With all this NBA trade talk, why don’t the Celtics trade Brad Stevens?
Boston’s Danny Ainge has done the unexpected before, like trading this year’s No. 1 pick to the 76ers
Shouldn’t Brad Stevens’ name be in NBA trade talk, too? Yes, Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics president of basketball operations, should be shopping his head coach.
I realize this seems crazy or even foolish. Who in their right mind would trade a proven head coach? The answer is Ainge.
As Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers fans may remember, Ainge in 2013 released coach Doc Rivers to sign with the Clippers in exchange for a future first-round pick. I understand that the Celtics’ circumstances were different in 2013. With Rivers as coach, they had gone to the NBA Finals in 2008 and 2010, winning it all in 2008. By 2013, their championship window had closed and they were moving into a rebuilding mode. Rivers probably wanted out.
A month after sending Rivers to L.A., Ainge hired 36-year-old Stevens away from Butler University. In Stevens’ six years at Butler, he was 166-49, the most wins of any Division I coach in their first six years. He was among the most respected college coaches, but for coaches, college success is rarely a good predictor of NBA success.
At this point, after four seasons with the Celtics, Stevens has proven that he is not just a college coach. The Celtics’ record improved every year under Stevens, and they got to the playoffs every year but his first. He isn’t a finalist for NBA Coach of the Year, but he should be, for earning the best record in the Eastern Conference. He is undoubtedly one of the best coaches in the NBA. He is a tremendous asset to the Celtics and to Ainge.
But so was the No. 1 overall pick that the Celtics just traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. At some point between May 16, when the Celtics won the draft lottery, and when they agreed to trade that pick to Philadelphia, Ainge had to have at least considered trading away the team’s best player, 5-foot-9 point guard Isaiah Thomas. With 6-foot-4 University of Washington point guard Markelle Fultz available to him, it would have been irresponsible for Ainge to not even consider trading Thomas. Fultz, 18, is thought to be a can’t-miss prospect with no significant weaknesses. Fultz was called the best point guard prospect since Kyrie Irving.
With one year left on his contract at $6.3 million, 28-year-old Thomas’ stock is the highest it will ever be. After next season, Thomas will command north of $30 million per year. Given that Ainge, a two-time champion as a player and once as an executive, knows that, it is unlikely the Celtics as currently constructed will win another championship anytime soon. So he had to at least think about moving Thomas. Instead, he traded the pick, ostensibly trading Fultz. Most believe Ainge made a mistake in trading the No. 1 pick. They might be right, but only time will tell. Given Ainge’s track record, I am prone to trust his judgment. If a team did make a great offer for Thomas, he would have taken it.
Over the next few years we all will be watching Fultz, Thomas and the players the Celtics will draft with the picks they acquired to see if Ainge chose the right path. But I will also be wondering what could have been had he ignored the fork in the road and created a new path.
Are coaches as valuable as players?
A path that included shopping Stevens to potential suitors. Not because Stevens isn’t good. Stevens is great. If the Celtics did trade Stevens, they could end up replacing him with a less heralded head coach. But, maybe not. Quality NBA head coaches don’t grow on trees, but there doesn’t seem to be a shortage either. We have a few here at ESPN. Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy, just to name a couple. If the Celtics job were to become available, it would be a very attractive opportunity. That could attract some big-name candidates. Even if they end up downgrading at head coach it might be worth it, depending on what they can get in return. At the core of my argument is my belief that NBA head coaches are overvalued as an NBA asset category. NBA head coaches are not inconsequential. But, in my mind, their impact is minor compared with that of elite players. And most executives believe that coaches’ impact is major, which creates an arbitrage opportunity.
If your mind hasn’t drifted there already, let me direct you to Steve Kerr. No matter whether you agree with me or not, Kerr’s head coaching career offers evidence to support your case. In Kerr’s first season, he won an NBA championship with a team that lost in the first round of the playoffs the previous season. It would appear that his impact was more substantial than any player’s could have been. The following season the Golden State Warriors set the record for most wins in a season with 73, but Luke Walton coached the team for 39 of those wins while Kerr recovered from back surgery. First-year head coach Tyronn Lue and the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Warriors in the NBA Finals that season. This past season, Kerr’s back caused him to miss 11 of the Warriors’ playoff games. Mike Brown took over and went 11-0 in the playoffs, when coaching is most critical.
For most of the best teams in NBA history, you will find players who were great playing for multiple coaches. Which is not to say the coaches added nothing. But it is difficult to identify exactly how much of the team’s success is attributable to them. The evidence suggests that their impact is slight relative to that of the players. And not just compared with the best player on the team. Adding or losing the right complementary player improves a team’s championship odds more than a proven coach.
Though Stevens draws up creative and effective plays out of timeouts and is a respected tactician, the real value of an NBA head coach is his ability to connect with players and his impact on the team’s culture. That is how head coaches can most affect a team because those are the things that can attract players and generate buy-in. That should be Ainge’s only concern if he were to shop Stevens. Does the organization have enough strong leaders that the culture will survive the loss of a coach? And, can they find another coach that can relate to players?
There is no way to be 100 percent certain about those answers, so Ainge would certainly be taking a big risk. But that’s the job. I wonder what Ainge would say if Kerr’s back forced him into retirement and the Warriors offered Klay Thompson in exchange for Stevens. I don’t know what Ainge would say, but NBA commissioner Adam Silver might say no.
Despite no explicit prohibition in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), in 2013 then-commissioner David Stern blocked the Celtics’ attempt to trade Rivers and Kevin Garnett for a draft pick and DeAndre Jordan, saying, “The teams are aware that the collective bargaining agreement doesn’t authorize trades involving coaches’ contracts.”
Instead, the Clippers surrendered the pick to the Celtics after Rivers was released from his contract. Then the Clippers signed Rivers. But Stern never allowed the players to be swapped. In an interview he said, “I would say that if we know that what the parties really want to do is one [trade and] they are going to break into two [trades] for purposes of trying to avoid the restrictions that the collective bargaining agreement places on it, we know how to deal with that as well.”
I don’t agree with the position Stern took. And apparently neither would a younger David Stern. According to The New York Times, in 1997 the Celtics gave a second-round pick to Miami for permission to hire general manager Chris Wallace.
Across major American sports, using coaches as bargaining chips is not common. But it has happened to some big names. In Major League Baseball, World Series champion manager Ozzie Guillén was sent from the White Sox to the Florida Marlins for two prospects. NFL head coach Jon Gruden was sent from the Oakland Raiders to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for $8 million cash, two first-round picks and two second-round picks. It was worth it, as the Bucs won the Super Bowl under Gruden. And maybe the greatest trade in NFL history involved a coach. In 2000, the New England Patriots gave the New York Jets three draft picks for the rights to Bill Belichick.
Those NFL examples might cause angst for Ainge if he were to consider trading Stevens. But the NBA is very different from the NFL, so Ainge should advocate for an amendment to the CBA. Until then, it is unlikely that Silver would allow a trade, but the Celtics can find a way to work around the prohibition, as they did in 2013. I am not delusional. I know Ainge, other team executives and the NBA don’t see coaches the same way they do players. But I see no reason that they shouldn’t start. There is very little difference.
It’s not as if they have more power or influence than a star player. A lot more players have gotten coaches fired than the other way around. So, why aren’t NBA coaches treated the same as players?
I don’t know. Is it because they wear ties?