Matt Vautour: No-lose situation for Brad Stevens
FILE - In this March 15, 2013 file photo, Butler coach Brad Stevens gives his team instruction during a timeout in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against La Salle at the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament in New York. The Boston Celtics announced Wednesday, July 3, 2013, that Stevens was hired as the team's head coach, replacing Doc Rivers, who was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File) Purchase photo reprints »
Great college coaches make bad NBA coaches.
Some variation of that line has been written, uttered and shouted ad nauseum by would-be experts unwilling to dig a little deeper since the Boston Celtics stunned everyone by hiring Butler coach Brad Stevens Wednesday. Rick Pitino failed. John Calipari failed. Tim Floyd and Mike Montgomery failed. And if they can’t do it, no one can.
It’s an incredibly lazy opinion.
It’s not the difference between the college and pro games on the court that turns geniuses into idiots. It’s the player acquisition structure and the length of the season. A great college coach can devise an approach that will, for one game or even a 30-game season, allow a less athletically gifted team to defeat teams with more talent. It’s why some of the same programs produce NCAA tournament upsets every year, but over a full NBA season, and even more so over a seven-game series, that advantage gets negated. Everyone can scout, everyone can break down video and eventually teams with more talent win.
Great coaching still matters in the NBA. Games between teams with similar ability will still be won by the team with a better planner and motivator holding the clipboard. But college coaches rarely get hired into scenarios where a foundation is already in place. Struggling franchises want to make a splash or win the press conference, so they hire the guy who is smart, good-looking and confident.
They’re usually given too much control over player personnel decisions too, as if being a good college recruiter is preparation enough for managing a roster with salary cap implications. Stevens won’t have that problem with Danny Ainge still pulling the strings.
Stevens’ ability to win with less could actually hurt his long-term professional coaching career. He’s smart enough to devise a system that will win some games early on. The Celtics will beat Philadelphia and Washington a few times and even steal a couple games from New York or New Jersey, but over 82 games talent eventually sorts itself out and the teams with better players win. Does anyone really believe Erik Spoelstra is the next Red Auerbach? With the roster Spoelstra has, he doesn’t have to be. A bad coach can derail talent, but a good one can’t replace it.
If Stevens does win a few games and finishes just inside the playoffs or just inside the lottery, he’ll be lauded for a year and then fired after three when there’s no progress. Winning a little means little chance at acquiring even one franchise player and you need more than one to win in the NBA.
Free agents don’t want to come to Boston. Whether it’s the weather or the city’s history of problematic race relations, the type of player needed to be the cornerstone of a rebuilding process doesn’t choose the Celtics. Star players have to arrive via the draft or trade. If the Celtics aren’t bad enough to pick high, they’ll be stuck in the quicksand of mediocrity that’s hard to get out of.
With a good team, Stevens might be a brilliant hire. He’s a smart coach who is incredibly well-prepared. He’s embraced statistical metrics as well as anyone in the college game. With a good roster, his tenure might have been a referendum on whether those metrics work in the NBA.
But when the wins don’t come regularly, players eventually begin to associate even good coaching with bad results and they start tuning the coach out. If that coach never played or coached in the NBA, the speed of that tune out increases.
It’s not that former college coaches fail with lousy players. It’s that all coaches fail with lousy players. College coaches are just more likely to start their pro careers with them.
This is a no-lose situation for Stevens. If he wins then he’s defied a trend and restored glory to one of professional sports’ most revered franchises. If he loses, he’ll still make enough money that his great grandchildren won’t have to fill out financial aid forms when they’re applying for college. And he’ll be even more in demand if he decides to return to college coaching. Arizona State or Iowa or Georgia will all line up to pay him and recruits will think Stevens’ NBA experience will help him prepare them to get there.
This is a great move for Stevens, but for the Celtics, people forget that the miserable years before Doc Rivers helped put the roster in position to make his recent run successful. There isn’t a coach out there that would make the Celtics a title contender in the next three years. If Boston wants to raise a banner in 2018 or 2019, maybe it should hire M.L. Carr for 2013-14.