Article written by Chris Giannotti
The last second half-court bank shot bounced off the rim and nearly into the cylinder, ending one of the most improbable NCAA tournament runs since Villanova beat Georgetown in 1985. While the Butler Bulldogs lost the 2010 National Basketball Championship, their defensive tenacity, overall cohesiveness and progressive thinking approach to the game were demonstrable traits that they bestowed upon college basketball. While Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack; that team’s two best players, have forged successful NBA careers, their essential superstar was the head coach. This article will examine Brad Stevens coaching success at Butler, the belief systems he implemented and utilized and how he has evolved and adapted them to impact the NBA game.
During Stevens six seasons as head coach of the Bulldogs, he amassed a career record of 166 victories to 49 defeats. He led the Bulldogs to the above mentioned title game in 2010 and then again the following year. In the 2011 championship game, Butler lost to a red hot UCONN team 53 to 41, despite leading at halftime. Stevens’ resume also included four Horizon League regular season championships, three Horizon League tournament titles, and four other trips to post-season play.
How impressive was Stevens’ run at Butler? In the forty years before their epic encounter with Duke, five mid-major teams reached the championship game. The first was an Artis Gilmore led Jacksonville University in 1970. The second was Memphis State in 1973 driven by Larry Finch. The most fondly remembered mid-major to reach the final, was the 1979 Indiana State Sycamores squad captained and carried by Larry Bird. University of Houston reached the championship game in both 1983 and 1984. The Cougars run was orchestrated by the star duo of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. The most recent mid-major to reach the final was the 2008 Memphis Tigers squad, which featured that years number one overall pick, Derrick Rose.
“THE BUTLER WAY”
The common theme among these teams were that each had a star player(s). This is where Stevens’ genius cannot go unrecognized. While Hayward did transform himself into a first round selection, the majority of his players were undersized, undervalued and lightly recruited. Stevens attributed his team’s success to the “Butler Way”. This is a program belief system which when summarized, is a leadership style that focuses on the development and betterment of the whole, rather than the individual success of one. Stevens recruiting rankings during his tenure strongly support this leadership and program philosophy.
From 2007-2013, Butler had six players ranked within Rivals Top 150 players in the nation. The highest ranked player being Matt Howard at number 91 in 2007. The second highest ranked player was Kellen Dunham at number 93 in 2012. The other four Top 150 players during this time period were ranked within the 118-140 range. With that being said, it is evident that Stevens consistently performed better with less talent at Butler, than any successful college coach in the last forty years. Stevens also placed a tremendous emphasis on the analytical study of both his opposition and his own team’s strengths and weaknesses. He is the first known college head coach to employ a full-time data analyst on his coaching staff. He has carried this philosophy with him to assist in creating a champion on basketball’s biggest stage.
As a result of his success at Butler, Stevens was offered and ultimately accepted the Boston Celtics head coaching position in July of 2013. He is now in the middle of his third NBA season. In his first season the Celtics showed minimal success, finishing with a record of 25-57. Stevens showed marked improvement last season, as he led Boston to a record of 40-42. This fifteen win improvement also included an appearance in the Eastern Conference playoffs as the seventh seed. This season is where Stevens’ leadership style has really taken fold. The Celtics currently have the third best record in the Eastern Conference at 32-23. More importantly the Celtics have amassed an infusion of young viable talent as well as a considerable collection of future draft picks.
In hindsight, I believe that there is strong evidence Stevens’ philosophy has morphed to fit NBA personalities and talents. Stevens has had three different leading scorers during his three year tenure as head coach. Forward, J.J.Sullinger has been the constant rebounder, leading the team during that same time period. Prior to his first year as head coach, the Celtics selected forward Kelly Olynyk with their top selection in the 2013 draft. In 2014, they selected point guard Marcus Smart with the sixth overall selection and then followed that up with shooting guard James Young later in the first round. This past year the Celtics had two first round draft picks; point guard Terry Rozier and shooting guard R.J. Hunter. While Olynyk, Smart and Sullinger have proven to be viable building blocks, it is the future that holds the most promise.
The Celtics own three first round picks in this year’s draft and up to five potential second round picks. These picks can be used to add to the existing foundation, or used as trade chips for an established All-Star. If his past success is any indication, it looks as if Stevens will definitely find gold at the end of this rainbow.
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