WASHINGTON — In six seasons as coach of the Butler Bulldogs, Brad Stevens lost 49 games.
In his first season as coach of the Boston Celtics, Stevens has lost 54, with five to play. He won more games with Butler in 2007-08 and 2009-10 than he will win with the Celtics this season — in fewer than half as many games played.
Late in season with nothing to play for, Stevens embraces the constant challenge.
"As we go through this and as difficult as it is for all of us, that's one of the things that every day is keeping me focused and fresh on attacking this," Stevens said.
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Stevens knew this would be a difficult season. Just before hiring him, Celtics President Danny Ainge began the rebuilding process, trading Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets.
It's a major reason why Ainge and Stevens agreed on a long-term deal. Stevens wanted security in the rebuild, and Ainge, incredibly supportive of Stevens, wanted to give him time to work through some difficult seasons.
He took over a young team, save for point guard Rajon Rondo, who missed more than half of the season recovering from an injury; forwards Gerald Wallace, Jeff Green and Brandon Bass; and forward-center Kris Humphries.
"It's been a challenging season, as you can imagine," Ainge said. "Brad has maintained optimism and has done a magnificent job managing our team. He's very smart. He works extremely hard. He has great integrity. Those are things he will always have, and those are great characteristics of being a leader. The outlook will be better next year just because he's been around the NBA a year."
Like many successful people, Stevens is his toughest critic.
"Any time you go through a year, you get better at it," Stevens said. "I haven't been near perfect by any means. In fact, I've got a list of things I want to do better. I've got a list of things I probably would do a little bit differently. I think I'm a better basketball coach as a result of this. But it's not easy to go through, but that's part of what makes you better at it."
Asked what is on that list, Stevens said, "I'd be happy to share it, but we don't have time."
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Stevens makes a list after every season, but this is a different kind of season. He's not used to losing like this. He will evaluate everything he did this season, from player rotations to practice schedules to offensive and defensive strategies and so many aspects of coaching in between.
Stevens is detailed, dedicated and determined – all factors that give him the chance to be successful. He looks for ways to make players better individually and as a group, and he constantly probes for ways to exploit opponents. He is not relying on his skills as a college coach to prosper in the NBA.
Ainge is impressed by the way he has handled the locker room.
"I like his way of communicating," Ainge said. "I know if I were a player, I would've appreciated it. He's very open and honest. He's matter of fact, and he holds guys accountable. Guys want to be coached, and they want to be told. He puts in the time to communicate to players collectively and individually."
Second-year forward Jared Sullinger said, "He's learning. We're all learning. But he's doing a great job. He thinks he's made a lot of mistakes but he's teaching himself how to win in this league. With Brad, everyone has an open opportunity, and I like that."
With a mostly young roster and two first-round picks in both 2014 and 2015, the Celtics have assets to improve, and Ainge will do what he can to give Stevens the best team possible as quickly as possible.
An 82-game season, the losing and the travel is a long way from Butler's back-to-back appearances in the NCAA championship game in 2010 and 2011. This season, he played in the same NBA arenas Butler won in during those remarkable NCAA runs a few seasons ago – not-so-subtle reminders of what he left behind.
As much as Stevens is analytical about his performance, he also is philosophical about his general approach.
"Keeping myself motivated is not hard," Stevens said. "I've been really fortunate to have coached in some moments that you can only dream about coaching in. The day after, you wake up and you try to do it again. When things don't go your way, the day after you wake up and try to get better and be as good as you can be the next day."
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