The Boston Celtics are going into this season in an arguably worse position than last year. Having lost Gordon Hayward to Charlotte and with Kemba Walker dealing with more knee problems, the Celtics may have to scratch and claw their way back to the Eastern Conference Finals.
After last season’s playoff loss to the Heat, there was pressure on Danny Ainge to make game-changing moves this offseason, and while there weren’t any home runs, the signings of both Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague will bring some much-needed relief to the Celtics bench. With another year under their belt, there is naturally pressure on Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown to lead this team to Banner 18 as well. And while they are clearly the stars of the team, both remain under 25 years old entering the season.
The only person in the Celtics organization that hasn’t been under any significant pressure has been Brad Stevens. For the past seven seasons as the team’s head coach, Stevens has been hailed as a coaching guru and an argument can be made to back up that claim. With a 314-246 coaching record, there have been only been two losing seasons under Stevens, who has six playoffs appearances in seven years. He’s known around the league for his ability to create successful out of bounds plays and getting even the most offensive-minded players like Kyrie Irving and Isiah Thomas to commit at defense. When you look at how Boston fans view Stevens, he barely gets any criticism. When he is criticized, it’s usually brushed aside and not talked about for more than a day on sports radio. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.
If you look at this year’s Patriots team, head coach and GM Bill Belichick is getting a lot of criticism in the media for not leading New England to the playoffs. Missing the cut for the first time since 2008, the Pats had virtually no passing attack and a consistently injured defense. Belichick has been chastised for not preparing for life after Tom Brady and consistently missing on skill position players in both the draft and free agency. This is fair criticism even for a coach who has six Super Bowl wins, is third all-time in wins, and is one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game.
So the question is: Why don’t we see the same criticism pointed at Brad Stevens? Stevens has never been to the Finals, has a 37-36 record in the playoffs, and is 3-6 when facing elimination. That is an average record at best and has the look of a coach that might not be able to get the job done in the postseason. You could see some weaknesses in Stevens throughout the entire Miami Eastern Conference Finals series last season. Once the Heat went into a zone defense during Game 1, there were no adjustments to try to switch up the offense over the next two games. For the series, Marcus Smart was 15-47 from three-point range, yet he was still allowed to take 13 threes during Game 6. Nobody bats an eye at this, however, and everyone still firmly believes that Stevens is the coach to lead the Celtics to the promised land. Many claim that once the young core of Tatum, Brown, and Smart fully develop, then all the pieces will finally click. But history has shown that a coaching change can make a team full of potential turn into the team to hold the Larry O’Brien trophy.
The Warriors were once in a similar position that the Celtics are in right now. Led by coach Mark Jackson, the Warriors were a team full of promise, led by a young core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. After two straight playoff appearances, Golden State decided they needed to make a change to get over the hump, so they decided to cut ties with Mark Jackson in May 2014 and hire Steve Kerr, with majority owner Joe Lacob stating that he wanted to “find the best guy to lead this team to the next level.” We all know how the story goes from there, and the Warriors would go on to become the biggest dynasty since the Chicago Bulls in the 90’s.
In the late 1980s as the Bulls were on the verge of a dynasty, Michael Jordan was firmly establishing himself as the face of the league. Despite having a team consisting of Jordan, along with Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, they couldn’t make it out of the East despite trips to both the semifinals and conference finals. The Bulls made the decision to part ways with coach Doug Collins in 1989 and replace him with Phil Jackson, stating that “this is in the best interest of all parties.” Jackson gets hired, the Bulls dominate the 90’s by winning six championships, and they go down in history as one of the greatest teams of all time.
In basketball, the difference between a good and great coach is a really fine line. A good coach can get you to the playoffs, but a great coach can get you a championship ring. For every Phil Jackson there is a Doug Collins, for every Steve Kerr there is a Mark Jackson. This is not to say that Brad Stevens is not the coach of the future, because there is a chance he can be. But there’s no more cutting him slack as he’s entering his eighth season coaching in Boston. The pressure needs to be on for Stevens to deliver.
Good or great, Steve Kerr or Mark Jackson, who is Brad Stevens going to be?