A decade ago the National Basketball Association’s roster of coaches matched the caliber of the league’s All-Star players: Phil Jackson, Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Rudy Tomjanovich, Jerry Sloan, and Pat Riley stalked the sidelines of NBA arenas as larger-than-life leaders. They glowered, bellowed, pontificated, and intimidated their way to thousands of wins and piles of championship trophies. It was their way or the high way. But now they’re all gone.
In their stead, a new generation of coaches is rising, and they look nothing like their legendary predecessors, who were former pro players who wore the bravado of an NBA star. Many of today’s coaches look more like accountants than jocks, and they rarely demand the respect of players and the media. Instead of setting a system in place and forcing players into it, they mold their styles to the talents of their teams. It is a notably different style of leadership.
First-year Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens uniquely personifies this shift. It’s more likely you recognize his name but you probably couldn’t pick him out of a crowd. Stevens, an unassuming 37-year-old, built Butler University into an unlikely powerhouse, including back-to-back trips to the NCAA National Championship game (losing to Duke in 2010 and Connecticut in 2011), before accepting the Boston job this year. He knew he was coming into a rebuilding situation. The Celtics have one injured star (Rajon Rondo) and traded their other two stars (Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce) this past off-season. Their roster is comprised mostly of young, unproven players and a few unexciting veterans. The team’s unspoken (but quite obvious) goal this year was to lose enough to get a high pick in next spring’s loaded draft.
Somehow, though, the Celtics lead their division and consistently look like a real NBA team. A roster full of inexperienced players and a handful of knuckleheads has meshed into a high-effort, good executing team that makes every game a challenge for its opponents. Brad Stevens deserves much of the credit.
Stevens is the kind of leader anyone would want to follow. He puts his people in a position to succeed, treats them with respect, and thus earns their respect in return. He is unflappable; watch him and you can never tell if his team is winning by 20 or losing by 20. He emphasizes the process and thus earns the results he desires. And he never exudes domination or arrogance toward those he leads or interacts with. Even in the small interactions that annoy so many coaches, such as in-game interviews with sideline reporters, he gives real answers and makes the reporter’s job easier.
The NBA is better for hiring such gifted young leaders. It is progress to welcome new styles and methods. The long-term health of any organization rests in its ability to adjust to new realities and bring in the right people to meet needs and fill strategic roles. Past success is nice, but ongoing success rests in the hands of present leadership, and with coaches like Brad Stevens, the NBA is set up well for the future.