Souza: Brad Stevens Stumbles Back To Proving Ground As Celtics Coach

It’s where the coach finds himself with a young roster, no superstar, and – for the first time – a failing grade on his coaching report card.

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BOSTON – Brad Stevens arrived in Boston in the wake of the storm from Draft Night 2013. On June 27 six years ago, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge stood in the team’s business offices on Nashua Street ready to talk about the drafting of Kelly Olynyk with the awkward juxtaposition of holding court directly in front of a poster of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce – who by then were all gone after the great roster purge agreed to hours before. Six days later, Stevens was officially hired to collect the ashes from the final flickering embers of an NBA Finals contender.

Things only got better for the young coach from there as the Celtics survived the upheaval of a revolving roster for 18 months before one surprise playoff run, a postseason return the next year, and back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference finals. Then this year, just as Stevens appeared to be getting his first legitimate chance to play for the championship balloons that eluded him at Butler University, it all came crashing down around him in a humbling heap of wasted opportunity.

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As Stevens sat in front of the media Thursday night ready to talk about the drafting of first-round picks Romeo Langford and Grant Williams, he looked into a future in Boston that is almost every bit as clouded and potentially intimidating as the one he inherited six years ago when he stepped off a plane from Indianapolis having a pair of Celtics future Hall of Famers pass him gently in the night less than a week earlier.

“It’s been pretty well-documented how this year went,” Stevens said just minutes after news came down that Aron Baynes would be joining Al Horford and Kyrie Irving as veterans from last season’s conference semifinal dismissal headed out the door this summer, by all accounts. “And how, in the moment, it was real disappointment. And it was hard. It was something that we all would say we’re disappointed by.

“If I take a step back and look at it from a big picture standpoint, and say: ‘OK, the last three years we’ve been to a couple of conference finals and the second round,’ it wouldn’t feel as bad. But, obviously, the way this particular year went, it didn’t feel good.”

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Stevens tried his best to strike an optimistic tone amid the mass defections. He talked about everything in life being an opportunity. He credited Ainge and the front office for putting the franchise in a solid position moving forward for the apparent rebuild. He said he feels good about the team’s foundation and ability to learn from the lessons of this year’s debacle.

But even Coach Be the Best Version of Ourselves conceded that the optics around the Auerbach Center are not good.

“We are optimistic and positive as we look toward the future,” he said. “That’s been the whole vibe in the building. I certainly understand why it may not be on the outside.”

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Ainge tried his best to temper the mounting pessimism when he finally spoke to the media at nearly 1 a.m. He mentioned the handful of players who seem most assured of returning next season – Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Robert Williams – and added that believes Terry Rozier (and presumably Marcus Smart as well) was out there working hard somewhere.

Beyond that, it was about 12 minutes of one big: “We shall see.”

“We have no clarity in who we are getting yet, right?” he said. “We can’t talk to free agents until July 1. So we have a long list of bigs. We’ll make a priority list and go from there.

“We’re prepared for this. We knew before coming into July this was very possible.”

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Stevens would not discuss the reported impending trade of Baynes, other than to say that everyone there knew how he feels about the Australian rock of a role player, and it was made clear the coach would not address the Irving and Horford situations before the press conference.

But he conceded the gravity of the crossroads he now faces in his coaching career. It’s a crossroads he probably hoped he sped away from for good following his first year in the NBA six years ago. Yet, It’s where the coach finds himself with a young roster, no superstar and – for the first time – a failing grade on his coaching report card.

“Sometimes when you go through steps you go through each part of the year and say: ‘What could all of us have done differently? What could I have done differently?’” he said. “I’ve thoroughly vetted myself, and thoroughly vetted what I think we could have done better.

“That said, the competition is great. The teams that were ahead of us at the end of the year deserved to be. They were better than us. So our task, and our goal, is to get better.”