PHOENIX — No matter how many last-second losses, disappointing performances and just overall nights of bad basketball there have been this season for the Celtics, Brad Stevens has maintained a relatively upbeat attitude.
Stevens' ability to keep his internal compass pointing toward positivity through what has been a season's worth of rough waters is among the many reasons why Danny Ainge made him his first choice as the Celtics' next head coach when Boston traded Doc Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers for a first-round draft pick.
And it's also one of the reasons why Ainge is more than comfortable shaking up this Celtics roster -- which he is expected to do more of with Thursday's 3 p.m. (EST) trade deadline looming -- in whatever way he feels best is for the franchise. He knows that he has a coach who is mentally prepared to sway in whatever direction the winds of change take him.
When Rivers left for a Clippers head coaching job that also included a decision-making role on personnel matters, he admitted the idea of rebuilding with the Celtics again was among the reasons he was inclined to leave.
Stevens, who is more than two-thirds of the way through his first NBA season, has no such hang-ups. Often he speaks of the process, and how success isn't necessarily measured in wins and losses but individual and collective growth.
"Brad is a very optimistic guy," Ainge told CSNNE.com. "It's not easy when you have inconsistencies. It seems like we come out and have an unbelievable first half and be really locked in, and then sort of have a letdown. Some games it's like we're really not all together. But he's a guy that can see the positive side and really understand the big picture."
And the big picture is this: The Celtics cannot get better until they get worse record-wise.
This upcoming NBA draft is believed to be the most star-studded group since the LeBron James class of 2003. But the deeper you get into the lottery (top-14 picks), the closer you become to drafting the next Wesley Johnson (No. 4 in 2010) instead of Paul George (No. 10 that year) or Joe Alexander (No. 8 in 2008) ahead of Nicolas Batum (No. 25 that year).
But in the midst of securing as many ping-pong balls as possible, the Celtics must still maintain a roster that at the very least remains competitive. Remaining competitive is what separates the Celtics from a lot of other teams on track to not making the playoffs this season.
Boston has 35 losses but only 15 were by double-digits which speaks to them finding ways to hold their own on most nights.
Then there's the Philadelphia 76ers with a similar number of total losses (39), but 29 of those have been by double digits. That includes losing back-to-back games by more than 40 points.
Losing a week's worth of games by a total of 40 points is tough. But to lose twice by that many? Back-to-back?
And as hard as the losing may be on Celtics fans, it's a much tougher pill to swallow as the head coach who is responsible for the product on the floor -- even if we all know he hasn't exactly been given a roster that's expected to win.
That's in part why Ainge has been so impressed with how Stevens has handled the struggles this season, jokingly saying he would give the first-year coach an extension right now.
"Brad and his staff, they work extremely hard, they practice hard, try to bring guys along, teach them the right things," Ainge said. "Winning isn't always the most important thing. Right now, teaching guys how to play and executing."
While there are still plenty of games left on the schedule, a number of Boston's young players have made tremendous strides this season and give the Celtics hope that better days are closer than they appear to be.
Jared Sullinger has emerged as a legit double-double scorer/rebounder for Boston. Kelly Olynyk's all-around play is starting to manifest itself in more consistent performances which includes a pair of double-doubles recently.
Filling in for Rajon Rondo, Phil Pressey has been a decent pass-first backup at the point. Even former 10-day guy Chris Johnson has made strides to the point where he is now a regular in the team's rotation off the bench because of his steady dose of high-energy play.
But the man keeping it all together is Stevens, on track to lose more games this season than he did in six seasons at Butler. To his credit, he hasn't allowed the losing to sour him to the point where it's noticeable by those who matter most: the players.
"He's always real upbeat, real positive with us whether we're winning or losing," Boston's Brandon Bass told CSNNE.com. "When you going through tough times, up and down times like we have this season, having your leader stay positive like that is important."
Sullinger echoed similar sentiments.
"He wants to win," he said. "We all want to win. But we all know that this is a process. And he's done a good job of not letting us forget that this is a process and sometimes you can make progress and get better and not always get the win. You don't like to hear that, but he's telling the truth."