WALTHAM, Mass. — When Danny Ainge first called Brad Stevens last Wednesday to gauge his interest in coaching the Celtics, Stevens ended the conversation by hanging up the phone, wide-eyed and in disbelief.
“Boston Celtics?” he said to his wife, Tracy. “Wow.”
By the time Ainge and several key members of the Celtics’ power structure met with Stevens a week later, it was their turn to be wowed. Following a productive meeting at Stevens’ home in Indiana on Wednesday, the Celtics’ contingent left a signed contract on the Butler coach’s counter, promising a reported $22 million over the next six years. Stevens’ number was the first one Ainge dialed after Doc Rivers‘ move to Los Angeles became official last Tuesday, and a mere 10 days later he was introducing Stevens as the 17th head coach in franchise history.
“I sensed, as we were sitting there, that [the Stevenses] wanted this opportunity,” Ainge said Friday after a news conference at the Celtics’ practice facility. “It wasn’t anything that was said. It was just a feeling I had. A six-year commitment, I don’t know if that’s ever happened in the NBA. It probably has, somewhere along the line, but that doesn’t ever happen with a first-year coach. We’re investing in him.”
Ainge made a lot of remarks like that on Friday, deflecting pressure away from Stevens, 36, who took Butler University to consecutive NCAA title games but has never coached at the professional level. Co-owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca, as well as team president Rich Gotham, joined the chorus in promising Stevens will have all the support he needs to serve out the length of his contract and — hopefully for them — beyond. Yet, whereas Stevens was the star of the show and ownership pledged that this was an organizational hire, Stevens’ success or failure as Celtics coach will be a referendum on Ainge.
Ainge has been bullish since the dust settled on a disappointing 2012-13 campaign on Causeway Street. He dealt away his coach and two future Hall of Famers. He has spoken bluntly about the ugly rebuilding years to come, going so far as to give an unimpressed scouting report on freshly plucked draftee Kelly Olynyk last week. He could have spent Friday parroting many of the cliches executives use when they hire a new coach, simply saying how excited he was while reserving blame for Stevens in case the new coach fails miserably.
But Ainge is in no mood to hedge in the summer of 2013. He is owning this hire, boldly declaring Stevens to be the best coach in college basketball and admitting he had his eye on Stevens as a future NBA coach well before Gordon Hayward‘s halfcourt shot rimmed out against Duke in 2010. He isn’t taking the easy path of hiding behind the past failures of big-name college coaches who jumped to the pros.
“Rick Pitino and John Calipari are fantastic basketball coaches, and they didn’t fail because they can’t coach,” Ainge said. “The failure was from an organizational standpoint, giving them the support, being patient, personnel decisions. There were a lot of factors. I think we all have to do this together and give [Stevens] support.”
If that did not make it obvious where the onus lies for the fate of the Stevens administration, Ainge was more explicit with another series of remarks.
“Brad’s success will be determined a lot by what we do, what I do, to help him and to support him, what ownership does to support us,” Ainge said. “We’ve been through this rebuilding kind of process before, and we’re all better for it.”
Signing a neophyte coach is a bold move, in that it makes a splash but carries massive risk. For all his success at the college level, Stevens has seldom had to coach a back-to-back or a three-games-in-four-nights set. Given the more grueling nature of the NBA schedule, Stevens’ reputation as a grinder and his reliance on video and statistical analysis could leave him worn out and overmatched. This is by no means a home-run hire by the Celtics.
Grousbeck and Pagliuca are more than on board with the hire, of course. They even threatened not to let Ainge onto the plane back from Indianapolis without a signed contract from Stevens. But they’re the bosses, and bosses have a way of forgetting how strongly they were behind an idea if that idea doesn’t pan out.
When the 2013-14 season dawns, Stevens will have a lot riding on his shoulders. He will have a gutted roster that could undergo more changes in the months to come. He will try to engender respect with a baby face and a compassionate demeanor. At least twice, his own team’s fans will root loudly for the opponent, when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett ride back into town with the Brooklyn Nets.
Along with his own responsibilities, he will also carry the burden of Ainge’s legacy. Since the masterstrokes of 2007, Ainge’s moves have offered diminishing returns. The cupboard is now bare, and the fact that it is bare by design will not appease Celtics fans if it is not restocked soon. A championship only buys goodwill for so long. Stevens’ success will be Ainge’s success, and Stevens’ failures will be Ainge’s failures as well.