I just read Underdawgs by David Woods which encapsulates the two Finals runs that the Butler Men’s basketball team went on in 2010 and 2011. After reading the book, there were several themes that demonstrated why Brad Stevens was so effective during this run and continues to be at the NBA level.
1. High effort all the time, not just crunch time.
This excerpt from the book describes blue collar effort from Matt Howard:
“With the Bulldogs securely ahead by 25 points in the second half, the usually quiet Howard exhorted his teammates: ‘This is not over! Don’t stop playing!’ Howard never stopped. Soon thereafter, he dove into the courtside seats, knocking down a chain barrier and breaking a chair. In doing so, he batted a loose ball into the hands of [teammate] Shawn Vanzant. The extraordinary hustle resulted in a Veasley layup and a 27-point lead. Stevens said he would show the play for the next 20 years.”
2. Calm and confident when the chips are down.
During timeouts of a game, the team that is losing has a tendency to focus on the negative. What Brad Stevens does routinely in these situations is encourage the players to move forward. He reminds them that they still have a chance because they have not played their best yet. Similarly, Stevens will exude his teams to hit singles instead of home runs. By focusing on just getting one score and one stop, he tells his team that the opponent will be back on their heels emotionally. As the Celtics demonstrated this past season when they trailed the Rockets by 26, a lot can happen in a short time.
3. Instincts over convention.
During each of the Final Four runs, Stevens twice inserted little used players into big moments. First, in a regional final against Kansas State, Stevens inserted Andrew Smith in the first half. Smith had not played in the tournament’s three other games. The following year, there was an even more extreme case where Stevens inserted Chrishawn Hopkins. He had played a total of less than ten minutes over the prior two months. In both instances, the players responded with big hoops and Butler outscored the opponent while they were in the games. That experience is probably why Stevens let unheralded rookie Semi Ojeleye guard Giannis Antetokounmpo this season and start Ojeleye against the Greek Freak in the playoffs. Disengaged players on the bench is a challenge for all coaches. Stevens finds ways to keep players motivated by trusting them in big moments.
4. Be ready to anticipate the worst.
Butler had a sign above the locker room that read, “If you couldn’t play at all, would you be a valuable teammate every day?” It was obviously a question that Stevens put some thought into. When the Celtics lost former Butler Bulldog and prized free agent Gordon Heyward in the first quarter this past season, it proved to be prophetic. Stevens told his team they had eighty games to go. Heyward struggled mentally, but managed to be involved in his terms as a scout.
5. Commit to learning.
“The moment I stop evolving, I’ll quit,” is a statement that Stevens made to Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe back in 2015. Zach Lowe of ESPN highlighted the fact that Stevens “reads a lot.” Within that same post, Stevens stole a definition of toughness from a book he doesn’t recall to help motivate his team in a playoff series this past May. Given Stevens penchant for learning, the Butler players also valued education. When the Final Four was six miles from Indianapolis, Butler players continued to attend their classes. Their best player, Gordon Hayward, woke up on time for his 9:00 math class. Even the day of the final game against Duke, players went to class.
The following season, the Final Four was in Houston. Players were skyping into lectures on Ancient Greece and typing papers for psychology inside Reliant Stadium. I wonder if Jim Harrick would have used the same formula if Lamar Odom and Rhode Island had made it that far. The term student-athlete is often mistaken as two separate entities. Even at the professional level, it’s fair to say that Stevens endorses these two ideas as one entity.
6. Unhappy with your role, then thrive in your role.
When Brad Stevens left college, he was working for the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. He was comfortable there, but desired to get back into basketball. According to Woods, “A Lilly director gave him the best advice he ever received: Do your best on the job you have, and good things will happen.” Unfortunately for Eli Lilly, Stevens never applied that advice at that company. When he initially began at Butler, he was an unpaid Director of Basketball Operations. Through good fortune and hard work, he obviously turned that into much more. From an on-court perspective, the idea of doing the best on the job you have is powerful. Erik Spoelstra’s ascension in the Heat organization gave him the nickname “No Problem.” He answered every little task he was asked with “No Problem” when he started as a video coordinator.
7. Resource Application.
In the book Stevens said, “Resources are not dollars. They are people.” As a mid-major, Butler did not have the same budget or sexy appeal as the schools in the power conferences. The facilities were weaker and the pool of players they could recruit was smaller and had less acclaim. Stevens was able to land players like Hayward despite being recruited by Michigan and others by building a relationship early. Once the players came together his demeanor and the team’s value helped mold them into a cohesive group where the sum of the parts was much greater than their individual skill sets.
Even with the Celtics, Stevens has made good use of players that were carelessly dismissed by other organizations. Guys like Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and Evan Turner. And when the Celtics lost their two best players for the playoffs this past season, the coach barely blinked. Other players were ready. It is tempting to point to the opponent and say they have the best player, a bigger pool of players to pick, etc. Stevens chooses to focus on the people that he can help influence to be better.
8. Serve others.
Brad Stevens said, “The number one quality of a leader is someone willing to serve others.” His college coach at Division III DePauw taught him, “If you can get players to be selfless, they have a jumpstart on the rest of their lives.”
9. Defense wins championships
Or at least comes really close.
Woods never used this cliché in the book, but defense was a huge part of their on-court identity. They held teams to under sixty points with consistency throughout their two tournament runs. The players always claimed they would rather guard the last shot than take the last shot. That speaks to a team in many ways since only one can shoot, but five can defend. At the time the book was written, Woods claimed that Butler shot the worst of any Final Four winning team in fifty years.
10. The margins between teams is small.
In Stevens speak, “You’re never as good as you think you are, nor as bad as you think you are.” After close games, Stevens would objectively evaluate that one possession would have completely altered the emotions of either team. Even in youth games where blow outs create a perception of teams in two different classes. I’m reminded of what John Fortunato told me about Morgan Wooten two months ago. One turnover a quarter can result in a sixteen-point swing. Part of what made Butler great defensively during their run was that they took care of the ball and never gave the opponent transition opportunities.