At first glance, Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens is an embodiment of old world basketball. He’s from Indiana, a place that basketball inventor James Naismith once labeled as the “center of the sport.” And he coaches one of the NBA’s iconic teams. Yet with that background, Stevens is right at home in basketball’s ever-expanding global reach. In fact, he uses it to his advantage.
In a recent interview with BostInno, the 39-year-old coach elaborated on a fascinating quote he made during the Celtics’ preseason tour in Europe:
Brad Stevens on European basketball: “I admire the way teams play over here. I admire the way they’re coached… It’s beautiful basketball.”
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) October 6, 2015
It was a fairly profound quote, citing not just the combined coach and team aspect of European basketball, but the aesthetics of its resulting style.
“The two things that have always stood out offensively in particular are the spacing and the unselfishness,” Stevens explained. “I mean they share the ball and they always make the right read. And we got exposed a little bit playing against them in that regard.”
The differing style of play is rooted in both the coaches and players.
“I just think it all ties together,” said Stevens. “Understanding the right read at the right time and having the unselfishness to make it. You have to coach the reads and then you’ve got to have guys that are willing to make that play. And to do both is really impressive.”
Boston won both games in Europe, defeating Olimpia Milano and Real Madrid in the October preseason visit. Even in victory, Stevens remains adamant that European basketball is far from the inferior product it’s stereotypically labelled as:
Well first of all, a lot of the NBA teams that have gone over there have not had success in the exhibition season. We played really hard in those two games. We played well in both those games to win and we were up 10 against Real Madrid late in the game. Those are really good players, really good teams.
Defining exactly what “European style” is becomes a study in generalizations, though in basketball terms, it’s become increasingly at the heart of the NBA’s new look. The Spurs and the Warriors as recent NBA champions are only the most prominent examples. Stevens pointed out that the trend has gone back even farther.
“We steal from each other because we can all watch each other’s games in one click now.”
“There’s no question,” he said in regards to European traits in recent champions. “Beyond that, since I mean Miami plays a ‘pace and space‘ game. So you really go, I mean Dallas, they were playing Dirk at the four. Here’s what it is: it’s almost flow-oriented. You’re playing based on reads more than calls, and so you look at really the last five (champions).”
And in the “YouTube era” of so many games across the world being at anyone’s fingertips, Stevens has reveled in the sharing of ideas. He noted during the Celtics’ trip that he was definitely going to “steal” things that European teams were doing, just as they do with various American concepts.
“There’s a lot of influence,” said Stevens. “The game’s an international game. I think all of us, the coaching in the NBA, the coaching in college, the coaching in high school, coaching overseas, we steal from each other because we can all watch each other’s games in one click now.”
Stevens has been harnessing aspects of European basketball for years. He even still has a play named after a nation that no longer exists, yet possessed one of the richest basketball histories in the world.
“At Butler we ran a play called ‘Yugoslavia’ that we saw Yugoslavia run in the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis that beat the United States. We’ve run it, we probably scored like 90 points on it in 10 years. I run it occasionally as an ATO (after timeout) right now,” he said. “But you’re doing that all the time. And that’s just an example.” (Stevens didn’t elaborate on the particulars of how the play works.)
From a basketball perspective, it’s a fascinating thought, picturing a native Hoosier incorporating a play from an Eastern European national team. At a basic level, few examples illustrate the globalization of the game better than Stevens’ “Yugoslavia” play.
And though he made his career as a college coach, Stevens admits that the American model of youth basketball probably isn’t on the same level as what European “clubs” do. While American kids go to basketball camps and eventually attend at least one year of college (due to NBA rules), European youngsters emerge from the academies and youth programs adjacent to the pro teams.
This was on display in the Celtics’ game against Real Madrid, when the Spanish powerhouse subbed in 16-year-old 6’6″ guard, Luca Doncic. The Slovenian played more than 15 minutes, pulling down four rebounds and even recording a block against Celtics star Isaiah Thomas. Stevens thinks the familiarity of playing in a professional organization from a young age with other young teammates elevates the European game.
“I’ve always thought it would be interesting if the United States would have like a club system, because I think these guys (European players) grow up, they really have a great feel for how to play the game.”
“I think it’s kids growing up in a club, learning how to play. Playing together, getting used to playing together and then they get good enough, they’re professionals and sometimes together. There’s a real systematic way of playing and a chemistry.”
It fosters the “flow” aspect that Stevens alluded to in explaining the European style. In the NBA, continuity of successful teams like the Spurs and Warriors is a smaller-scale version of it, and something that Stevens is undoubtedly aiming for in Boston.
Notably, the natural association of European basketball’s style and its club setup is with the game of soccer, perhaps basketball’s only major competition for the mantle of “world’s game.” When asked if he was a fan of the “beautiful game,” Stevens gave an intriguing response:
Yeah, but I’m not as big of a soccer fan, like I don’t understand the club systems quite as well in soccer, but I’ve always thought it would be interesting if the United States would have like a club system, because I think these guys (European players) grow up, they really have a great feel for how to play the game.
It echoes comments made by Kobe Bryant, who grew up playing in Italy as a child, when he told ESPN earlier in 2015 that Europeans “are just taught the game the right way at an early age…They’re more skillful.”
Stevens’ Celtics are currently 2-3, rounding into form as the young season gets underway. Having made an unexpected run to the playoffs last year, he’s already proving to be adaptable and innovative. Given his appreciation of European basketball, Boston fans can be safe in the knowledge that their coach is leaving no stone left unturned in the journey to rebuilding the Celtics.