SAN FRANCISCO — A year ago, Boston Celtics owners Wyke Grossbeck and Steve Pagliuca made a bold move: They made their successful coach rookie A rookie coach took his place.
On June 2, 2021, the day the move to promote Brad Stevens was formalized, someone on the podium was told that just 365 days later, the Celtics would be No. 1 in the 2022 NBA Finals. With a 120-108 win over the Golden State Warriors in that game, they’ll find it hard to believe. That includes retired team president Danny Ainge, who built the backbone of a team that is now just three wins away from a championship.
Stevens, the former Celtics coach turned executive, has moved both sublime and sensational since accepting the shock promotion.
The Celtics had a five-month rally that gave them their first title in 14 years for a number of reasons, but Stevens’ many moves over the past year have provided immediate and overwhelming returns.
• He hired Ime Udoka as his replacement, betting on the longtime assistant coach’s history of learning under San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, and then an assistant coach in Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Udoka combines tough love with his ability to build resilience, which is exactly what this group of young players needs. More importantly, Udoka came into the team in a way that Stevens didn’t and unlocked the Celtics’ potential.
Udoka’s replacement for Stevens isn’t exactly Bill Russell’s replacement for Red Auerbach, and neither of their jobs is fair. Stevens’ hiring of his successor was a gamble.
“It’s a different situation, and a lot of people might not think it’s appealing, but I think it’s just a benefit to have a guy who’s coached in the building for seven or eight years with the same guy in the hall,” Uganda said. Doka said how things fell into place.
“We talk about every situation [Stevens has] experienced and supported him in this regard. But also step back and let me do my thing. In a unique situation, this year will certainly help. “
• Stevens traded guard Kemba Walker for center Al Horford. This is the first step in determining how things will be different in Boston. The Celtics admitted it was a mistake to sign Walker to a four-year max contract in 2019, and having Horford walking to the Philadelphia 76ers that offseason hurt the team.
Stevens sent a first-round pick last year, the No. 16 pick, to complete the deal. It wouldn’t be a typical Ainge move, as he prefers to hoard draft picks for player development or as bait for chasing stars. It’s not that Ainge’s process is flawed; the entire core of the team is the players he’s drafted, and they’ve paid off. But at this point, Horford is a 35-year-old role player, but Stevens is putting him at the top of the list — a complete departure from the team’s typical priorities.
The move proved to be a major advantage, both mid-season and in the playoffs. Horford has been a hero on several occasions this postseason, including his 26-point performance on Thursday.
• Stevens signed center Robert Williams III to a four-year extension worth $48 million (some bonuses could make it worth as much as $54 million). The deal was considered a bit far-fetched at the time, as Williams has been plagued by injuries and has shown limited play in the first three years of his career.
Within weeks, Williams had earned the team’s trust as one of the league’s defensive difference-makers, earning a spot on the All-Defensive Team. He has been battling injuries this postseason and was instrumental in the Game 1 victory, blocking four shots and posing a high-hanging threat around the rim.
• At the first trade deadline in February, Stevens made an aggressive move to trade a first-round pick and a future Spurs pick for Derrick White. Like Horford, Stevens defied the rules Ainge established by investing future draft assets in role players.
But White, who signed a reasonable long-term deal worth $17 million a year and is known for his offensive versatility and great defender, proved to be an ideal fit. Combined with the trade-off of Dennis Schroder’s option — the offseason signing didn’t work out for Stevens, but he quickly dealt with a blunder — a move that left Marcus Smart Be the primary point guard for the Celtics while providing a perfect combination off the bench.
“It’s about adding players that you think and can see playing in a seven-knockout, drag-out playoff series,” Stevens said after acquiring White. “And you know they can be on the field and help. You play a role in winning.”
White has been a significant contributor over the past two rounds, and had a solid Finals debut with 21 points and five 3-pointers.
Add it all together and it’s a masterpiece for the Celtics in their first year under rookie president and rookie coach. Stevens finished sixth in the Executive of the Year vote, well behind Memphis Grizzlies winner Zach Kleiman. But it’s an imperfect award, and the real work doesn’t usually appear in a single-season cycle. It can often turn into an 18-month reward, which is the case with Kleiman.
Honor doesn’t matter at this point. The ultimate hardware approach. Stevens’ contact made this possible.
And it’s fast.