LOS ANGELES -- In the days before the All-Star break, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked if his team's recent success could be traced in part to roster continuity. Stevens chuckled at the suggestion, but later admitted that three weeks without a roster move might truly have represented a lengthy period of time for a team that's seen its player swap uniforms more frequently than famed halftime act, Quick Change.
The Celtics have employed a staggering 40 players since the formal start of the 2014-15 season. You could fill three NBA teams (or maybe two NBA teams and a D-League squad) with players that have been on the roster.
Just look at the list of players that are gone but not forgotten (in alphabetical order): Joel Anthony, Chris Babb, Keith Bogans, Will Bynum, Andre Dawkins, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Jarrell Eddie, Vitor Faverani, Tim Frazier, Jeff Green, Kris Humphries, Chris Johnson, John Lucas III, Rodney McGruder, Erik Murphy, Jameer Nelson, Dwight Powell, Tayshaun Prince, Austin Rivers, Nate Robinson, Rajon Rondo, Malcolm Thomas, Marcus Thornton, Christian Watford, and Brandan Wright.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and his staff have executed 11 trades involving 25 players since early July, all with the ultimate goal of accelerating Boston's return to contender status. Stevens expected change when he signed a six-year deal to become Boston's coach in July 2013. But, well, even he probably didn't anticipate this much change.
The 38-year-old coach hasn't masked the frustrations of the rebuilding process, particularly his team's struggles with consistency in the 134 games since he's taken the helm (Boston is 45-89 in that span). And while Stevens fully understands what the team is building towards, it doesn't make the constant state of flux any easier to endure in the moment.
Which is why there seemed to be a touch of glumness in Stevens' voice as he met with reporters in the hours immediately following Thursday's trade deadline, only made more noticeable because it was in stark contrast to the disposition of a fan base that was largely energized by the team's last-minute move to secure offensive spark plug Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns.
It's not that Stevens was disappointed by the Thomas acquisition, or the other buzzer-beating swap that delivered Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome from the Detroit Pistons. But with his team playing some of its most inspired ball of the season recently, Stevens had voiced a desire for minimal change at the deadline. Not only did the team engage in two trades involving five players, but Boston endured an unexpected stomach-punch when it found out Jared Sullinger has a stress reaction in his left foot and is out indefinitely.
Now instead of being laser focused on a playoff push in the second half, Stevens and his coaches must rearrange lineups and rotations, get newcomers up to speed as quickly as possible, and tweak a playbook to account for the absence of what was maybe their most talented remaining two-way player.
"We've been in a pretty consistent state of change, for the better part of the past  months," said Stevens. "So that’s just something that we have to deal with and we have to make sure that we do the best job that we can whenever we have change, and acclimating at the appropriate pace and speed."
Added Stevens: "The constant change, it’s certainly a challenge. But it was anticipated, too,  months ago when I took the job. I didn’t know it would be quite this much, or quite this consistent. I certainly thought there would be change. Hey, and I told the guys this [Thursday], it’s the one thing that is hard for me coming from college, where you know that guys are going to be with you for four years and you get attached to guys and you want to see guys have success. You want to see your guys, the guys in the [locker] room, have success."
Now, despite being in only his second season on the job, it feels like Stevens is shaking hands with a former player before every game. That's great for NBA networking, but less than ideal for building the continuity and chemistry that Stevens believes is so important for a team's overall success. Stevens routinely refers to teams like the San Antonio Spurs that have built a sustained championship contender in large part because they've kept the core of the team intact and developed around that nucleus. He gushes about the Atlanta Hawks and the continuity they have displayed on the court this season.
Stevens craves that. Instead, his Celtics dealt away their two most talented individual players by early January, moving Rondo to Dallas and Green to Memphis. Of the 18 players received via trade this season, only six remain with the team (and you can make the case that maybe half that amount will be here in future seasons).
Unfazed, Boston has managed to linger in the playoff hunt thanks to a head-shaking Eastern Conference, but all the moving parts certainly haven't aided that cause. Stevens noted how his team has struggled in the initial aftermath of its biggest moves. Boston went 1-4 after trading Rondo in mid-December, then went 1-5 in a stretch in which it made four trades in five league business days, including sending out Green and Wright in early January. On Friday night in Sacramento, a shorthanded Boston squad fell to the Kings to start a three-game road trip out west following the deadline.
The Celtics were hoping to get some reinforcements on Saturday with Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome set to meet the team in Los Angeles. Thomas, who had gone to Boston Friday for paperwork and a physical, could join the team before Sunday's game against the rival Los Angeles Lakers as well.
The Celtics elected to take Saturday off as a team, but that's a relative term for the coaching staff. Stevens and his assistants were planning to sit down with the team's latest trade acquisitions and start another crash course in a Boston playbook that doesn't look as familiar as it did even a month ago.
Stevens has chuckled each time he's been asked about his excitement that the trade deadline has passed. He'd like you to remember that a third of Boston's current roster didn't arrive until the start of new calendar year; that 24-year-old Avery Bradley, now in his fifth season, is the longest tenured member of a team that's average age isn't much beyond that of some teams Stevens coached at Butler.
During his weekly call to Boston sports radio 98.5 the Sports Hub on Friday, Stevens was asked if he could embrace more "permanence" with the roster now. He laughed again.
"The one thing that I have learned is I'm not going to talk about permanence until we stop changing our team every three weeks," said Stevens. "It's funny, someone asked me last week before we played Atlanta, 'Are you really excited about the fact that you've had your team together for an extended amount of time.' But I understood what they were saying, we were starting to play better, starting to play like were a little bit more connected.
"It’s hard to get guys to play connected. This game is such a game of intuition, spacing -- it's hard just to throw guys into the mix. There will be a transition period when our new guys arrive, without question. And part of this transition period for us is going to be because we're going to be without Sully. That's going to be a factor for us and we're going to have to tweak and change some things. Because when I go through our offensive playbook that I watch as we need to add newcomers, a lot of the clips end in Sullinger or Olynyk, who is still out, or Jeff Green, or Marcus Thornton. Those guys are all making the shots at the end of those clips, so we've got some work to do to fill some of these holes."
Stevens and the Celtics have said only that Sullinger will miss an indefinite amount of time. It's worth noting that Paul Pierce missed 51 days with a stress reaction in his foot during the 2006-07 season. There are only 54 days remaining in the 2014-15 regular season, which would seem to suggest that, if the team proceeds cautiously with Sullinger, he might have played his final game of the season (though the team was planning more tests this week before determining a timeline).
Through it all, Stevens has raved about the diligence of his players and assistants that have endured all the change. He raves about the tangible progress Boston's young core is making, while making sure to note how smitten he is with the way the team has embraced good practice habits to aid that development.
Stevens sighs when noting that the Celtics don't have more than a day off between games while playing 26 tilts over a 44-day span to start the second half. The team's newest faces will have to learn on the fly, but if Stevens has learned anything throughout this process, it's how to integrate guys amid the in-season grind.
Stevens knows the Celtics are moving closer to that brighter future and can eliminate the need for constant change with the right moves this summer. Stevens looks forward to a time when he can measure roster continuity in seasons instead of months.