Brad Stevens' coaching job can't be ignored

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BOSTON -- One general manager ranked Brad Stevens third among NBA coaches, just behind five-time champion Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle. Another said the Boston Celtics' second-year coach isn't quite that high but has already cracked the top 10 -- and is climbing.

It's hard to argue against ranking Stevens in the top half of the league's coaches, despite the fact that the 38-year-old has coached fewer than 170 NBA games and fewer than 400 overall games in his career.

NBA executives will seldom praise another team's coach on the record. But behind the scenes, a large number of decision-makers around the league are raving about Stevens.

"What he's done with that group this season, to get them into the playoffs and compete with Cleveland in the first three games, is awfully impressive," a high-ranking executive said. "Just think of what he'll do if he can get some actual high-level talent."

"He completely outcoached [Cavaliers coach] David Blatt in that series," another exec added.

"Incredible," said Cavaliers 15-year NBA veteran Mike Miller of what Stevens has accomplished with this young and unproven Celtics group.

Stevens has a group of decent NBA players. He doesn't have a rim protector, and there's no knockdown shooter and certainly no All-Star on the roster. There's minimal disparity between the team's top guy, whoever that might be, and the eighth or ninth man in the rotation.

When Celtics GM Danny Ainge jettisoned Rajon Rondo to Dallas back in mid-December and sent Jeff Green to Memphis about a month later, the prevailing thought among just about every NBA type was that the Celtics would be headed to the NBA lottery.

But Stevens managed to get the Celtics to finish the season as hot as just about anyone in the Eastern Conference, with Boston going 20-11 after the All-Star break, concluding the regular season just two games under the .500 mark to earn the seventh seed in the playoffs.

What are the primary reasons for his success?

"He's the consummate teacher," one general manager said. "He has great sideline poise."

"He's like a poker player," added Cavs forward Tristan Thompson. "He's so calm."

Stevens rarely shows emotion. Almost always, he stands with his arms crossed or his hands in his pockets. Those who have played for him, in college or in the NBA, maintain he hardly ever uses profanities and never shows up players. According to his players, his calm demeanor often rubs off on them and it exudes confidence.

"No ego," another NBA exec added.

"He treats players with respect," another said. "And seems to empower them."

Tactically, it's difficult to question what he's done. He was regarded as a wunderkind in his days at Butler, and has already earned the respect of coaches, executives and players in the league for his combination of preparation and insightfulness.

"He takes chances to be different," one NBA assistant said of Stevens. "Tactically, he's in the top half of the league for sure."

"Most coaches in the league know about the things to take advantage of when playing another team, but few ever do it," another coach added. "He makes you pay. He identifies the weaknesses and puts his guys in position to take advantage over and over. I think players respect that because once they see whatever you says works, they'll do whatever he says."

Stevens is the entire package, and that's what could, in time, ultimately move him into the elite group among NBA coaches.

"His ability to understand the game, to predict what they are going to do and be able to set us up for actions," said Celtics big man Tyler Zeller. "What's going to work and what's not going to work -- especially down the stretch. About 90 percent of the time he's spot-on."

Stevens is a numbers guy who heavily utilizes analytics. However, Zeller said that Stevens and his staff do a good job providing the necessary information to the players without overwhelming them.

"He tells us the pertinent information, but not too much to overload us," Zeller said.

Despite his success in the college ranks, taking Butler to consecutive national title games, and overachieving with 40 victories this season in Boston, questions remain about the boy wonder.

"Coaching superstars is very difficult," one NBA assistant coach said. "He had Rondo, and that did not go well."

Then again, "Who can coach him?" is the phrase often repeated by those in the league about Rondo.

The truth is that Stevens, in the duo's fairly brief time together in Boston, handled Rondo as well as just about anyone has -- whether it's Tubby Smith in college, or Doc Rivers or Carlisle in the NBA. Stevens and Rondo didn't have any major issues, and many of the players and coaches in the organization -- also speaking anonymously -- said Rondo did appear to grow to respect Stevens.

"I do think Brad Stevens can coach the highest of the high egos," said one NBA assistant coach.

"I think he can coach anyone," added another NBA executive. "He's just got that demeanor. He knows how to handle people."

Stevens has been a head coach for a total of eight seasons -- six with Butler and the past two with the Celtics. The Celtics weren't the lone organization to come calling two years ago. Sources told ESPN that Stevens spurned two other NBA organizations before ultimately leaving the college ranks.

Midway through this season, when the Celtics held a 22-31 record (following Stevens' 25-57 rookie campaign) while Indiana went into free-fall mode in the middle of Big Ten play, the speculation began.

Would Stevens return to the college ranks at Indiana if the Hoosiers parted ways with coach Tom Crean?

"I think he truly enjoys the NBA and the Celtics," said former Butler point guard and Celtics assistant coach Ronald Nored.

"Will he ever go back to college? Who knows? But at this point I don't see him leaving anytime soon to go back to college."

Nored played four seasons for Stevens, and also lived with him and his family when he first took a job with the Celtics shortly after Stevens was hired. Nored spent this past season with the Celtics before recently being hired as an assistant coach at Northern Kentucky.

"I think he views the game of basketball different in a lot of ways from most other people," Nored said. "He also has the unbelievable ability to get guys to strive to be the best they can be for one another and for him. He does a great job developing relationships and in turn, guys really want to play for him, trust what he tells them and in turn play well for one another.

"He makes basketball fun. He never berates guys, and it isn't ever about himself."

Stevens has gone through two difficult years with the organization. Most of the core players will be back next season, but Ainge is expected to continue to shake up the roster.

"That's one of the most impressive things he did this year," one general manager said of Stevens. "The roster kept changing, but he found a way to keep them focused and together. That's not easy."

The Celtics won't have the lottery pick many anticipated but will have two first-round picks this June. They could have as many as four in the 2016 draft, so Ainge has plenty of chips to use in a potential deal to upgrade the roster.

"[Stevens] has some great qualities and potential," said one NBA assistant GM. "He's likely a top-10 coach, but he needs to get a winning record and make noise in the playoffs. I'm a huge fan."

So far, who isn't?