Celtics coach Brad Stevens

David Butler II/USA Today Sports

Tomase: There's a new Gregg Popovich in the NBA, and he's named Brad Stevens

John Tomase
December 08, 2017 - 12:49 pm
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What's the No. 1 dismissal we hear of NBA coaches?

"It's about the players."

Did Michael Jordan's coach matter? (Phil Jackson would argue yes.) Does LeBron's coach matter? (Ty Lue's critics would argue no.) The Warriors handed the keys to Luke Walton a couple of years ago and he won 24 straight. Just toss the opening jump, get out of the way, and let talent do its thing.

But that argument ignores reality. Of course coaching matters. Look no further than Friday's matchup between the Celtics and Spurs for exhibits 1 and 1-A.

In Boston, Brad Stevens is a miracle worker. His C's turned over their entire roster to build a team around Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, and then lost Hayward five minutes into the season. That injury should've destroyed them. Instead, they visit the Spurs with the NBA's best record and a 16-game winning streak already in hand, as well as a victory over the defending champion Warriors.

Meanwhile, Gregg Popovich's Spurs are off to a 17-8 start despite the absence of superstar Kawhi Leonard, who is expected to return Saturday against the Suns. He has missed the first 25 games with a quadriceps injury. When healthy, he's one of the five best players in the league, and yet the Spurs have barely missed him.

How is either scenario possible? Coaching.

Just consider the Celtics roster without Hayward. For the it's-about-the-players crowd, name the Celtics' players. Irving is a superstar and Al Horford's an unassuming All-Star, but who's next? Is it 19-year-old forward Jayson Tatum? Erratic second-year man Jaylen Brown? Misfiring sparkplug Marcus Smart? Sixth man Marcus Morris?

On any given night, it can be anyone. Stevens' rotation generally runs 10 deep, but with Brown and Morris missing on Wednesday, Stevens turned to Guerschon Yabusele, Abdel Nader, and Shane Larkin. Each made 3-pointers in a 97-90 victory.

Horford and Irving played their customary 32 minutes because Stevens sees the big picture and won't give them 40 minutes apiece just to ensure a win. He wants something in the tank come May when the games really matter. Compare that to Cleveland, where Lue is riding the soon-to-be-33-year-old James for more than 37 minutes a night. Not even LeBron is that indestructible.

Stevens may be relatively inexperienced, but even at 41, it's clear he gets it. When Popovich was that age, he was in his second season as an NBA assistant under then-Spurs coach Larry Brown. He didn't become Spurs head coach until 1996 at age 48. In the 22 years since, he has won five titles, reached a sixth Finals, and averaged 58 wins a year.

For 19 of those years he coached future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. But even when Duncan stopped being a capital-S superstar around 2010, the Spurs didn't miss a beat. They instead became Leonard's team, with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Danny Green in support. This year's star is big man LaMarcus Aldridge. They've won 13 of 17 since a 4-4 start.

Both coaches are brilliant at exploiting the roster at their disposal. A case can be made that no fewer than five Eastern Conference teams feature more desirable top-end talent than the Celtics, whether it's Cleveland (LeBron, Kevin Love, Thomas), Milwaukee (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton), Washington (John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter), Detroit (Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Reggie Jackson), or even Philadelphia (Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, J.J. Redick).

And yet the Celtics sit at 22-4 because of the selfless culture Stevens has created, a commitment to defense that is his hallmark, and the magic of Irving, who has been perfectly managed so that when closing time arrives, he's fresh enough to do NBA Jam levels of oh-my-he's-on-fire damage.

Coming on the heels of a 53-win season and No. 1 seed despite a wildly flawed roster that received virtually all of its crunch time scoring from the 5-foot-9 Thomas, it's amazing that Stevens has never finished higher than fourth in the Coach of the Year voting.

Then again, Popovich has only won the award three times. His greatness was long ago taken for granted. Stevens' is only now being recognized.

They're the two best leaders in the NBA, which is why in their respective cities, it's not simply about the players. It's about the coaches, too.

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