Karalis: Is this Brad Stevens’ fault? A deep dive into what he can do

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The NBA head coach’s job might be one of the most misunderstood in sports. 

People have romanticized ways of thinking of what a basketball coach is, or should be. There are visions of Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, or Bobby Knight at Indiana, or even Red Auerbach here in Boston. Maybe some people think back to their high school or college coaches. 

In 2021’s NBA, the head coach is more coworker than authoritarian overlord. He is, in a sense, middle management; he’s in charge, he does the scheduling, and he runs the day-to-day show. But he has bosses and, should he lose control of the workplace, it’s his butt on the line. 

It’s not a perfect analogy, but I think it sets the tone for what we’re talking about here. As the Celtics trudge through a season that has become brutally monotonous, the biggest portion of blame pie is being set in front of Brad Stevens.  

And that’s fine. That’s part of a coach’s job. And he certainly deserves some of the blame. 

After Wednesday night’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Stevens said that this is “a team I’m coaching, so it should all fall on me.” But there’s only so much he can really do here. Let’s look at his options.

1. Scheme: Stevens’ teams are generally known for their defense. If nothing else, he’s been able to get his teams to defend. This year’s team and their 21st-ranked defense, is the exception. What can Stevens do about it? 

He can change it, but there’s no time to practice this season. Teams are not practicing at all, and it’s showing up in the on-court product. Stevens has tried to mix in some zone from time to time, but that’s also been on the fly. 

The zone was effective against the Warriors two months ago, and Stevens was asked about practicing it to get it right. 

“We didn't do any zone in practice,” he said. “You want to call our zone practice was against San Antonio and against LA, but that's why every minute matters. Only thing we did yesterday was watch clips of it, talk about it, and make sure that we were at least in -- kind of understand what the challenge is with each game each night but we don't have much time to practice live right now.”

Offensively, the Celtics have transitioned into a more dribble hand-off heavy offense with the one big in the high post and an emphasis on cutting. With two bigs no longer starting, this has been effective in getting the ball moving. Starting Robert Williams has helped that (more on that in a moment). 

Stevens preaches ball movement, but the players still have to do it. 

“Brad has zero responsibility for shooting (11-47) from three last night on most of them open shots,” Danny Ainge said in his weekly radio appearance. “He doesn't have responsibility when players improvise are playing with lack of emotion after they miss shots. The only thing that he could do is to yank his best players out of the game and go with the other players.” 

2. Lineups: