Larry Bird always had a theory -- that after three seasons, in basketball, anyway, players stop listening to their coaches.
Let's suppose, for just a few moments, that you are Brad Stevens, the coach of the Boston Celtics. If you are, there is no way you can be pleased about how the current basketball season, which is winding down to the last few games of the regular season schedule before the real season -- the playoffs -- begin, has played out. Oh, it hasn't been like one of those epic car crashes that close down the Mass Turnpike during rush hour so the wreckage can be cleared. But it hasn't been pretty. There have been times that the team has shown flashes of the brilliance which was expected of it, but the consistency has not been there. "Disappointing" would not be an inappropriate word to use in describing the Celtics this season.
Through the eyes of one from the outside looking in, you seem to be the same guy you've always been; open, sincere and dedicated, a guy who has always inspired his teams to do better than expected. That goes back to your days at Butler University when you led the unsung Bulldogs to two straight NCAA championship games. As coach of the Celtics, your teams have always done better than the pre-season pundits have predicted. Even last year, when Gordon Hayward, the newly acquired all-star forward whom you had coached at Butler, broke his leg just six minutes into the season and was lost for the year, and Kyrie Irving lost significant time due to knee problems, including all of the post-season, you and your team soldiered on, compiled a better-than-expected record, and made a deep run into the playoffs.
Then came this year. You seemed to have the right personnel and they seemed ready to play. Then the season began -- in fits and starts. It's been that way all year long; win a few, lose a few. The team is on the bubble as to whether or not it will make it to the 50 win mark, a total exceeded in each of the last two years.
Again we wonder, what happened?
Larry Bird always had a theory -- that after three seasons, in basketball, anyway, players stop listening to their coaches. By then, according to the Bird theory, whatever pearls of wisdom a coach might have in his arsenal would have been long since used. When he was recruited to coach the Indiana Pacers in 1997, in his first year he led them to a 58-24 won-lost record, a franchise record, plus a spot in the Eastern Division NBA Finals, and it earned him NBA coach-of-the-year honors. In 1999-2000, his third season, he piloted the Pacers all the way to the NBA finals. Then, true to his word, Bird walked away from coaching and has never returned.
Another theory is that the NBA is no longer a coaches' league. Some 35 years ago, when Bird and Magic Johnson were at the top of their games and Michael Jordan was looming on the horizon, the league made a decision -- to aggressively market its superstars. It worked like a charm, and the NBA reached levels of popularity previously undreamed of.
But there is an old saying: Beware the law of unintended consequences.
Over the years the league has morphed into one dominated by its superstars at the expense of its coaches. It's the players who call the shots these days. Long gone is the age of Bill Fitch, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson. They were strong-willed characters, all. True, even they knew to act carefully around their superstars, but they were the bosses of their teams, and everyone knew it. Goodbye to all that. Hello to the age of LeBron James.
LeBron gets to play in whatever city he wants and with whatever team he wants. That's the way the NBA works nowadays. This year has shown that there might be some cracks in his skills and his stamina and that he might be a mere human being after all. He's 34 years old now, and an old 34 at that. He's been in the league since 2003, entering the NBA directly after graduating from St. Vincent-St.Mary High School in Akron, Ohio. That adds up to a lot of punishment for one body to take, even for a body as magnificent as LeBron's.
He's become somewhat injury-prone, and for the first time he needs to take off an occasional play now and then to let someone else do the work. The problem is that he's chosen a team on which there is no one else to pick up the slack. But he's still the most powerful force in basketball. Do you think that his coach, Luke Walton, would ever call him out for, say, not setting a proper pick on a defender? No way. In fact, Walton probably needs to make an appointment just to speak to Mr. James at all.
Superstars have always required special treatment and they always will. Even the most authoritarian of coaches, Red Auerbach, recognized that. Auerbach was, among other things, a master psychologist. He knew that the great Bill Russell had some quirky elements to his personality, but that it was important to keep him focused on the game rather than on some perceived slight. He'd often look the other way when Russell bent a rule too far, whereas, if it had been another offender, say, Tommy Heinsohn, he'd come down hard. He knew that it made Heinsohn mad when he did that, but he also knew that it made him a better player.
So there you have it, Brad. Brad? Are you still with me? Good. We know that at least some of the problems with the Celtics are not of your making. But you're the coach and the onus is on you to fix them. If I knew how to do that I'd be a very rich man. Needless to say, I am not rich, not even a little bit. So your job, along with all its problems, is safe for now.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.
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