Ahead of Tuesday's regular-season opener against the Sixers, BostonSportsJournal.com caught up with Brad Stevens to dissect an underwhelming preseason, the progress of Gordon Hayward, the challenge of integrating returning pieces and much more about the upcoming season.
Q: You've had a different set of challenges during every year of training camp. However, this year was the first time that you and your staff both had continuity and no late adjustments to the roster with trades or other tweaks. How much has that impacted you from a planning standpoint?
Brad Stevens: I think re-integrating the three injured guys back into the fold will continue to be an adjustment for everybody. Obviously, they are all really important to us being the best version of ourselves. We've seen a lot of better cohesiveness and chemistry in everybody's play over the last five days. We've needed every bit of these three weeks.
Q: You clearly saw a lot of success with this group and smaller starting five last year in training camp before Gordon went down. How much give and take has there been in finding what works and what doesn't for them a year later? Have you drawn ideas from last year?
Stevens: You are so locked in when it's all new. You are hanging on every word, you are asking every question, you are watching every clip tape like it's the most important thing in the world because you are just trying to do it to survive. That was last year. The natural tendency (now) is that you can skip steps. Our first couple of exhibition games proved that you can't. We talked about that the whole time. We had some moments in the exhibition season that we clearly looked like we needed to work. I've been really encouraged by our work since then.
Q: Gordon's numbers obviously haven't been there in the preseason but it seems like he's finding his spots on the defensive end and within your scheme. What have you seen on that front?
Stevens: That (shooting) stuff will figure itself out. My biggest thing with all those guys is they have to be aggressive and learn to play together. That's a balance, but, for him, in the last five days, he's been way more aggressive and we need him to be that. Everybody wants him to be that because when he's aggressive, he's not just scoring the ball. He's one of our better playmakers off pick-and-rolls, off dribble handoffs, he looks for other people. He knows where the right play is and we need him to make those plays.
Q: You mentioned aggression there and Gordon's history in getting to the free throw line (6.0 attempts per game average over last three healthy seasons) would have easily led this roster last year. How crucial are his contributions on that front to help improve the C's offensive efficiency?
Stevens: Any time you are adding good players, your offense should play better. We've tried to structure it moreso to fit those guys easier in the last week. We tried to play the first couple weeks in more of an equal opportunity, equal touches, type-thing. We've tried to balance that appropriately now with putting guys in their spots and strengths.
Q: What's the balance for you in approaching the start of this season knowing that some players and lineups are going to have some growing pains as people round back into form. Do you guys have to let guys play through that at the potential expense of wins?
Stevens: You prepare to win every game and you give everything you have to do that. I think, one of the things as a coach and as a player, regardless of you starting out the season 4-8 or 16-2 like we did last year, it's not about what just happened, it's about what's next because there are a lot of games left. Ultimately, what happens this week is more information. We're going to compete and do everything we can to win the next game. Hopefully, we'll improve from there on out because that's the most important thing.
Q: You guys had the biggest dropoff in assist ratio of any team in the preseason from your numbers last year. Is there any concern there or is that something that can be cleaned up?
Stevens: Our assist totals need to go up. That's the bottom line. We can't play the way we did in the preseason and expect to be good.
Q: You were pleasantly surprised last year with the improved rebounding you guys showed during training camp and that could be a challenge yet again this year with you guys trending towards a smaller starting five. How has that group held up in camp?
Stevens: That will be interesting. We'll see. Time will tell. I think rebounding is one of those things -- and I hesitated to talk about it last year. I think the more length we added, we looked different when we were small than we had in the past just because we were longer. A couple of years ago when we went small, we were smaller at a lot of positions. Rebounding is one of those things that right when you pat yourself on the back, you get pummeled on the glass. You got to do that every night no matter whether you are small or big. There are disadvantages to being big too as far as rebounding too as far as rebounding, just in terms of keeping guys in front of you. When the defense breaks down, that's when guys get rebounds. No matter if we are big or small, we need to do a great job on that.
Q: Al Horford looked like a forgotten man at times during the preseason within the offense, finishing with the lowest usage rate on the team. With so many offensive weapons in that group, is it easy for him to be overlooked? Is that bothersome at all?
Stevens: He has to touch the ball more because you know the ball is going to spray all over the place when he does. That's a major focus for us. The good news about Al is he is a guy who is a five-time All-Star and doesn't need (the ball). Scoring, him making the basket isn't important to him, it's winning. The more we let Al touch it, the more that we play through, the better shots we will get.