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Can Stevens repeat success in NBA?

by Sam Smith

We know this just isn’t supposed to work, the young executive-looking Brad Stevens, the 36-year-old coach at modest Butler University in Indiana, signing an almost unprecedented six-year contract to coach one of American sports’ most celebrated franchises, the Boston Celtics.

You can almost hear the jokes in a few months, Stevens with a 9-22 Celtics team warning the players Rick Pitino-style that, no, Kevin Garnett isn’t coming through the door, Paul Pierce isn’t coming through the door, Ray Allen isn’t coming through the door. Perhaps except to offer condolences on their season from their places with the Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat, respectively.

The Celtics have parquet more experienced than Stevens; broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn mistaking him for his grandson; Bill Russell back in town and wondering who is the new ball boy.

Because we also know college coaches just don’t make it in the NBA. Pitino came to the Celtics after, actually, once previously having a reasonably good stint with the Knicks and told the players they would be trapping and pressing.

The players decided they didn’t believe they would be.

Pitino lasted a few years, though long enough to make his famous, Bird, McHale and Parish not walking through the door (to save them) speech that remains much ridiculed to this day.

The list is long of college-to-pro failures, flops and flameouts: John Calipari, Tim Floyd, Mike Montgomery, Leonard Hamilton, Lon Kruger, Pitino, and last season Mike Dunlap after one NBA season for Michael Jordan in Charlotte.

Once, coaching in college was a way to prepare for the NBA, though the games were closer then in substance. In many respects, the college game was then more revered with dynasties like UCLA and Kentucky, players bound for four years and television support perhaps better for college.

So men like Dick Motta, John MacLeod, Del Harris, Cotton Ftzsimmons, Jack Ramsay and Bill Fitch made the jump, and though many had to take on bad teams at times which piled up losses on their records, several produced titles and Hall of Fame-level credentials.

But everything has changed since with the colleges being passed for a time by the likes of Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, and now just brief way stations for the best on the way to the pros.

The great pro player essentially has slipped college, so the college coach has had to become a preeminent figure with wily recruiting, like Calipari at Memphis and now at Kentucky, with a dictator-like hold on the program to keep the money coming from alumni and hold sway over his little kingdom.

But there is no recruiting in the NBA, and certainly no kingdoms, at least any run by the coaches. A few, like Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, given their extraordinary success can maintain an air of complete control.

But that is illusory because what’s also enabled men like Jackson and Popovich to have a unique level of success has been their ability to work with people without the personal need to be responsible for the success.

Many would deny that about Jackson, who carried a label of arrogance when coaching. But to those who know Jackson it’s more a product of his innate shyness and preference for privacy in which he always chose to remain out of the coach’s club.

In many respects, Stevens channels Jackson with a calm sideline demeanor as a way of expressing confidence in himself and his players.

Perhaps without Zen or the Native American customs, but the point gets across, nonetheless.

I would liken Stevens more to men like Jackson and Popovich than Pitino and Calipari. Which is why Stevens has a chance.

Unlike Jackson and Popovich, he’s not taking over a great team with a great star. So he will never succeed like they will. But my sense is he lacks the overarching ego and look-at-me over-coaching playbook that has led to failure for so many of the recent college-to-NBA candidates.

A veteran NBA coach who has had great success in the league and also knows Stevens agrees.

“Brad is a bright guy, humble, who does not fool himself,” he said. “He is wise beyond his years and of course he is quite idealistic, as he should be.

“It will be a steep learning curve for him, but he possesses the ability to overcome it over time. I have not met too many better people.

“Technically, he is capable of coaching both sides of the ball and he understands the importance of defense. He believes in relationships with players and he has been heartened by the (Celtics) players’ communication with him. He is spending a day with (Rajon) Rondo and he gets it in this regard.

“He could do very well over time and with bad luck could also do so-so. That will depend on his roster and his ability to adapt, but mainly his roster.”

The feeder system for NBA coaches is changing. Most teams are moving on from the old recycled, turnaround experts like Larry Brown and Doug Collins to successful assistants, like the Tom Thibodeau model for the Bulls, and younger coaches who will embrace the sabermetrics and advanced analysis now being promoted by a core of younger general managers with no basketball playing experience, like in Houston, Orlando, Phoenix and Oklahoma City.

And which Stevens has long embraced.

They’re going more for younger coaches who fit their basketball philosophy and the changing views of the game.

The NBA is a different game with a shorter shot clock, more and different timeouts, commercial interests to distract the players and compete for their attention, and a relentlessly second- guessing media which doesn’t exist in any college town, where the coach generally can dictate the sort of coverage he gets or shut out that media.

Not so in pro sports.

Yes, we know already Stevens is a different sort of guy, and there was plenty of notice of his failure to cancel a July 4 weekend parade appearance in a small Indiana town even after he agreed to the Celtics job for about $22 million.

He had agreed last year and a promise is a promise. You sensed he was serious as opposed to some who would do it for the media mention.

Stevens’ small Butler program made two stunning runs to the NCAA championship game, virtually unheard of for a school that size recruiting lesser talents.

Stevens’ strengths are not unlike coaches like Jackson and Popovich in designing a system of play and working with players as adults to embrace the program.

Some would say it’s a tough start already as the question can be of the adult part with players like Rondo.

But Brad Stevens is no ordinary college coach, and I would not be surprised if he becomes an extraordinary NBA coach despite the doubters and dearth of success among his contemporaries.

Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”