BOSTON — Watch the Boston Celtics bench as the players go through their pre-game routine and team president of basketball operations Brad Stevens is seen talking to a player.
Turn your head for a minute and look back, and Stevens is gone – poof, gone, an appearance to be seen again for a while.
Stevens prefers it that way, working behind the scenes, trying to improve the roster and not answering questions from intrusive media, especially training questions that would hurt in any way – even unintentionally – to head coach for the first time Ime Idoka.
Operating behind the scenes is Stevens’ preferred method.
But it’s clear that in his first season as president of Celtics basketball operations, he improved the roster and gave Udoka the autonomy to coach his way.
On a long Tuesday flight from San Francisco to Boston for Thursday’s Game 6, I listened to the Celtics press conference again from the end of last season announcing the departure of Danny Ainge from the franchise and the promotion of Stevens front office coach.
I wanted to hear what was said then that offered some insight into what happened with the Celtics this season.
From Celtics owner and managing partner Wyc Grousbeck: “Brad and I have spoken and committed to each other, we’re going to win the 18 banner or die trying. … (We) believe that Brad is the person who will take us forward on the basketball side as we pursue this lofty goal.
De Ainge: “I think (Brad) was born for this. Indiana kid, basketball addict, smart, lives the game, has lots of resources and great staff. With Brad’s leadership, organization, work ethic and intelligence, it’s a great day for the Celtics. It is even a big step forward.
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Stevens said a few things that, at the time, passed for press conference details. A year later, there is a glimpse of the words spoken by Stevens.
“I know there is a lot of hard work.”
“I’ve been doing this for eight years. I’ve been in that locker room with some of those guys for a long time. They will be able to play for a coach with new perspectives and I think that is a good thing.
“I am not the story.”
Stevens acknowledged the roster shortcomings of a team that finished 36-36 and lost in the first round last season. Through various means, Stevens had to make sure he gave Udoka a better roster than he had.
The second comment is interesting. Without saying it directly, Stevens may have recognized that someone else’s voice and methods might come across better.
Finally, Stevens does not want to attract attention. Aside from his obligations to the Celtics’ television and radio networks, he doesn’t do many interviews.
Udoka acknowledged early in the final that it was a unique situation where the former coach was now his boss.
“With him, it’s been great,” Udoka said. “A different 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 training for seven or eight years in construction with the same guys in the hallway. Talk about all the situations he’s been through and be supportive so far. But also take a step back and let me do my thing. I think that’s just been 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.
“Obviously you talk about the expectations and the level of the organization, but really the philosophy of basketball and where we wanted to go as an organization and the way I thought about the game on both sides, the way I connected with people was a big part of that, and how we could move the band forward,” Udoka said.
“So very natural in the interview process, the original zooms and in person. With Brad, we hit it off right from the start and thought alike. We obviously felt comfortable, and there had advantages working with someone who feels the same way.
While Stevens has improved the roster and Udoka has taken more, remember that Stevens and his previous team are partly responsible for the development of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, Robert Williams and Payton Pritchard . And Ainge is responsible for drafting those players.
Stevens jumped straight into the role with the coaching search, and in the offseason Stevens traded for Al Horford. At the trade deadline, he acquired Derrick White from San Antonio. Horford and White were key in Boston’s run to the Finals.
“I think he’s done a phenomenal job as general manager,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “The moves he’s made this year, adding Horford and Derrick White, brilliant.”
Kerr and Stevens struck up a friendship before Kerr moved into coaching and when Stevens coached at Butler.
“I actually know Brad pretty well,” Kerr said. “We connected when I was in broadcasting, and he was at Butler. We have eaten lunch. He wanted to poke my head about the NBA. I wanted to think about his brain on coaching. I was thinking of getting into coaching. I had done some Butler games for CBS.
“And so we have built a relationship over the years. Just a big respect for him.
Kerr moved from the front office to coaching, the opposite of what Stevens did.
“I think he’s someone who has figured out what he wants at this point in his life,” Kerr said. “That’s what we all have to understand in this business. I was able to wait until my children finished high school, and that’s how I wanted it. And I think he was kind of the opposite. While he was a coach, 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 understand your own existence and what you want in it, and I think he’s done a good job of that.”
We will always talk about Stevens returning to training if he wishes. He’s really good at it too. But also – not to say a lifetime appointment – the big NBA organizations maintain continuity and stability. Ainge had been there for 18 years. Stevens could hold this position for a long time.
He is also unpredictable. His move from Butler to the Celtics was amazing, as was his move from coach to president of basketball operations. Stevens evolves and makes choices accordingly.
Perhaps Stevens’ best training decision was to quit training. At least for now.