Just three weeks after their major front office shakeup that left the team without a head coach, the Boston Celtics have found their man, according to reports from multiple sources.
My initial reaction to this news? I love it. Hiring Ime Udoka this quickly means two things. First, it means that he can get started building a relationship with the Celtics star duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown early in the offseason (more on this in a bit). But second, and more importantly, it means that Udoka was their guy from the start. The Brooklyn Nets, for whom Udoka was an assistant coach, were eliminated less than a week ago from the NBA playoffs. For him to already be heading to the Celtics means that Boston went out and got the guy they wanted, instead of letting someone fall to them, and I love that.
Now, about the relationship he needs to build with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens consulted with Tatum and Brown, as well as Marcus Smart, about their experience of working with Udoka on Team USA during the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Apparently, those reviews must have been pretty strong, because Stevens decided that Udoka was the right hire to lead the Celtics into this next era. The fact that Udoka has a pre-existing relationship with these guys, even if only from a few months of international ball, is incredibly important. If Tatum and Brown are comfortable with their new coach, something that was clearly lost by the end of Stevens’ time on the bench, it should have immediate dividends.
However, Udoka didn’t get this job solely because of the recommendations from Celtics players. He is also extremely qualified for this job, and that’s yet another reason this is a great get for the C’s. He’s been on an NBA bench learning the ropes since 2012, starting under Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs. If there’s a better coach to learn from than Popovich, I certainly don’t know who it is. After seven years in San Antonio, Udoka moved on to Philadelphia for one season with the 76ers before spending the most recent season in Brooklyn.
In these two stops, Udoka learned how to work with superstars: Joel Embiid in Philly and the trio of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden in Brooklyn. I don’t think that experience with superstars in this league can be understated: a lot of them are weird, egotistical, and difficult to deal with. We’ve all seen plenty of talented teams crater because the coach lost the room. Hopefully, Udoka’s recent experience will help prevent that from happening if things ever reach a boiling point in the locker room.
This is an outstanding hire for the Celtics, even if Udoka wasn’t one of the names I looked at on my initial list of head coaching candidates. Though I was wrong on the name, I did nail the profile of the next Celtics coach. My top two candidates were Sam Cassell and Chauncey Billups: African American former players who had spent time as assistant coaches. While Udoka had a much less decorated playing career, he spent parts of seven seasons in the league before transitioning to the bench. You don’t have to be a star player to understand how the NBA works, and those years of experience no doubt have played a role in Udoka’s success as an assistant and will be key in his success as a head coach.
This hire will set a lot of balls in motion within the Celtics organization. Udoka can now start filling out his staff and Stevens can focus entirely on remaking the roster with the coaching position filled. The biggest news from this, for me, is that Stevens did what he absolutely needed to: he gave input to his stars. While Smart’s inclusion in that group is questionable – I would be surprised if he is still on the Celtics by the time the regular season rolls around – there’s no debating the Tatum and Brown needed to be consulted on this hire, and Stevens apparently did just that. The fact that Udoka is coming from outside of the organization, instead of an internal promotion, means that a fresh voice will be in charge of the locker room. After last season’s disappointment, I think all of Boston would agree that was needed, and it turns out that Udoka will get to lead that charge.
Welcome to Boston Ime, it’s time to get to work.