Musings: You're Brad Stevens And You've Got A Problem

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author


Let’s suppose, for just a few moments, that you are Brad Stevens, the coach of the Boston

Celtics. If you are, there is no way you can be pleased about how the current basketball

season, which is winding down to the last few games of the regular season schedule

before the real season – the playoffs – begin, has played out. Oh, it hasn’t been like one

of those epic car crashes that close down the Mass Turnpike during rush hour so the

wreckage can be cleared. But it hasn’t been pretty. There have been times that the team

has shown flashes of the brilliance which was expected of it, but the consistency has not

been there. “Disappointing” would not be an inappropriate word to use in describing the

Celtics this season.

What happened?

Through the eyes of one from the outside looking in, you seem to be the same guy you’ve

always been; open, sincere and dedicated, a guy who has always inspired his teams to do

better than expected. That goes back to your days at Butler University when you led the

unsung Bulldogs to two straight NCAA championship games. As coach of the Celtics,

your teams have always done better than the pre-season pundits have predicted. Even last

year, when Gordon Hayward, the newly acquired all-star forward whom you had coached

at Butler, broke his leg just six minutes into the season and was lost for the year, and

Kyrie Irving lost significant time due to knee problems, including all of the post-season,

you and your team soldiered on, compiled a better-than-expected record, and made a

deep run into the playoffs.

Then came this year. You seemed to have the right personnel and they seemed ready to

play. Then the season began – in fits and starts. It’s been that way all year long; win a

few, lose a few. The team is on the bubble as to whether or not it will make it to the 50

win mark, a total exceeded in each of the last two years.

Again we wonder, what happened?

Larry Bird always had a theory – that after three seasons, in basketball, anyway, players

stop listening to their coaches. By then, according to the Bird theory, whatever pearls of

wisdom a coach might have in his arsenal would have been long since used. When he

was recruited to coach the Indiana Pacers in 1997, in his first year he led them to a 58-24

won-lost record, a franchise record, plus a spot in the Eastern Division NBA Finals, and it

earned him NBA coach-of-the-year honors. In 1999/2000, his third season, he piloted the

Pacers all the way to the NBA finals. Then, true to his word, Bird walked away from

coaching and has never returned.

Another theory is that the NBA is no longer a coaches’ league. Some thirty-five years

ago, when Bird and Magic Johnson were at the top of their games and Michael Jordan

was looming on the horizon, the league made a decision – to aggessively market its

superstars. It worked like a charm, and the NBA reached levels of popularity previously

undreamed of.

But there is an old saying: Beware the law of unintended consequences.

Over the years the league has morphed into one dominated by its superstars at the

expense of its coaches. It’s the players who call the shots these days. Long gone is the

age of Bill Fitch, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson. They were strong-willed characters, all.

True, even they knew to act carefully around their superstars, but they were the bosses of

their teams, and everyone knew it. Goodbye to all that. Hello to the age of LeBron James.

LeBron gets to play in whatever city he wants to and with whatever team he wants.

That’s the way the NBA works nowadays. This year has shown that there might be some

cracks in his skills and his stamina and that he might be a mere human being after all.

He’s thirty-four years old now, and an old thirty-four at that. He’s been in the league

since 2003, entering the NBA directly after graduating from St. Vincent-St.Mary High

School in Akron, Ohio. That adds up to a lot of punishment for one body to take, even for

a body as magnificent as LeBron’s. He’s become somewhat injury-prone, and for the first

time he needs to take off an occasional play now and then to let someone else do the

work. The problem is that he’s chosen a team on which there is no one else to pick up the

slack. But he’s still the most powerful force in basketball. Do you think that his coach,

Luke Walton, would ever call him out for, say, not setting a proper pick on a defender?

No way. In fact, Walton probably needs to make an appointment just to speak to Mr.

James at all.

Superstars have always required special treatment and they always will. Even the most

authoritarian of coaches, Red Auerbach, recognized that. Auerbach was, among other

things, a master psychologist. He knew that the great Bill Russell had some quirky

elements to his personality, but that it was important to keep him focused on the game

rather than on some perceived slight. He’d often look the other way when Russell bent a

rule too far, whereas, if it had been another offender, say, Tommy Heinsohn, he’d come

down hard. He knew that it made Heinsohn mad when he did that, but he also knew that

it made him a better player.

So there you have it, Brad. Brad? Are you still with me? Good. We know that at least

some of the problems with the Celtics are not of your making. But you’re the coach and

the onus is on you to fix them. If I knew how to do that I’d be a very rich man. Needless

to say, I am not rich, not even a little bit. So your job, along with all its problems, is safe

for now.