BOSTON — Look at the Boston Celtics bench as players go through their pregame routine and you see team president Brad Stevens speaking to a player.
Turn your head for a minute and look back, and Stevens is gone – poof, gone, an apparition you’ll see again for a while.
Stevens so prefers to work behind the scenes, trying to improve the roster and not answering questions from meddling media, particularly coaching questions that would in some way – how unintentionally – undermine first-time head coach Ime Udoka.
Working behind the scenes is Steven’s preferred method.
But it’s clear that in his first season as Celtics president of basketball operations, he improved the roster and gave Udoka the autonomy to go his way.
On a long flight Tuesday from San Francisco to Boston for Thursday’s Game 6, I listened back to the Celtics’ press conference from the end of last season announcing Danny Ainge’s departure from the franchise and Steven’s promotion from manager to front office .
I wanted to hear what was said at the time that gave some insight into what happened to the Celtics that season.
From Celtics Owner and Managing Partner Wyc Grousbeck: “Brad and I have spoken and made a commitment that we will win Banner 18 or die trying. … (We) believe that Brad is the person who will move us forward on the basketball side as we pursue this lofty goal.”
Von Ainge: “I think (Brad) was born for this. Indiana kid, basketball junkie, smart, lives the game, has lots of resources and a great team. With Brad’s leadership and organization, as well as his work ethic and intelligence, it’s a great day for the Celtics. That is actually a big step forward.”
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Stevens said a few things that passed as press conference minutia at the time. A year later, there’s a glimpse of the words Stevens spoke.
“I know there’s a lot of hard work involved.”
“I’ve been doing this for eight years. I’ve been in this dressing room with some of these guys for a long time. You’ll be playing for a coach with fresh new perspectives and I think that’s a good thing.”
“I am not the story.”
Stevens recognized the roster deficiencies of a team that finished 36-36 and lost in the first round last season. In several ways, Stevens had to make sure he gave Udoka a better squad than he had.
The second comment is interesting. Without saying it outright, perhaps Stevens realized that someone else’s voice and methods would come through better.
After all, Stevens doesn’t want the attention. Aside from commitments to Celtics television and radio stations, he does not give many interviews.
Udoka acknowledged early in the final that it’s a unique situation where the former coaching job is now his boss.
“It was great with him,” said Udoka. “Another situation that a lot of people might not find attractive, but I think it’s just an advantage to have a guy who’s been coached in the building for seven, eight years, with the same guys on the other side. Talk about every situation he’s been through and support him through it. But also step back and let me do my thing. I think it was just an added benefit and in a unique situation it certainly helped this year.”
After the interview process, Stevens and Grousbeck concluded that Udoka was the right coach.
“Of course you’re talking about the expectations and the standard of the organization, but really basketball philosophy and where we wanted to go as an organization and how I thought about the game on both ends, how I dealt with people was a big part of that, and how we did the group could advance,” said Udoka.
“So very natural in the interview process, the original zooms and in person. We got on with Brad right from the start and thought the same way. We obviously felt comfortable and there were some perks to working with someone who felt the same way.”
While Stevens improved the roster and made more of Udoka, don’t forget that Stevens and his past associates are partially responsible for the development of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, Robert Williams and Payton Pritchard. And Ainge is responsible for designing these players.
Stevens jumped right into the role when it came to coaching, and Stevens traded for Al Horford in the off-season. At the close, he acquired Derrick White of San Antonio. Horford and White were key to Boston’s run to the Finals.
“I think he’s done a phenomenal job as a GM,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “The moves he made this year in adding Horford and Derrick White are brilliant.”
Kerr and Stevens formed a friendship before Kerr switched to coaching and when Stevens coached at Butler.
“I actually know Brad pretty well,” Kerr said. “We met when I was in radio and he was with Butler. We ate lunch. He wanted to worry me about the NBA. I wanted to ask him about coaching. I thought about getting into coaching. I had done a few Butler games for CBS.
“And that’s how we’ve built a relationship over the years. Just a lot of respect for him.”
Kerr transitioned from front office to coaching, the opposite of what Stevens did.
“I think he’s someone who has figured out what he wants at this stage in his life,” Kerr said. “That’s something we all have to find out in this business. I could wait until my kids were out of high school to start coaching, and that’s what I wanted to do. And I think he was just the opposite. While he was training, his children were quite young. I know he has a lot more time with them now, which is important to him.
“You just have to figure out your own existence and what you want in it, and I think he did that well.”
There will always be talk of Stevens returning to coaching if he wants to. He’s really good at that too. But also — not to say this is a lifetime calling — the major NBA organizations maintain continuity and stability. Ainge was there for 18 years. Stevens could have this job for a long time.
He’s also unpredictable. His move from Butler to the Celtics was a stunner, as was his move from coach to basketball department president. Stevens is evolving and making decisions accordingly.
Perhaps Steven’s best coaching decision was to leave coaching. At least for now.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brad Stevens’ actions as Celtics president help propel the team to the Finals