October 17, 2017. Opening night after a hectic offseason which saw 13 past/current all-stars move teams and a perceived power shift in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics were preparing to show off their new look roster with only four remaining players from the 53-29 first seeded team and Eastern Conference Finalist. Names like Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford naturally jumped off the page. Young guys like Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier were looking to cement their spot in the league on a championship contender. Like the previous four years in Boston there was heavy overhaul and once again boy wonder and coaching prodigy Brad Stevens had a slew of changes to deal with. Among them was the daunting task of molding this group of players into the next great Celtic dynasty. There hasn’t been this much hype around a Celtic team since the magical summer of 2007 which preceded a season ending on the streets of Boston in Duck Boats celebrating the crown of the NBA coming back to its king (and a shirtless Glen Davis getting the ruckus going through the streets). Opening night was supposed to be the culmination of the summer and a beginning of another quest for a banner.
Boston vs. Cleveland, LeBron vs. Kyrie, this game and rivalry now had everything. It started out that way as the teams jostled to a 10-9 mark. Then, in one play the season was perceived as over. With 6:45 left in the first quarter off an alley-oop pass Gordon Hayward got sandwiched between LeBron and Jae Crowder and went down hard. I remember it vividly, as I heard Kevin Harlan say “oh my goodness Hayward went down so hard…” and then BAM, it happened. The view panned to the under the basket camera and my heart sunk and jaw dropped. Hayward’s ankle turned 90 degrees as he writhed in pain on the hardwood. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. This wasn’t the fairy tale ending that should have happened. Long story short, the Celtics went on to lose that game 102-99 and the next night in Milwaukee. 0-2.
Fast-forward nearly 5 and a half months and here the Celtics are at 53-23 coming off a convincing 110-99 win at the TD Garden over the currently first-seeded Raptors. The Hayward injury has been a common theme this season and that has brought the team together. The man behind keeping it all together and instilling the fight and next man up mentality of this team is Brad Stevens. Stevens had a great case for Coach of the Year last year after leading a rag tag bunch of castaways to the best record in the conference and making 5’ 9” Isaiah Thomas into a near 30 point per game scorer and MVP candidate. Stevens followed up his first magic act with an even bigger one this season as his opening night starting five sports a combined 109 games missed. That is staggering. For comparison, Dwane Casey’s Raptors starting five have had a combined 22 games missed. Not only has Hayward missed significant time, superstar Kyrie Irving has missed 16 games thus far and forecasts to be shelved for the remainder of the season. In 16 games without Uncle Drew the Celtics are 12-4.
Now into Steven’s real credentials for the award if the numbers before weren’t convincing enough. I believe this recent stretch without Kyrie is the most glaring and strongest argument for Steven’s COY prospects. In this stretch since 3/11 when Kyrie last played, the Celtics are 7-2 while having a starting lineup of Rozier, Tatum, Brown (for part of the stretch as his concussion forced him out of 5 games during that stretch), Horford (also missed some time), and Aron Baynes. Not only are the starters depleted but the bench lost Smart (thumb injury) and promising rookie Daniel Theis (torn-meniscus) for the rest of the regular season. A calling card of Stevens has been his ability to get the most out of his players. There has been no greater example of that than this season. In this stretch he has (labeled hot head and bench player) Marcus Morris averaging 20.4 ppg 6.0 rpg while shooting 44.2% from three-point range. Terry “Khum, Scary Terry, T-ro, Tito” Rozier (CBS Sports graded F selection by the Celtics in the 2015 NBA Draft) is playing out of his mind as in the past 25 games he is sporting 16.4 ppg 5.0 rpg and 4.1 apg while shooting 43.6% from three. Along with that Brad has spearheaded the development of Brown and Tatum as they play as if they’ve been in the league far beyond their years. He has also successfully integrated Greg Monroe into the lineup and has brought out some of the best in his game that has been seen in some time. My case for Stevens revolves around getting the most out of his players. In comparison to other coaches in the running for this award like Dwane Casey, Terry Stotts, Quin Snyder, Mike D’Antoni, Nate McMillan, and Brett Brown; Brad has done more with much less as none of these coaches have had the kind of injury trouble the Celtics have.
Coach Stevens also instills a never give up attitude in all of his players and they all have bought in fully. In a league where in the regular season if you’re down big you usually give up, Brad has guided this team to 9 wins where they were down 13 or more points. They also have a 6-3 record against the other top five teams in the league (Houston, Golden State, Toronto, and Portland) and the second best points against per game at 100.1. This attitude and ability to get the most out of his players isn’t new for Stevens as guys like Thomas, Crowder, Avery Bradley, Evan Turner, etc. have all thrived in Boston like they had nowhere else.
Lastly, Stevens draws up some of the best plays in the NBA and is considered one of the best X and O coaches this league has. He has fully brought out what it means to play Celtic basketball. If the Celtics can do the impossible and beat out the Raptors for the 1 seed the award will most certainly go to Stevens. Even if they do not accomplish this feat Stevens has done so much, checked all of the boxes with so little, and is a frontrunner for the NBA’s Coach of the Year.