Celtics build tradition in an untraditional way

Celtics build tradition in an untraditional way
July 5, 2013, 4:00 pm
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Boston is a city rich in tradition, and there are few traditions that run deeper than that of the Celtics. On Friday afternoon in Waltham, the team took what they believe to be an enormous step towards ensuring that tradition will continue to flourish with the hiring of Brad Stevens as the 17th coach in franchise history.

One day, maybe five or 10 years from now, you’ll do a Google search for “Celtics hire Brad Stevens” and find a long list of stories like this one. An endless string of columns announcing the dawn of a new era of Celtics basketball, filled with quotes from Danny Ainge, Wyc Grousbeck and Stevens himself, speaking only in the best case scenario, and all supremely confident that this is the hire that will return the Celtics to greatness.

Or maybe you’ve never played the “NBA Team X hires Coach Y” Google search game?

If not, I recommend it. Maybe one day when you’re really bored. It’s like a basketball warp zone; a window back into brief moments in time when even the league’s saddest franchises had promise, when every coaching hire was a preemptive success, and some of those which didn’t ultimately pan out are forever immortalized in retrospective hilarity.

For instance, here’s Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak at a press conference back in 2011: “What Mike Brown brings to the table is unique in that he's a proven winner in this league and yet also a rising star in his profession. After an extensive and thorough search to find the right person to help carry on our championship legacy, we feel that Mike is poised and ready to do so.”

Here’s former Minnesota GM David Kahn in 2009: “I'm pleased to announce that we've reached an agreement in principle with Kurt Rambis to be our new head coach. The search was extensive and thorough, and I'm completely confident that Kurt is the right man to help us develop into a championship-caliber team.”

And the list goes. More often than not, the quotes and coverage from any new coaches first meet and greet with the media end up reading like a preview of the Titanic’s maiden voyage.

But for every handful of punch lines, there’s a press conference that actually delivers on what it promises, and forever resides in Googledom as a badge of franchise honor, and a turning point in a given team’s history:

“As soon as Jim O'Brien left, I started contemplating what we might do for our future," Danny Ainge said in April of 2004, "and Doc was someone I thought of right away. This is the guy that we wanted to be our head coach. That's why the search was so fast and short."

Stuff like that.

Today, we can’t be sure how Brad Stevens’ press conference will look five or 10 years down the road. In the NBA, in any sport, you never know until you're there. Over the next however many seasons, there will be so many twist and turns that are beyond Stevens’ control. Injuries, bounces of a single ping pong ball, personnel decisions in which he won’t have the final say. As Ainge said on Friday afternoon, “Brad’s success will be determined a lot by what we do. What I do to support him and what ownership does to support us.”

But for all we don’t know, here’s something that we do: In their attempt to keep tradition alive, the Celtics didn’t let tradition get in the way. While this hire was made with hopes of one day reliving past greatness, the decision itself is all about the future. Not just the future of the Celtics, but of basketball in general.

The truth is that there’s a revolution going right now in the NBA. In the same way that Moneyball took over baseball a little more than a decade ago, analytics are rapidly changing the way people look at basketball. They already have. In the meantime, while for the past few years, the Celtics have had a more traditional (Read: old) look and feel out on the court, behind the scenes they’ve been on the cutting edge of the analytics movement. And whether or not Stevens ultimately succeeds in Boston, his hiring is another incredibly bold statement by the franchise.

They won’t be left behind. They’re not interested in just adapting to the changing face of the NBA; they want to push the envelope.

While many folks around the league and casual basketball fans around the world have characterized the move as a “risk,” the team doesn’t see it that way. In Stevens, they see genuine human being, a master communicator, a family man and one hell of a coach. “He’s a true Celtic,” co-owner Steve Pagliuca said, “and embodies Celtic way from get go.” But right up there with the rest of those redeeming qualities, the team has found a new school personality who not only understands the changing face of the game, but believes in it; in a way like an older school coach like Doc Rivers never did and probably never will.

“We felt it was a group that looked at world as we do,” Stevens said of the Celtics. “Goal is to win championship. Takes process to get there.”

“He talks a lot about the process,” Ainge said of his new coach, “how he’s process-driven, and I’m the same way. I teach my children those same principles that you work and you work and you practice and you visualize and you go through. There’s no shortcut to success, and the results take care of themselves. It’s an opportunity. There’s no guarantee, and this is the same way.”

That process will rely heavily (although certainly not entirely) on analytics. It will be rooted in a belief in the right way to do things, even if those things don’t bear immediate results. And the process won’t be easy. But it’s a process that everyone in the Celtics organization is now committed to. It will create a sense of harmony between the coach and front office that rarely exists in today’s game.

And it leaves the Celtics in promising place, as they continue to build on tradition while boldly breaking free of it.

Check back in five to 10 years, and I’ll let you know how it all worked out.