Forsberg: Brad Stevens' fearless approach to GM role is paying off


When Brad Stevens elevated to president of basketball operations of the Boston Celtics, the big question was whether he could be a bold decision-maker. Could he separate his emotions after coaching the core of this team and prioritize making the best decisions for the future of the team?

Stevens answered that question in his first days on the job when he shipped the universally loved Kemba Walker to Oklahoma City, kickstarting an ultra-aggressive offseason that started shaping a Celtics team that eventually surged to the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference.

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Stevens has been more fearless than just about anyone could have imagined. He didn’t dip his toes into this new gig; he did a Ron Burgundy-like cannonball into the deep end of NBA roster construction. And his bold decisions eventually positioned the Celtics for long-term title contention.

"I think 15 years ago, I was a young assistant and in it for the first time, trying to figure out which path you're going to take, I probably had an unhealthy fear of failure," said Stevens. "And I think, over the last 14 years, probably my greatest area of growth has been 'not scared to try it,' right?  …

"I'm gonna be myself, and if it goes well, then great. But we’re certainly not going to be scared to try things."

While many outsiders were shocked to see Stevens hang up his whistle and whiteboard, those closest to him were not particularly surprised. And they were certain Stevens could thrive in a new role.

"It made a lot of sense. I thought it was a really good move by Boston," said Todd Lickliter, who had Stevens on his staff at Butler University and also served as a scout for the Celtics from 2015 to 2018.

"He’d been in the league for a number of years and, if Brad's around in any environment, in any situation for very long, he's going to have it figured out, to be honest with you.

"I'm not sure that there's a timeline in coaching. I think you know when it feels right to make that next move and to contribute in another way. The other thing I noticed, I thought Brad had been involved in personnel some as the coach… I always thought there was a really good relationship in the organization. And so Brad was exposed to the the jobs of the general manager, as maybe all coaches are, and I just thought it was a really good situation."

The Walker-for-Horford swap set the tone for Stevens’ first season at the helm. He followed that up by choosing Ime Udoka as his successor on the bench, hoping Udoka's "warm but demanding" nature would push the core of this team in a way that Stevens simply couldn’t by the end of his coaching tenure.

Many scoffed when Stevens signed Marcus Smart and Robert Williams to long-term extensions last summer. If Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the pillars of the franchise, Smart and Williams emerged as the two most important support beams.

Smart blossomed when allowed to quarterback the team on both ends and Williams is the sort of X-factor that every championship team needs. Both deals look like bargains already and ensure the Celtics can maintain this core of the team deep into the future.

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Stevens’ boldest decision might have been simply not overreacting to Boston’s early-season struggles. When the Celtics dipped three games under .500 and sat 11th in the East on January 6, there were loud cries to blow up the core of this team, with some going so far as to suggest the Tatum/Brown duo needed to be split up.

If Stevens was panicked, he never showed it. The Celtics got healthy, started to show their true potential, and Stevens was able to use the trade deadline to bolster the roster as the team started its furious second-half surge.

"I think Brad deserves a lot of credit," said NBA analyst Kendrick Perkins. "It’s so hard because I was one of those people that was out there talking about [roster changes] around that time, and then he just stuck with it and said, ‘We're going to ride it out.’ …

“What he’s done, especially at the trade deadline, acquiring Daniel Theis, cleaning up some of the areas on the bench, getting certain guys out that didn’t adapt to the quote-unquote culture. Then getting Derrick White -- I thought that was so huge and so underrated."

For all the consternation about whether Stevens would be bold enough to pull the trigger on deals, he might actually have been more willing to splurge than his predecessor. Stevens sent out some serious draft capital to complete the Horford and White deals but did so knowing that fit and culture mattered in putting this puzzle together.

It’s temping to think about how 19-year-old Alperen Sengun, selected by Houston with Boston’s No. 16 pick, might have developed as a young piece in this core (and sources insist he would have been Boston’s selection if the pick wasn’t dealt). There was no guarantee that Horford would find a fountain of youth at age 35. But he did and he’s been a huge part of Boston’s success, particularly for the NBA’s No.1  ranked defense.

Stevens got bold at the deadline when he sent a Josh Richardson reclamation project, Boston’s 2022 first-round pick (which will land somewhere between 23 and 25 after coin flip tie-breakers), and former first-round pick Romeo Langford to San Antonio for White. The Celtics also attached a 2028 first-round pick swap -- a true gamble given how far out that exists -- but Stevens was willing to splurge to put another quality piece around a core he believed in.

Maybe Stevens and the Celtics eventually will pay a price for putting the focus on the now. It would have been easy to protect the team’s draft picks and try to find low-cost talent to pair alongside an expensive core. But Stevens wasn’t in a mood to wait.

Former president of basketball operations Danny Ainge deserves credit for leaving a foundation in place for Stevens. There were some widening cracks from missteps in the aftermath of the Kyrie Irving experiment, though it’s hard to quibble when Boston’s success is predicated largely on a starting five that features four of Ainge’s first-round picks since 2014 in Smart, Tatum, Brown, and Williams.

Key bench players like Payton Pritchard and Grant Williams were also Ainge selections. Ainge had some notable swings and misses along the way and left a bit of a knot to untie.

Stevens simply might have untied it quicker than most could have been expected.

Stevens didn’t linger on his own questionable decisions. He moved on quickly from short-term rentals Dennis Schroder and Enes Freedom, all while delivering Udoka a nine-man group that he could lean on more confidently.

While so much of Boston’s second-half success can be traced to Tatum’s annual ascension and a starting five that absolutely dominated all comers, Udoka has been better able to maximize his bench pieces since the arrival of White. Bringing back Theis in the Schroder deadline swap was critical when Robert Williams tore his meniscus late in the regular season.

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Stevens hasn’t had much time to catch his breath in his new gig. Another COVID-impacted season meant scrambling just to ensure enough healthy bodies early in the year. Boston’s trade deadline maneuverings left Stevens with more spots to fill. Twenty-eight different players appeared in a game for Boston this season.

In just over 300 days on the job, Stevens has made nine trades, navigated three contract extensions, and hired a head coach. Stevens gushes about the support staff around him, especially the front office holdovers from the Ainge era in Mike Zarren, Austin Ainge, and Dave Lewin, but also the analytics group and player development crew, including Allison Feaster.

Stevens' role change came as a jaw-dropper last summer. But he had privately insisted for years he wasn’t going to be any sort of coaching lifer.

We can’t help but think back to an end-of-season conversation we had with Stevens in 2018, right after Kevin Durant suggested he might retire by age 35. At that point, it felt like Stevens could be the Celtics coach for as long as he wanted -- maybe even challenge Red Auerbach’s records for most wins as coach. But Stevens was adamant then that he wasn’t going to be lugging around a clipboard when his hair was gray.

Turns out he didn’t even make it through his mid-40s.

Stevens couldn’t have been certain he would thrive as a general manager, but he trusted his instincts. He always had a love of building teams and the new role has given him a chance to touch every corner of the Celtics organization.

It was simply time for a new challenge. Another chance to make a bold move.

"As you get older, you get a better perspective," said Stevens. "And I’ve been really lucky because I got a chance to coach at Butler at the highest levels in college, got a chance to coach here at the highest levels of basketball, and there’s a great deal of perspective that comes with that. If you can navigate the whole journey without losing your mind."

The one question that lingers is whether Stevens will ever get the itch to coach again. Lickliter, 66, is back at the helm at Evansville after some time away from coaching. He believes it won’t even cross Stevens’ mind until he’s conquered all that he can as president of basketball operations.

"I will tell you this: He will attack the job as if he's going to be there for the next 30 years," said Lickliter. "That’s one thing you know, you're not getting partial workout. He's all in."

Editor's Note: Each day this week, NBC Sports Boston will spotlight a different "pillar" of the 2021-22 Celtics. Next up: the head coach, Ime Udoka.

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