Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Brad Stevens has built Boston Celtics team capable of winning multiple NBA Finals

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DALLAS — ESPN NBA analyst Bob Myers asked a question to the other on-air panelists.

Who is the MVP of the NBA Finals so far in the Dallas MavericksBoston Celtics series?

“Jaylen Brown,” studio host Malika Andrews answered.

Knicks guard and guest analyst Josh Hart said Brown.

“Jrue Holiday,” Michael Wilbon said.

It was a trick question, a set up by Myers, the former Golden State front-office executive, to recognize one of the most important people involved in the Finals.

Myers’ MVP? Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens.

Now, the award will go to a player, but Myers’ point should not be overlooked. Stevens deserves immense credit for building a Celtics team that can win a championship now and possibly more in the next few seasons.

Largely quiet and away from the hullabaloo that are the Finals, Stevens doesn’t want attention on him. He said as much when he was named the NBA’s 2023-24 executive of the year in late April.

“This recognition has everything to do with the team, and nothing to do with any one individual,” he said in a statement. “Great teams require that everyone in the building is fully committed to each other and moving in one direction.”

Since leaving the bench as Boston’s head coach for the front office in 2021, Stevens has tinkered with the roster, making moves for this season that have given the Celtics their best team during the Jaylen BrownJayson Tatum era and their best chance to win their first title since 2008.

Stevens’ acquisitions (Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday) before the 2023-24 season are two major reasons why the Celtics won a league-best 64 games during the regular season, had the No. 1 offense and No. 2 defense, and reached the NBA Finals where they have a 2-0 lead against the Mavericks.

Porzingis, who Boston acquired from Washington in a three-team trade a year ago, had 20 points, six rebounds and three blocks in Game 1, and Holiday, for whom Boston traded just before the start of the season, had a team-high 26 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, one block and one steal in Game 2. They have made the Celtics more versatile offensively and defensively, limiting what opponents can do.

To get Porzingis, Stevens made difficult decisions, sending longtime Celtics guard Marcus Smart to Memphis. As the summer turned to autumn, it looked like the Celtics were done making moves until possibly the February trade deadline.

However, when Milwaukee traded Jrue Holiday to Portland in the Damian Lillard deal, and the Blazers had no intention of keeping Holiday, Stevens went to work. If A doesn’t happen, then B doesn’t happen. But when A happened − the Bucks traded for Lillard − the Celtics were prepared for B – acquiring Holiday.

“When I first got traded here, he was obviously one of the first people that I talked to, and I just think (of) his positive nature,” Holiday said. “He’s kind of this kind soul, somebody who has great energy about him. So every time that I talk to him and every time I see him, he’s always been encouraging. This has been from the beginning. It’s always nice to have somebody like that have your back and, again, somebody like that in your corner in your organization.”

Stevens also traded Kemba Walker to Oklahoma City to get Al Horford back in Boston, and the 17-year veteran remains a positive force on the court and in the locker room, and acquiring Derrick White from San Antonio at the 2022 trade deadline is another move that has given the Celtics offensive and defensive options that most teams don’t have.

While the Brown and Tatum picks were Danny Ainge’s front office moves, Stevens’ influence on the roster is why Boston is just two wins from breaking a tie with the Los Angeles Lakers for most titles in the league history.

It was a stunner when Stevens decided to leave the bench. But it’s not like Stevens hasn’t pulled a surprise before. He had been a successful coach at Butler for six seasons, including consecutive Final Four trips in 2010 and 2011 before abruptly leaving college basketball for the Celtics in 2013. In eight seasons as Boston’s coach, he compiled a 354-282 record and had a 38-40 playoff record, reaching the Eastern Conference finals three times.

But the grind of the regular season wore on Stevens, and Stevens suggested players needed a new voice. When Ainge decided to leave the Celtics, Stevens became the perfect replacement.

Two years ago, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck said of Stevens, “He’s such an insightful person. It come out in his coaching, but it just comes out in his analysis of the game day in and day out. … Brad’s fingerprints and DNA are on this team right now in terms of putting it together and helping Danny. … This is a role Brad has been preparing for his whole life.”

Said Jaylen Brown: “Just happy for him. His schedule has been able to settle down, probably putting a little bit less stress on him than we did when he was coaching us.

“Brad has been great since he’s been a part of the Boston organization. He’s helped bring this organization back in terms of winning. He’s now been able to move into that GM position and put the right pieces together to get us back to the Finals.”

There have been setbacks. The Celtics lost to Golden State in the 2022 Finals after taking a 2-1 series lead, and then-Celtics coach Ime Udoka was suspended indefinitely just before the start of the 2022-23 season for “violations of team policy.”

Stevens made Joe Mazzulla the interim head coach and then the permanent head coach. Boston lost to Miami in last season’s Eastern Conference finals. Mazzulla grew as a coach, and Stevens gave him a better roster this season.

“I’ve always had a lot of respect for how he went about coaching, how he kept family balance No. 1, how he treated people No. 1,” Mazzulla said. “That was always more important than whether there was a success or a failure. He spearheads the leadership, the temperature of the building, just as everybody else does.”

The Celtics still need two victories to capture their 18th championship, but Stevens also has positioned the Celtics to compete for championships in the next several seasons.

Brown is under contract through 2028-29, Holiday signed an extension in April that keeps him a Celtic through at least 2026-27, Porzingis’ contract is up after 2025-26 and Payton Pritchard’s deal is good through 2027-28.

There are contract situations involving Tatum and White that need to be addressed but it’s possible and even likely the Celtics reach extensions with both players, including a deal that will make Tatum one of the highest-paid players in the league.

If Boston wins the title this season, Brown, Holiday and Tatum are potential Finals MVP picks.

Stevens operates behind the scenes. You don’t see him often at playoffs games except from the suite in which we watches the game.

But Myers is right. Stevens is an MVP, too

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