SAN FRANCISCO — A year ago, Boston Celtics owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca executed an audacious move: They made their successful coach a rookie team president and replaced him with a rookie coach.
Had anyone on the dais the day the move to elevate Brad Stevens was formalized — June 2, 2021 — been told that exactly 365 days later the Celtics would win Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Finals 120-108 over the Golden State Warriors, they would’ve found it hard to believe. That included retiring team president Danny Ainge, who built the bones of a team now three wins away from a championship.
Stevens, the Celtics’ former coach turned executive, and his maneuvers since accepting the shocking promotion have been both sublime and sensational.
There are quite a few reasons the Celtics have assembled a five-month rally that has them stalking their first title in 14 years, but many of Stevens’ moves over the past year have provided instant and overwhelming returns.
• He hired Ime Udoka as his replacement, betting on the longtime assistant’s history of learning under San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich followed by further seasoning as an assistant coach in Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Udoka’s blend of tough love combined with his ability to build up the team’s resilience has been exactly what this group of younger players needed. More to the point, Udoka reached the team in a way that Stevens hadn’t, and it has unlocked the Celtics’ potential.
This wasn’t exactly Bill Russell stepping in to replace Red Auerbach, with neither having equity in their jobs. Stevens’ hiring his successor was a gamble.
“It was a different situation that a lot of people may not think is appealing, but I think it’s only a benefit to have a guy that’s coached for seven, eight years in the building with the same guys down the hall,” Udoka said about how things have fallen into place.
“We talk about every situation [Stevens has] been through and kind of lend his support as far as that. But also step back and let me do my thing. In a unique situation, it’s helped out this year for sure.”
• Stevens traded guard Kemba Walker for center Al Horford. This was the first move that established how things were going to be different in Boston. The Celtics admitted that signing Walker to a four-year max contract in 2019 was a mistake and letting Horford walk to the Philadelphia 76ers in that offseason hurt the team.
Stevens feels out a first-round pick, No. 16 last year, to do the deal. This wouldn’t have been a typical Ainge move, as he preferred to hoard picks to use either on developmental players or as bait to chase a star. It wasn’t that Ainge’s process was flawed; the entire core of the team is players he drafted who have paid off. But at this point, Horford was a 35-year-old role player yet Stevens made getting him a priority — all a definite departure from the team’s typical priorities.
The move has proved to be a major plus, both during the season and in the playoffs. Horford has played the hero role numerous times in this postseason, including his 26-point performance on Thursday.
• Stevens signed center Robert Williams III to a four-year, $48 million extension (some bonuses can make it worth up to $54 million). The transaction was seen as a bit of a stretch at the time, as Williams had been plagued by injuries and shown a limited game over the first three years of his career.
Within weeks, Williams earned the team’s faith, becoming one of the league’s defensive difference-makers, earning a spot on the All-Defensive Team. He has fought through injury this postseason and also played a big role in the Game 1 victory, blocking four shots and being a lob threat around the rim.
• At his first trade deadline in February, Stevens executed an aggressive move by trading a first-round draft pick and a future pick swap with the Spurs for Derrick White. As with Horford, Stevens went against the grain that Ainge had established by investing future draft assets in a role player.
But White, who was signed to a reasonable long-term deal worth $17 million per year and was known for being versatile on offense and a quality defender, has proved to be an ideal fit. Combined with the choice to trade away Dennis Schroder — an offseason signing that didn’t work out for Stevens but a misstep he quickly dealt with — the move freed up Marcus Smart to be the Celtics’ primary point guard while providing a perfect combo guard off the bench.
“This is about adding guys that you think and can see playing in a seven-game knockdown, drag-out playoff series,” Stevens said after acquiring White. “And you know they can be on the floor and play a role in helping you win.”
White has been a vital contributor over the past two rounds and had a brilliant Finals debut, scoring 21 points and making five 3-pointers.
Add it all together and it’s a masterpiece in the first year of work for the Celtics under their rookie president and rookie coach. Stevens finished a distant sixth in the Executive of the Year voting, well back of winner Zach Kleiman of the Memphis Grizzlies. But that’s an imperfect award in which the true work is often not seen in a single-season cycle; it often can turn into an 18-month award, which was the case for Kleiman.
The honor is irrelevant at this point; the ultimate hardware is closed. And Stevens’ touch has made it possible.