Brad Stevens built a nice program at Butler, but his college background ill-equips him to succeed in the NBA.
All the things you hear about Brad Stevens as a coach are positive. The man took a mid-level basketball program at Butler and made it relevant. Stevens did so with players who will never become NBA stars. His players were good, solid college talent, which doesn’t translate into either a NBA journeyman or into an NBA career at all.
But to do what he did deserves applause and a contract extension. To do what he did, however, doesn’t deserve a chance to coach the Boston Celtics, the most storied franchise in the NBA.
In picking Stevens last week to replace Doc Rivers, team president Danny Ainge dipped into the college ranks for the “flavor of the day,” a move that hasn’t paid off in the NBA since Larry Brown left Kansas in the 1980s. The list of college coaches who have followed Brown into the pros is long; the list of college coaches who followed Brown and succeeded is short.
Rick Pitino, P.J. Carlesimo, Tim Floyd, John Calipari, Mike Montgomery and Jerry Tarkanian all built sterling reputations and great college programs; each failed miserably when tasked to coach a NBA team.
They came into the league with great expectations, hoping the rah-rah of NCAA basketball would trickle into the pro game. It did not.
What they found out soon was that they were expendable. The marquee talent they had on their roster was not. They couldn’t bench a star; they couldn’t make him run extra laps or stop him from complaining to media. In college, the Rick Pitinos of the coaching fraternity could be control freaks. In the NBA, they could not be.
For how does an inexperienced coach put reins on a Rajon Rondo or some other star? How does a coach insist his star play his brand of basketball? Even men with deep backgrounds in professional basketball have had trouble doing so.
The NBA has increasingly become a league that the stars run. Aside from the miracle Gregg Popovich has achieved in San Antonio in building a team that seems absent egos, every other coach looks as if he’s one bad streak of play away from losing his gig.
Take the Miami Heat. Is that team all about LeBron James or does its coach run it? You make the choice here.
So what does that have to do with Brad Stevens? Everything.
At 36 and unschooled on NBA basketball, Stevens is no more prepared to handle egos than all the other coaches who came from the college ranks were (and three-fourths of those who did not). It’s the reason some of the most successful coaches in the college game have rejected overtures to coach an NBA team. Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Billy Donovan, John Thompson, Lute Olson, Jim Boeheim, Bob Knight, Jim Calhoun, Rick Majerus, Dean Smith, Al McGuire, Gary Williams and Tom Izzo all stayed put.
Now, Izzo did flirt with accepting an offer to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers, but it was an offer that came his way after LeBron had decided to cast his lot with the Miami Heat. Izzo would have inherited a team in rebuilding mode, which proved even too much for an experienced NBA hand like Byron Scott.
Whenever I hear of a college coach flirting with a job in the professional ranks – it could be professional football or basketball; it’s still the same – I’m reminded of a Clint Eastwood line from one of those Dirty Harry movies: "A man’s got to know his limitations."
Stevens should remember these words next season as he tries to lead Rondo and what remains of a once-decent Celtic roster to respectability in a league that offers no soft spots. Stevens found a lot of soft spots in building his coaching pedigree in the mediocre Horizon League.
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