Celtics, but one has to question why superstar Gordon Hayward, who played for Stevens at Butler, left town for Charlotte of all places just three seasons after signing a mega-contract here. Hayward had some substantial injuries during his time in Boston, but he was used sporadically and somewhat mystifyingly when he was healthy, and often his playing time was curtailed so that Stevens could instead play the mercurial Smart, who is better defensively, but as of this writing, is shooting 5 percent from three-point range in the fourth quarter this season, and yet still hoists them up regularly. This from a guy who has yet to shoot better than 42 percent from the field in any of his seven seasons in Boston, and has shot in the 30ish-percent range every other season.
Tatum and Brown have shown improvement over the years, but appear to be more selfish players this season, and neither seems to feel comfortable enough with their teammates to dish out assists on a regular basis, leading Boston to become one of the league’s worst fourth-quarter teams and prone to surrendering big leads late, as has been their trademark all too often this season.
This Celtics lost Hayward to free agency, but pretty much returned the entire roster from last season, and yet are still digressing — from a team that went 48-24 last year to under .500 less than a year later. Worse, teams that are not nearly as talented or were light-years behind Boston in the standings just a year ago — squads like the 28-13 76ers, the 22-19 Heat, the 21-20 Hawks, and the two .500 teams now ahead of the Celtics, the Knicks and Hornets — are currently playing better and don’t seem to have the inherent dysfunction that the Celtics do right now.
And that, like it or not, is on the coach, as are losses to horrible teams and selfish play.
So Brad, if the Hoosiers still are leaving the light on for you to return to your Indiana roots, perhaps this might be the perfect time to leave with your dignity intact, and your coaching reputation still viewed in high regard, and get back to what you did best: coaching kids who actually listened and played at a level commensurate with their ability.