Brad Stevens can flex after what he built with Celtics' roster

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Forsberg: Stevens earned the right to flex with this Celtics roster originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Brad Stevens deserves to flex.

A snapshot of Boston’s president of basketball operations playfully posing went viral Wednesday night even before his team muscled the Western Conference-leading Phoenix Suns.

That Stevens was striking the pose in the background of a photo with soon-to-return Robert Williams III in the foreground made the shot even more powerful.

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It was an out-of-character moment for Stevens. Well, at least his public side. Those who know him best see that playful Stevens more frequently than we do -- even if he developed a penchant for Dad jokes toward the end of his tenure as coach of the Celtics.

Here’s why the snapshot resonated to us: Two months ago, Stevens wasn’t posing. He wasn’t smiling. The Ime Udoka coaching scandal had rocked Stevens and many in the Celtics organization. Dark clouds shrouded the Celtics as they gathered for training camp, especially after both Williams III and offseason addition Danilo Gallinari underwent late September surgeries.

The season easily could have veered off track for a team with title aspirations. Stevens didn’t just help steer the Celtics out from under dark clouds, he floored the accelerator and told everyone else to hold on. Stevens installed former assistant Joe Mazzulla as interim head coach and implored his players to simply focus on basketball.

Eight weeks into the 2022-23 season, the Celtics are an NBA-best 21-5. Williams III will be back this month. The roster that Stevens has shaped since taking over in June 2021 is oozing newfound depth, which has aided Boston's fast start and shuffled the Celtics to title favorites.

Celtics Talk: Ready for a Finals Rematch? Surging Celtics ready for struggling Warriors | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Make no mistake, Stevens inherited a talented roster. Danny Ainge’s deft drafting delivered core pieces in Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Williams III, Grant Williams, and Payton Pritchard. Stevens went the opposite way as roster builder and flipped a handful of future first-round-picks to add Al Horford (while shedding Kemba Walker’s long-term money), Derrick White, and Malcolm Brogdon.

Stevens made it a priority to craft a roster that prioritized skill, versatility, and defense. Every core piece fits neatly next to the others with no obvious weak link that might compromise that structure.

Coming off last year’s Finals loss, Stevens sought to bolster Boston’s depth. He pounced with Indiana eager to move off Brogdon’s money. Not only did Stevens land the veteran point guard by simply sacrificing end-of-the-roster pieces, but Stevens got Brogdon to embrace a Sixth Man role on this title-craving team.

When Gallinari got injured in international play, it opened a door for Sam Hauser, an undrafted sharpshooter who showed small glimpses of potential last season but has blossomed in an elevated role.

Stevens and the front office projected confidence in Luke Kornet when their big-man depth was eroded at the end of the offseason. Kornet was another depth piece from last year’s team who couldn’t crack the playoff rotation, but he has won over Celtics fans this year with his energetic play, a bottomless bag of post-dunk celebrations, and unique quirks like the mind-twisting Kornet Kontest.

The Kornet Kontest Explained


And to cap his offseason roster construction, Stevens imported 33-year-old Blake Griffin, who has not only emerged as a joyful locker room presence but has given the Celtics quality minutes whenever they need him for a spot start.

The Celtics are back in the Bay Area on Saturday night for a Finals rematch with the Golden State Warriors. Boston’s lack of depth was exploited in last year’s playoffs, most notably against the Warriors, and it certainly hindered the team’s quest for Banner 18.

Now, bench players puff out their chest when discussing the not-so-catchy bench moniker as "best second unit in the league." That nickname isn't sexy but it works. And that sort of embodies the personality of the Celtics' bench.

Boston rolls into San Francisco with maybe the deepest roster in the league. Even as Mazzulla leans heavy on his core pieces, the Celtics haven’t been slowed by any injury speed bumps because others have stepped up when the team has absences. Pritchard, one of Boston’s top eight players in the playoffs last season, has been limited to rare patches of playing time because of the team’s beefed-up depth chart.

Brogdon has been exactly the missing piece he was advertised to be. Kornet and Hauser have been more than serviceable on both ends of the floor and, when paired with Tatum, they've produced some of the team’s best basketball.

The Celtics don’t just have the best offense in the league with an offensive rating of 119.9 but they’re on pace to shatter the NBA record in that metric. A defense that lagged behind at the start of the year has slowly climbed to No. 8 in defensive rating (110.8) and could shuffle into the top five before the end of this six-game road trip based on recent progress.

Williams III, the straw that stirred Boston’s top-ranked defensive drink last season, will only make the team that much more dynamic on that end when he returns.

Stevens, still armed with a bevy of modest trade exceptions and a disabled player exception from Gallinari’s injury, will be hard-pressed to improve the roster. Even a high-quality role player would struggle to crack this rotation. The general health of the team in the ramp to February’s trade deadline could dictate Stevens' activity.

It’s notable, too, that there are obvious shades of Stevens in the way Mazzulla has coached the team. While Stevens recognized that his voice wasn’t resonating the way it needed to at the end of his coaching tenure, he used his knowledge of Boston’s players to shape a roster that eliminated many of the headaches he endured.

Stevens has kept himself busy by locking up the core of this team deep into the future. In inking Horford to a two-year extension last week, the Celtics have their top seven players signed through the end of the 2023-24 season.

Forsberg: Horford's extension is another win for Brad Stevens

The savings from Horford’s new contract carves out a potential salary slot to retain Grant Williams when he hits restricted free agency this summer. If Brown lands on an All-NBA team -- something that would be a slam dunk if the season ended today -- then he could be motivated to sign a long-term, super-max extension with the Celtics this summer.

Stevens has sought to give his players security and eliminate distractions. Thanks to Stevens’ efforts, the Celtics have been able to put all their energy into chasing the title that got away last season.

So, flex away, Brad. You’ve earned that right. And even if your playful pose surely wasn’t intended as a means to boast about the team you’ve built, it’s OK if that’s how anyone interprets it.

Because the 2022-23 Celtics can’t stop flexing on the rest of the league.