When Brad Stevens left Butler University for the head coaching position for the Boston Celtics after back-to-back appearances in the NCAA national championship game, pundits questioned whether he had enough experience or the coaching fortitude necessary to be succesful at the highest level, let alone for the most winning franchise in NBA history with 17 NBA titles. After a tumultuous first year that saw the Celtics lose 57 of their 82 games, Stevens rebounded with an impressive second season, leading the Celtics to the playoffs and turning a team treading water in mediocrity into an up-and-coming contender.
This season, the Celtics have truly arrived. Though their record is only 6-4 through 10 games, they have won five of the last six, all by double-digit margins against teams with records of at least .500 last season. Many advanced stats and analytics projected the Celtics to win more than 50 games and secure, in some scenarios, the second seed in the Eastern Conference. As expected, there were many skeptics — myself included — and Stevens and the Celtics have so far proven them wrong.
One of the main critiques of the team was its lack of a true a star, a player whom the Celtics could rely on to take over the game when they needed it most. It appears that Boston has found two such players in Marcus Smart and last year’s runner-up for Sixth Man of the Year, Isaiah Thomas. Smart is a defensive monster, who helped lead the Celtics to the league’s third-best defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). Smart exhibited his ability to contribute tenacious defense against star point guard Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Thomas has been an offensive dynamo, averaging 21 points per game and coming up with timely buckets. Though it is early in the season and a 10-game sample size is hardly enough to go on, the recent hot streak of the Celtics and the way they play is reminiscent of another team that had depth but lacked a superstar: the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets, who went 57-25 and earned Head Coach George Karl Coach of the Year honors.
Though Stevens runs his team differently from Karl, the two teams share the same breakneck style of play, as this year’s Celtics average nearly 100 possessions per game — good for fifth in the league in pace. Another similarity between that upstart Nuggets team and this year’s Celtics team is their incredible depth. Capable of playing nearly all 12 players on their active rosters, both teams share the ability to throw several different sets and offensive looks at teams.
Still, the Nuggets boasted Andre Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari, whereas Boston must rely on two undersized guards and an average selection of wings. The Celtics really shine in their in-game adjustments, with Stevens routinely drawing up incredible sets and sticking to effective strategies on the court.
Last year during a game against the Washington Wizards that saw Boston trail by double digits throughout most of the fourth quarter, Stevens boldly sat star point guard Rajon Rondo in favor of Smart, who was quicker and capable of playing more physical defense against Wizards guard John Wall. It worked, and the Celtics came all the way back to force double overtime.
Stevens’ adjustments routinely maximize his players’ talent, and, at this point, the Celtics’ early season success is hardly a byproduct of luck — not unlike his NCAA runs at Butler. Though his 2010 runner-up team featured current NBA star Gordon Hayward, the 2011 team that also made the championship game had lost Hayward, yet still made the tourney’s final game, in no small part due to Stevens’ brilliant coaching.
Oftentimes in sports — and especially in the star-driven NBA — we lose sight of the importance of coaching, particularly in-game coaching. Ultimately, while these players are among the best in the world, they still need to learn how to play together to achieve their full potential. And while the rest of the season needs to unfold, the Celtics are fortunate enough to have one of the best teachers in the game.
Paolo Santamaria is a sophomore in the College. Saxa Synergy appears every Friday.
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