BOSTON — On the day that he was formally introduced as the 17th head coach of the Boston Celtics, Brad Stevens huddled with reporters to talk about the challenges ahead of him.
“Just generally, the fluidity of roster changes in the pros is much different than in college,” Stevens said back in 2013, unaware of just how prescient he was in that moment. “Certainly that will be something that will be an adjustment. Again, the whole thing is getting the right people on the bus.”
For two seasons, Stevens and the Celtics endured perpetual fluidity. The 2014-15 season alone saw the Celtics complete 11 trades and carry 41 total roster players. But by February, Stevens found a team that — while void of a surefire superstar — had the demeanor of a squad he could build with. The Celtics closed out the season winning 24 of their final 36 regular-season games and made a surprising surge to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
With 10 players back from that team and having added veteran reinforcements David Lee and Amir Johnson to help guide a young squad, the Celtics will now attempt to answer the question that has lingered for the past six months: Was the end of last season a mirage or a sign of a team climbing its way back to contender status?
On the eve of his third season on the Celtics’ bench, Stevens reflected Tuesday on whether this is where he thought his team would be at this point.
“We knew that there was going to be a lot of change. And I think it was harder to create a sense of team when you are [trying] to find some continuity and stability,” Stevens said. “And when you have a sense of team, then you can deal with the down days a little bit easier. You can move onto the next thing a little bit better. And that’s just human nature. And that’s not unfair or it’s not something that I blame on anybody at all because the reality was we were making changes.
“Finally, after the All-Star break last year, you felt like, ‘Hey, this might be a group that’s around for a little bit longer. At least the majority of them will be around for a little bit longer.’ At that point in time, we really started putting pictures up. We started talking more about it as a group. I think there’s been more — these guys are just excited to be here. And they’re young. I think they’re excited to contribute and certainly contribute to an organization like this.”
Yes, driver Stevens finally has all his guys on the bus. The team has a prime seat reserved for any legitimate superstar Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge might be able to snag along the ride, but after two seasons of drops-offs and pick-ups, you get the sense this bus just turned onto the freeway and it’s time to hit the open road.
The burden of expectations
The Celtics are carrying some extra cargo this season, but nothing that weighs more than the burden of expectations. Coming off a 40-42 season, it’s almost universally believed that Boston will take a step forward this season. These Celtics are the darlings of computerized projections, with FiveThirtyEight’s new CARMELO projection system forecasting that Boston could win 49 games and snag the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
Stevens, maybe because of the fluidity of his roster, never allows himself to linger on the big picture. His focus has always been on the next game, the next practice, the next film session.
“My focus is on how we’re doing today and how we’re going to be tomorrow and what we need to do to be better tomorrow than today,” Stevens said. “So I’ll leave the how much we’ve improved, from a win-loss standpoint, up to what happens. And I think just focusing on the things we can control, being who we are, staying even-keeled through ups and downs, I think that’s all we can do.
“We’ve made a great deal of progress, and I look at it more probably holistically in the last two years. Just as far as we have a lot of guys that are really hungry. We have a lot of guys that are different skill sets. We still have a lot of guys that are very equal in a lot of ways as far as what they can bring to the table — different, but from an impact point, equal. But we just have a lot of guys that are really committed to being Celtics and being good.”
For their part, Celtics players still fancy themselves as underdogs — or maybe they’re still learning how to play with a target on their back.
Lee, who knows all about rapidly rising expectations during his run with the Golden State Warriors, who morphed from a 23-win lottery team to a 67-win title-winning squad in a four-year span, knows things won’t come easy for the Celtics.
“There’s going to be teams that overachieve and underachieve every year, and the goal is to be one of those teams that overachieves and gets the most out of what they’re capable of,” Lee said. “And let’s hope, through hard work this year, we can be one of those teams.”
Don’t get too attached
Stevens is excited about Boston’s continuity and believes the Celtics are building what he often dubs “corporate knowledge” that will aid them at times throughout the season. But in the NBA, history suggests it takes star power to truly compete for championships. And Boston’s front office — armed with a war chest of draft picks, intriguing young talent and tradeable contracts — will be monitoring all potential trades that could push Boston to another level.
“I expect, right now, that we’re competitive, hard-nosed and unselfish. It’s basically Celtics Pride,” Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck said when asked about his expectations for this season’s team. “But we’re not going to say we’re contending — we’re not contending at the moment. But we’re taking another step forward and we’ll be alert to a major trade whenever we can do it.”
The Celtics know that a deal might not materialize, and they are OK with that as well. Boston is hopeful some of its younger talent — guys like Marcus Smart and Isaiah Thomas, the player who really pushed Boston into overdrive in the second half last season — can continue to develop into All-Star-caliber players. What’s more, Boston could have three first-round picks next year, including two potential lottery picks in those that belong to the Brooklyn Nets (unprotected) and Dallas Mavericks (top-seven protected).
Ainge has pledged to maintain a draft-and-development strategy but knows there will likely be a point where he’ll cash in all those chips. Until that time arrives, the Celtics are intrigued to see what a deep and balanced roster can do. Stevens thinks Boston’s depth could be a real weapon, particularly in a league where even elite teams tend to be top heavy with talent.
The Celtics have already spit in the eye of the typical rebuilding process by dispelling the notion that you have to hit rock bottom to build back up. Celtics players like Avery Bradley have wondered out loud why these Celtics can’t compete for a title, believing there’s enough overall talent here to help Boston exceed even the loftiest of expectations.