A few days ago, when the Boston Celtics surprised the basketball world by hiring Butler University head coach Brad Stevens, a lot of people didn’t understand this move. that’s why we he here at Dubsism took a few days to really dig into what happened here so we could explain it to the six non-state hospital inmates who read this blog.
For purposes of full disclosure, I am a life-long Los Angeles Lakers fan, which means I have an eyeball-popping hatred of the Celtics, and of the Celtics of the 1980’s the only one I could conceivably hate more than Danny Ainge is Kevin McHale. But to be fair, as a general manager, Danny Ainge is a guy with los cojoñes grandes. He has absolutely no fear to break conventional wisdom and follow his hunches. That style of decision-making leads to some really funky combinations. He can be both bold and foolish, or he can be indecisive and brilliant.
On the other side, even though my basketball allegiances belong to the Lakers, I am also a transplant to Indiana, having been here through Brad Stevens’ rise from the Horizon League to the NBA. It is that level of unpredictably that you need to keep in mind as we go through why this hire really makes sense for both both the Celtics and Stevens.
There’s really two main reasons why.
1) This move fills a mutual need.
Even before Doc Rivers saddled his horse and rode west, everybody knew the “Big Three” era in Boston was essentially over. Even before Ainge traded Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph, Keith Bogans, Reggie Evans, and first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018, everybody knew a rebuilding era was coming sooner rather than later in Boston. And even before all of that, the rumors were flying in Boston that the relationship between Rajon Rondo and the Celtics was pretty much over.
That means that when the search for a new coach started for the Celtics, they could forget about any of the high-profile guys out there. Be they Phil Jackson, George Karl, Lionel Hollins, Vinny Del Negro, or even the ghost of Red Auerbach, Danny Ainge had to know he had about as much chance of getting one of those guys to take on a Celtic rebuilding project as getting Queen Elizabeth II to knock back a bar-rail full of Jello shots and do a pole dance.
That left Ainge two choices. He could either hire an up-and-coming NBA assistant coach, or he could test the college ranks to see if there might be a guy out there looking for a shot at the big leagues. With the assistant, you get a guy with NBA experience, but he is also likely a guy nobody has ever heard of. With the college guy, you get the exact opposite; no experience but a name people recognize. Given the probability that Rajon Rondo has played his last game in Celtic green, Ainge knows he may have a team whose biggest star would arguably be Kris “Don’t call me Mr. Kardashian” Humphries.
Not only does that help explain why he chose the college coach, it also sheds a lot of light on why he offered Brad Stevens a ridiculously large and long deal for an NBA rookie coach. Only the hottest property amongst the available college coaches could demand a 6-year, $22 million deal. Regardless of of his role on the team, Brad Stevens just became the reason Celtics fans will keep coming back during the rebuilding era, and he’s been paid handsomely for it.
2) It won’t matter if Stevens succeeds or fails.
The beauty of this deal is that success will have nothing to do with results, which is precisely why this is a win-win for both Stevens and the Celtics.
For Danny Ainge, his hiring of Stevens puts some star power on the Celtic the side of the floor in a time when the player roster may be sorely lacking it. Looking at what the Celtics’ roster is likely going to be come October, nobody with a realistic eye will look at this team as a winner. So, in the short term, Ainge has made a reason to give a damn about a Celtic team that has every opportunity to be as interesting as watching concrete harden, and done so with a team for whom nobody can possibly have realistic lofty expectations.
For Brad Stevens, this a brilliant career move no matter what happens. In the unlikely event he turns the Celtics into an instant winner, then he is a successful coach on one of the NBA’s flagship franchises. But in the event that he doesn’t see the end of that 6-year deal, he still just made “set for life” money.
But it is that last possibility which is both the most likely and ironically offers the most positive options for Stevens.
I’ve already mentioned the first one. While I don’t know all the details of this contract, I would be willing to bet there is a nice buy-out clause, especially after year three. So win or lose, Brad Stevens isn’t going to be sweating his kids’ college tuition.
He already is gold as far as being a college coach is concerned, and his stock only goes up with NBA experience on his resume. If he ends up going back to the college game, he can tell recruits that he knows first-hand what it takes to play with the big boys. It’s no accident that both Rick Pitino and John Calipari became hausmeisters of the college game after having had stints in the NBA.
It is that experience in the big leagues that allows for the trade-up in jobs as well. Failing in the NBA only led to bigger and better things for many college coaches. John Calipari was plying his trade at places like Massachusetts before failing in the pros; afterward he is winning titles at Kentucky.
Speaking of Kentucky, let’s not forget that before winning an NCAA title at Louisville, Rick Pitino won one at Kentucky years before Calipari did, and that success in Lexington came from Pitino’s failure with the New York Knicks. Then he doubled-down and got a job in the shadow of Churchill Downs after leaving the Kentucky bluegrass for the green of the Celtics. Without those stints in the NBA, does Pitino become the only coach in NCAA men’s basketball history to lead two different schools to national titles? To answer a question with another question, what is the correlation between winning in the NCAA and recruiting NBA-level talent? Discuss amongst yourselves.
This postulate doesn’t just apply to guys who have reached the peak of the NCAA mountain. There’s plenty of coaches who have fattened their college paychecks on a corn-fed diet of NBA failure.
Lon Kruger had moderate success in the feeder ranks SEC and Big Ten, until he got a shot in the bigs with the Atlanta Hawks. The Peachtree City was not kind to Kruger; he went 25-57 in his first season and got fired in his third. Since then, Kruger went back to campus at UNLV and Oklahoma, where he has led teams to the NCAA tourney in five out of nine seasons.
For a long time, Leonard Hamilton was known simply as one of the first of many of Michael Jordan’s many failed experiments with the Washington Wizards coaching spot. His Airness snagged Hamilton from the Miami Hurricanes whom he led to three straight NCAA tournaments from 1997-2000. His sole season in the NBA ended with a 19-63 mark. Since then, he has elevated the Florida State hoops program from a perennial NIT loser to regular NCAA dancer, so much so that the powers that be in Tallahassee just upped his contract to the tune of $2.25 million per year, second only to the sainted Mike Krzyzewski in the ACC.
Even beyond that, Stevens can always be a P.J. Carlisemo type, meaning that he made his bones as a college coach, which allowed him to fail multiple times as a head coach in the NBA. Carlesimo has been the head coach of four different NBA teams, only to a compile a record well under .500. However, Carlesimo has won three NBA rings as an assistant coach on Gregg Popovich’s staff in San Antonio, and as an interim coach with this past season’s Brooklyn Nets, he posted a record of 35-19. During all that time, Carlesimo has made “set for life” money multiple times.
What it all comes down to is that Butler fans can be as butt-hurt as they want over Stevens’ departure, but if they didn’t understand this was a possibility, then they are delusional. What is more delusional than that is expecting that he wouldn’t when offered a stupidly fat deal. The only thing possibly more delusional than that is expecting that Stevens can make the Celtics relevant anytime soon.
But, it isn’t like that matters.