WALTHAM, Mass. — As Kevin Durant backpedals from his social media declaration that Kawhi Leonard is a product of the San Antonio Spurs’ system, Brad Stevens had to tread lightly when the topic of the NBA Finals came up Monday.
The Boston Celtics’ coach did not want to offend anyone by insinuating that Leonard, the Most Valuable Player of the Spurs’ five-game destruction of LeBron James and the Miami Heat, was the beneficiary of San Antonio’s championship environment. In as diplomatic a manner as possible, Stevens explained that he admires any environment where a player such as Leonard can flourish.
“Well, first of all, I think he’s a very worthy MVP candidate and an outstanding player, and I think that’s enhanced by the people he’s around,” Stevens said. “It’s the system, it’s the culture, it’s the players in there. It’s the fact that when he wins the MVP, the whole team goes nuts on him. Those are established guys who, if they have egos, you can’t see them.
“That is a big, big part of it.”
Stevens had just watched six NBA draft hopefuls work out at the Celtics’ practice facility as he dives into his first full offseason as an NBA coach. Little was expected last season, when Stevens arrived after the departures of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and had no significant input on the team’s roster construction. He has been a constant presence at the Celtics’ pre-draft workouts this offseason, however, as he takes a larger role in the rebuilding effort.
“Culture” was a big buzzword for Stevens last season, even as his team racked up 57 losses. He leaned on veterans like Rajon Rondo and Brandon Bass for leadership — some might say too much, perhaps translating into a few extra wins that dropped the Celtics’ lottery odds to fifth.
San Antonio’s thrashing of the Heat was a vindication, in a way, of Stevens’ focus on the big picture. Yes, the Spurs’ became a force by drafting Tim Duncan first overall, but that was 17 years ago. Since then, they have nabbed Tony Parker with the last pick in the first round, Manu Ginobili in the second round and Leonard with the 15th overall pick.
Boris Diaw was a waiver wire pickup. Danny Green was cut twice. Every piece arrived under Gregg Popovich’s tutelage as one thing and developed into another thing. This includes Duncan, who entered the NBA as a traditional low-post monster at power forward and will exit as a defense-first rim protector at center.
Naturally, a lot of people around the Celtics’ facility have the Spurs on their minds.
“I think San Antonio was a very good model this year,” president of player personnel Austin Ainge said. “They had two or three deep at every position, and that’s obviously the goal. Easier said than done, but we will not be avoiding positions this year. We could use help at every position. Until we’re winning 65 games and have veterans at every spot, we’ll continue to add.”
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has a massive task ahead of him. Fans are clamoring for him to trade for Kevin Love, and that certainly would be the most expedient route back to relevance. Culture won’t win many games without talent. But as the Spurs show, a culture can maximize that talent and lead it to championship heights. If the Spurs’ system can help produce a player like Leonard, that’s the type of system Stevens and the Celtics want to build for themselves.
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