Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens never got anything more than a pat on the back’s worth of credit for his sought-after coaching abilities.
Yet, since being moved up to Boston’s front office, Stevens has emerged and unveiled a side even more valuable to the Celtics. In just two seasons on the job, Stevens has shown the necessary promise that Boston has needed. In his first year, the Celtics reached the NBA Finals. Granted, Boston’s foundation — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — was built off multiple “non-tanking” seasons with Danny Ainge in which the Celtics were destined for nothing greater than a subpar finish and at-best first-round exit. However, it’s been the little things that have made Stevens a front office upgrade. He’s been aggressive, persistent and willing to pull the necessary triggers in a timely manner.
With 46 games in the books, the Celtics (34-12) have been the best team in the NBA. They’ve endured plenty that would justify any early-season swooning, yet they’ve never wavered. Before the year, Boston dealt with the media fiasco that followed former head coach Ime Udoka and his off-floor conduct. They dealt with uncertainty to Robert Williams and still haven’t utilized free agent addition Danilo Gallinari. And through it all, the Celtics have battled.
They’re in the midst of an eight-game winning streak — as of Friday — and have lost no more than three straight which they’ve only done on one occasion.
With that being said, here are three reasons why Stevens should be on track for a well-deserved NBA Executive of the Year award, pending some out-of-the-blue downfall, this season:
It took two darkhorse moves in which Stevens sacrificed trade packages consisting of little-to-no value in order to acquire guards Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon. And throughout the season, both veterans have bought into Boston’s bigger picture — an NBA Finals return — and have sacrificed with a team-first mentality along the way.
White, who Boston acquired from the San Antonio Spurs for Romeo Langford, Josh Richardson and two first-round draft picks (2022, 2028), has been huge in multiple facets. First and foremost, White has been a defensive juggernaut among guards across the league. White has totaled 41 blocks in 46 games and has notched an 0.9 block average, second among all point guards and tied with 6-foot-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo.
White, who stands at 6-foot-4, hasn’t backed down during in-game situations when challenged to guard those of greater stature at the rim. He’s instead served as one of Joe Mazzulla’s most reliable players and done so consistently.
“Nobody loves playing defense,” Marcus Smart told The Athletic?s Jay King. “So when you get a guy who actually loves and cares about it, you get opportunities with stuff like D-White, catching guys at the rim.”
And while White has proven himself to be a valuable asset to Mazzulla’s starting lineup on a night-to-night basis, Brogdon has held down the fort and led the reserve unit. Not to mention, Brogdon, who could very well start for a handful of teams across the NBA, has done so in a mature fashion.
During the offseason, Brogdon was acquired from the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Nik Stauskas, Daniel Theis, Aaron Nesmith, Juwan Morgan and Malik Fitts — none of which have provided any noteworthy value. As for the Celtics, Brogdon’s addition has continued to age like fine wine. It’s arguably the most important acquisition an East team has made during the offseason, aside from Donovan Mitchell and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
When asked to take a back seat for the betterment of the team, Brogdon has done so. He’s averaged a second to career-low 10.2 field goal attempts per game but has also shot a career-best 45% from 3-point territory. He’s played a career-low 24.2 minutes each night, yet has averaged 14.1 points and 3.7 assists which speak volumes to his efficiency.
And when he’s needed in the starting lineup, Brogdon is equally as prepared to step up, as he did against the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday when White made an early exit. Brogdon proceeded to score a season-high 30 points on 66.7% shooting from the field.
“It’s a next-man-up mentality when someone goes down,” Brogdon said, as seen on NBC Sports Boston’s postgame coverage. “I think that?s what we’ve been experiencing when JB?s been out, when I’ve been out, when whoever’s out, someone else steps up.”
Marcus Smart’s contract
In 2021, Stevens retained Smart on a four-year, $52 million extension.
With the experiments of Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving both eras better off forgotten than remembered for the Celtics, Smart was next in line. He’s remained the longest-tenured Celtic (drafted in 2014) and has risen to the occasion this season, tasked with not only running the floor but leading the NBA’s most efficient offense.
Evident in Boston’s play, the Celtics pride themselves in shot selection. As opposed to previous years, when Boston struggled with ball movement, they’ve shown an elite ability to seek out the open man and get him the ball.
So far, Smart has averaged a career-high 7.3 assists per game while having committed 2.4 turnovers, which has resulted in a 3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio — 18th among players in the NBA. His scoring (11.4 points) also hasn’t taken a toll along the way. Smart has averaged 9.7 field goal attempts, yet he’s also shot 42% from the field which is barely below his career-best (42.2%) mark.
Instead of considering alternative point guard options — like Lonzo Ball and Kyle Lowry — through free agency, Stevens elected to stick with Smart and weather the storm. And that’s undoubtedly paid its dividends for the Celtics ever since the deal was made official.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s ability to co-exist
Exactly what the Celtics have envisioned since they selected Tatum and Brown at No. 3 in their respective draft classes, the duo has blossomed from questionable to dynamic.
While they’ve encountered a few bumps and bruises such as their early-season struggles at guarding the rim and overcoming a few off nights from beyond the arc, the Celtics have overall remained on track. When tasked with overcoming adversity they’re yet to show any signs of being a defeated team.
Tatum is in the midst of an all-time campaign, breaking record after record for the Celtics. His most recent, surpassing Larry Bird in 50-point games with his fifth, will serve as one of many reference points for his convincing MVP campaign at the end of the season. He’s averaged a career-high 31.2 points and 8.5 rebounds on 46.8% shooting from the field. And he’s done so while simultaneously playing through a lingering wrist injury since Opening Nigh in October.
And most importantly, it’s come alongside team-wide efficiency. Both Tatum’s stat line dominance and Boston’s ability to remain in the win column have co-existed for the vast majority of the season. The Celtics rank second in offensive rating (117.5) and lead the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.00). While the Celtics have won their last eight consecutive games, Tatum has averaged 33 points with 10.5 rebounds on 44% shooting from the field throughout the streak.
Meanwhile, through all the much-deserved MVP praise and the league-best start, Brown hasn’t taken a back seat. Similarly, Brown is on track for a career year as well.
The 26-year-old has averaged 26.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and has shot 49.5% from the field through 35.6 minutes per game — all career highs. In five of seven games played in January, Brown has shot over 46% from the field. He’s also just a game removed — which was his return after suffering right abductor tightness — from his season-high 41-point display against the New Orleans Pelicans.
With Boston yet to show any drastic signs of crumbling, Stevens is more than due for contention to rightfully receive his flowers.