Commentary

Celtics give Brad Stevens a shot

Will coach's wild success at Butler translate on grand stage of NBA?

Updated: July 4, 2013, 9:26 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

The Boston Celtics have never been afraid to think outside the box, particularly when it comes to the age and experience of their head coaches. The team has 17 banners that prove that being bold has its advantages.

Little more than a week after the very public and unsightly end of Doc Rivers' nine-year tenure in Boston, the Celtics quietly dropped an early-evening bombshell when they announced in a news release that they had hired 36-year-old Brad Stevens on Wednesday as the franchise's 17th head coach.

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Just two days earlier, while noting the team was in no rush to fill its coaching vacancy, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was discussing the initial phase of his team's rebuilding efforts when he said that part of his goal was to get younger.

He wasn't kidding.

Stevens, the former Butler helmsman with the "are you a student?" look, will almost certainly be the youngest coach in the NBA next season (Philadelphia still has a vacancy to fill). Stevens slides in front of Orlando's Jacque Vaughn (38) and Memphis' David Joerger (39) in the under-40 club.

Stevens is five months younger than soon-to-be-shipped-to-Brooklyn Kevin Garnett. Garnett's soon-to-be coach, Jason Kidd, who retired as a player just a month ago, is an elderly 40.

That said, Stevens isn't that young, at least not compared to the starting age of some of Boston's previous coaches. Some of the team's most notable sideline leaders started early, including Dave Cowens (30 in 1978), Bill Russell (32 in 1966), Red Auerbach (33 in 1950) and Tommy Heinsohn (35 in 1969).

Age ain't nothing but a number. And we've long heard about how Celtics owner Walter Brown "took a chance" on Auerbach. That's not to put some crazy expectations on Stevens, but it hammers home how intrigued the Celtics were by his abilities.

[+] EnlargeBrad Stevens
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsBrad Stevens' cerebral approach could be a natural fit for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo.

The question facing Stevens now is whether he can do in Boston what he did at Butler: Mold a bunch of 20-somethings and lead them to the championship stage.

Stevens will inherit a Celtics roster that -- once the dust settles -- ought to feature Rajon Rondo as the 28-year-old elder statesman (and the only remaining player from the 2008 title team). Stevens could be coaching a team very similar to what he is used to, particularly with a young core featuring Avery Bradley (22), Jared Sullinger (21), Jeff Green (26) and rookie first-round pick Kelly Olynyk (22).

On the heels of the draft-night blockbuster that will send Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to Brooklyn in exchange for a rebuild acceleration package headlined by three first-round draft picks, expectations ought to be manageable for Stevens early on.

The dominant storyline of the past week has been whether the Celtics ought to tank next season for a high pick in a star-studded draft. By inking a six-year deal (which Yahoo! Sports reported as valued at $22 million), the Celtics appear to be offering Stevens the chance to grow.

That's the same rope they offered Rivers, who suffered through some lean years, including the 2006-07 campaign in which Boston lost a franchise-record 18 straight games and fans chanted for Rivers' dismissal. The Celtics brazenly stuck with Rivers, surrounded him with talent and were rewarded after assembling the Big Three that summer, promptly ending a 22-year championship drought.

With nine first-round picks over the next five drafts, including a pair of first-round selections in each of the next three drafts, there's a chance for Ainge to surround Stevens with coachable young talent. And he'll inherit that young core that serves as the possible foundation of the future.

Which, of course, brings us back to Rondo. Most Celtics fans were left wondering if Stevens' arrival means the possible departure of the All-Star point guard. Ainge was adamant Monday that the team is not trying to shop Rondo and that they were simply listening to offers from other teams with an expectation he'd be back in a Celtics uniform next season after rehabbing from surgery to repair a torn ACL.

Can Stevens coexist with Rondo? We'll find out soon enough, even if Rondo goes into coach mode while waiting to heal up 100 percent. While a reputation as stubborn and difficult to coach preceded Rondo (and he's admitted as much himself), the 27-year-old typically respects those who can break down the game on his cerebral level.

Let's put it this way: We'd love to be in the room if Stevens and Rondo sat down for a game of Connect Four. Each would be thinking three moves ahead; the game might last five hours with neither side willing to accept a draw.

During the NCAA tournament, CBS Sports featured a story about how Stevens identified a rarely used defense by Bucknell and even knew the team's hand signal for the set. Given Rondo's love of calling out the opposing team's plays before they do, chances are the two could be a solid match.

The Celtics have to at least give the pairing a chance, particularly if they envision Rondo as a cornerstone of the future and Stevens the coach to lead them there. Rondo's trade value is low as he rehabs from his February surgery with a goal of being back on the floor for opening night. If the Celtics plan to take their lumps, they might not rush Rondo back.

Asked on Monday about the next Celtics coach, Ainge suggested that there had been little progress. He did have big expectations.

"You're looking for Michael Jordan," Ainge said. "Everybody's looking for a Michael Jordan coach. There's coaches with all sorts of different strengths and weaknesses. I think I'm looking at all the different candidates out there that are available, and some guys that are not available or are working other places that I'll also consider."

Jordan's name is always attached to a famous quote about missing 100 percent of the shots you don't attempt. The Celtics could have played it safe and gone with a proven NBA coach -- after all, there are no guarantees in the college-to-pro coaching jump. Boston moved quickly on Stevens, wrestling him out of a familiar gig with a contract that would have paid him through 2022.

Both the Celtics and Stevens are stepping outside of their comfort zones and hoping history repeats itself in Boston.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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