Brad Stevens and the Case Against Tanking

Brad Stevens might just be too good of a coach for the Celtics’ own good.

Hang on, let’s rewind for a second.

The 2012-2013 season was by all accounts a disappointment for Boston. Rajon Rondo tore an ACL in January, the team finished just a game over .500 by seasons’ end, and they were ultimately bounced from the first round of the playoffs by the New York Knicks. Rebuilding wasn’t an option, it was a necessity.

Stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce accomplished so much during their tenure in Boston, but with the two players due a combined $27 million in 2013, the Celtics couldn’t afford to keep them on to set out for yet another mediocre season. Not only did GM Danny Ainge know this, but the other 29 NBA teams did too.

Then, on Thursday, June 27th, 2013, Ainge got away with murder.

No, not the Aaron Hernandez kind. Rather the kind when one team rips off another during a trade. Slightly less severe. The deal with the Nets was heavily criticized (from a Boston perspective) at first. Heck, even the new Celtics players in the deal looked miserable.

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Full Trade:

Nets get: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry

Celtics get: Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries (expiring contract), Marshon Brooks, 3 future unprotected 1st round picks (2014, ’16, ’18), the right to swap picks in 2017, and the worse pick between Brooklyn and Atlanta in 2014. 

After Brooklyn’s slow start to the season, the deal looks better and better by the day for the Celtics. Somehow, the Nets managed to mortgage their future by trading three unprotected first-round picks in addition to taking on big salary. For icing on the cake, Brooklyn gave the Celtics the right to swap picks in 2017; a time where Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry will all almost surely be out of the league.

This trade did two things for Boston. It gave them hope for the future (with so many 1st round picks) and it also made them worse in the present. The second part of that sentence hasn’t worked out exactly as planned so far this year. With the most stacked draft class in 29 years coming out in 2014, many assumed the Celtics would tank their 2013 season in hopes of landing Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, or Julius Randle.

But no one counted on Brad Stevens being Jesus.

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The man has almost literally turned water into wine with the resurgence of Jordan Crawford (reigning Eastern Conference player of the week) while also somehow getting his teammates to like him. Crawford has always been an easy player to hate around the league due to his “shoot first” nature and “me first” attitude. However, Stevens somehow has the Celtics’ guard averaging career highs in FG percentage (45%) 3PT percentage (38%) and assists (5.5 per game).

When asked if he had a sit down talk with Crawford to have a conversation about his poor shooting habits and how he needs to improve, Stevens said, “I never had it.”

That is Brad Stevens in a nutshell. Bill Belichick approves.

But Crawford isn’t the only reclamation project that Stevens has undergone in 2013. Solid play from the corpse of Gerald Wallace, the ghost of Kim Kardashian’s past, and even a fish have propelled the Celtics to a 12-14 record which is good enough for 1st in the Atlantic Division standings and 4th in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

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Some wondered if this team could win 12 games all year, when in reality, they’re just getting started. Star point guard Rajon Rondo is set to return to the team by early January which should give them a level of ball distribution not yet exhibited thus far. If Rondo returns 100%, young players keep making noticeable improvement, and Brad Stevens keeps sculpting the team in his image, there’s no reason to doubt the Celtics chances of winning the Atlantic and possibly making a playoff run.

But is that the right thing to do?

There is something to be said for bottoming out in the NBA. Getting a high lottery pick is immensely more valuable to a team than being one-and-done in the playoffs, especially when you look at the 2014 class.

A team featuring Rajon Rondo, Julius Randle, and other pieces acquired during the draft/free agency in 2014 looks a lot more appealing than this years’ roster. If Boston’s season starts heading South, I could easily envision Danny Ainge pulling the plug (i.e. sitting Rondo, different players getting “hurt”, funky rotations, etc.) and start tanking, but that’s not happening right now.

Until it does, Brad Stevens will coach his tail off… and the NBA is better off because of it.

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