NBA Coaching Report: Former Spurs Assistant Ime Udoka Is Now Celtics New Head Coach
Celtics bring in new head coach in Udoka
The Boston Celtics are now set to usher in a new era to their storied franchise. Reports have it that the Celtics are bringing in Ime Udoka as their new head coach, just a couple of weeks after Brad Stevens vacated the role to become the team’s new president of basketball operations. Stevens replaced long-tenured Celtics front office figure Danny Ainge, who stepped down from his role as the president of the team.
With Ainge deciding to part ways with the team, it has become apparent that this will be a new era in Boston. It is a good thing that they have two young stars who could be the cornerstones of their future, but it is only right that the team bring in a coach who has the experience and the credibility to bring out the best not just out of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but also from the whole team.
As per Senior NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, the Celtics are now finalizing the terms of their agreement with the camp of Udoka. Wojnarowski pointed out that both Tatum and Brown gave a thumbs-up to the potential hiring of Udoka, having played for the latter during the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Tatum and Brown were key cogs of the national basketball team that the United States of America sent in that tournament.
San Antonio Spurs long-time head coach Gregg Popovich led the coaching staff of that version of the Team USA, with Udoka serving as one of the assistant coaches. Wojnarowski also emphasized that even in the early stages of the Celtics’ search for a new head coach, Udoka’s name was already at the top of the list that also included Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach Darvin Ham and Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups.
The Boston Celtics are finalizing an agreement with Brooklyn Nets assistant Ime Udoka to make him the franchise's new coach, sources told ESPN. Udoka will replace Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens, who stepped down as coach earlier this month to replace Danny Ainge running the franchise's basketball operations. Udoka, 43, separated himself quickly in the search process, sources said, and his candidacy was boosted with strong recommendations from key Celtics stars -- including Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart -- who played for Udoka on Team USA in the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
Udoka was an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs for seven seasons under coach Gregg Popovich. He left San Antonio to join Brett Brown's staff in Philadelphia two years ago and moved on to Brooklyn under Steve Nash this season. He spent several years in pro basketball as a player, including stops with the Lakers, Blazers, Kings, Knicks and Spurs. Milwaukee Bucks assistant Darvin Ham and LA Clippers assistant Chauncey Billups had multiple interviews with the Celtics. Both were considered top candidates in the process, sources said.
Having said all these, there is no doubt that Udoka has long been primed and ready for his debut as a first-time head coach in the NBA. It was not just this season that he has been put into a candidacy for a new head coach position. This has been brewing for a few years now, especially with all the knowledge, expertise, credibility and experience that he has gained through the many years that he has served as a brilliant and league-renowned assistant coach in the NBA.
Before his tenure as an assistant coach in the most popular basketball league in the world, Udoka also played in the NBA. He actually went undrafted in the 2000 NBA Draft so he first played overseas to build up his resume and develop his skills on both ends of the court. Udoka played in the NBDL to suit up for the North Charleston Lowgators, before being called up by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004.
Udoka, a defensive-minded small forward, only played four games for the Lakers that season. He again took his talents overseas following that stint, playing in France and Spain. The New York Knicks then signed him during the 2005-06 NBA season, where he would play eight games. But it was the following year that Udoka would eventually blossom into an excellent role player in the league.
He played for the Portland Trail Blazers in 2006, and started in all the 75 games that he logged in for the team. Udoka put up a decent stat line of 8.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 0.9 steals per contest, while shooting a tremendous 40% clip from the three-point line. In that one year alone, Udoka was able to establish himself as defense-first perimeter player who can also shoot consistently from beyond the arc.
After that one season with the Blazers, the Spurs then acquired Udoka. Udoka played three seasons with the Spurs, and started to create a meaningful bond with Popovich. Udoka never achieved star status as a player, but it was also a fact that he was a highly-regarded name even back then. In an article written by Jared Weiss of The Athletic, he pointed out that it was not just Tatum or Brown who came away impressed with Udoka’s knowledge of the game. Weiss wrote that even Celtics’ defensive ace Marcus Smart and then-Celtics point guard Kemba Walker were impressed with Udoka.
Two years ago, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker played for Ime Udoka, as part of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s FIBA World Cup squad. These moments are always discussed as inflection points for players to recruit each other, but it also gives up-and- coming coaches an opportunity to propel themselves as the next wave of candidates. The players came away impressed with the then-Spurs assistant who was establishing his bench bonafides after a seven-year NBA career. That came back around over the past few weeks, as Brad Stevens consulted with his top players and found widespread support for the recent Brooklyn Nets coach. Now, as first reported by ESPN and corroborated by The Athletic,Udoka is expected to succeed Stevens as the new head coach of the Boston Celtics. His job will entail trying to get the Celtics back on the road to the Finals — one they had been down before two seasons ago.
This hiring checks many of the boxes the Celtics were looking for. As a player, Udoka worked his way to the NBA after finding success overseas and the D-League after going undrafted. He managed a solid career through his defensive acuity and high basketball IQ. Popovich entrusted Udoka to be the primary defender on Kobe Bryant at his peak, and he is regarded as someone who can help the best players reach the next level. He spent his last season in the NBA with San Antonio before playing one more year in Spain. Popovich brought him into his coaching staff as soon as he retired.
Right after his playing days in the NBA, Udoka seamlessly transitioned to a very productive coaching career. He immediately joined Popovich’s coaching staff in San Antonio, and won a championship with them when they soundly defeated LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen and the powerhouse Miami Heat squad during the 2014 NBA Finals.
Udoka was also the catalyst of the Spurs’ pursuit of then-star big man LaMarcus Aldridge. It became apparent back then that Udoka and Aldridge have developed a lasting friendship on and off the court, which started when they became teammates in Udoka’s lone year in Portland. Aldridge was only starting in the NBA back then, and Udoka became his veteran presence and mentor.
After his productive stint in San Antonio, the Philadelphia 76ers came calling in 2019, and hired Udoka as an assistant coach. In 2020, it was the Brooklyn Nets who cashed in on Udoka’s services, hiring him as an assistant coach under the leadership of first-time head coach Steve Nash. Like Udoka, Nash was a former player in the NBA, although he was the more prominent one. Nash went on to nab two Most Valuable Player awards, and numerous All-Star appearances. In Nash’s first year as head coach of the Nets, he steered the team to a second round playoff appearance, although it did not end in the way that they wanted it to. They lost Game 7 to the Milwaukee Bucks, and were hounded by player injuries all year long.
Now it remains to be seen if Udoka can replicate that kind of success in his first year with the Celtics, but he certainly has the right tools to do so. With Tatum and Brown both developing into well-rounded scorers, the Celtics front office just needs to surround them with a supporting cast that will complement those two stars, and fit into the system that Udoka would want to implement. Having learned and served under the leadership of Popovich, it would be of certainty that Udoka will be implementing a team-first system that will rely heavily on ball movement rather than prolonged isolation plays.
In that same article written Jared Weiss for The Athletic, he pointed out that Udoka is the coach that this Celtics squad definitely needs as of this moment. Weiss said that Udoka has that demeanor that is known to be level-headed, engaging and steady. With the exception of a couple of veterans on their roster, this version of the Celtics squad is still a fairly young group of players. With Udoka’s demeanor and the fact that he has been around superstar players like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, Udoka is the fitting choice for the Celtics.
Udoka immediately was playing a role in putting together one of the best teams of its era. With a young Kawhi Leonard emerging alongside the Spurs’ big three, the Spurs nearly won a title against LeBron James in his prime in 2013, if not for the legendary Ray Allen shot. The Spurs still cruised to their fifth championship under Popovich the following year. The way those around Udoka speak about him, his demeanor sounds similar to that of Stevens. He is known for being level-headed and engaging, a steady, emotional intelligence he can use to positively impact the person or the moment in front of him.
That last part — no, not the dinner — is key to Udoka’s hiring. The Celtics needed to bring in someone whose communication skills with the top players would be strong. Udoka has been lauded for his ability to connect with everyone across the roster. He can establish roles and expectations, something players reportedly struggled with under Stevens in recent years. This is the kind of challenge Udoka is ready for by all accounts. He was a rising coaching star early in his San Antonio tenure and was a runner-up in the Nets’ 2016 coaching search that ended up going to Kenny Atkinson. In 2019, Udoka replaced current Suns coach Monty Williams to work with former colleague Brett Brown as his top assistant in Philadelphia, then was scooped up by the Nets last offseason to join their loaded staff.
But of course, there is nothing definite with the future of this Celtics squad. Hiring Udoka as their new head coach is just a step in the right direction. They still have a lot left to figure out, especially in terms of roster. They already started making some changes around, trading Walker to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the services of veteran big man Al Horford. By getting back Horford, they will be again be receiving the versatility that he brings on both ends of the floor.
While it is without a doubt that Tatum and Brown will be their main men, this roster still needs a whole lot more of depth in their second unit. They only finished the regular season with a 36-36 record, which is quite an underachievement for them. They managed to win one game against the Nets, thanks to Tatum’s individual brilliance, but that was it.
Looking at the Celtics’ bench right now, it is composed of a lot of young players like Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard, Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford and Semi Ojeleye. That second unit will not cut it if you want to pursue a deeper run in the playoffs. The Celtics front office have to get more shot-makers to create and facilitate offense when both Tatum and Brown are getting their rest in between quarters.
Along with the fact that they need more talent and depth, Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer pointed out that the Celtics also need more leadership. The only credible veteran in the team is Tristan Thompson, who won a championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016. O’Connor said that it is not enough, and we could see Stevens and the Celtics front office pursuing another seasoned veteran to shore up their roster for next season.
Boston does have a core of young players, but there are questions there as well. Robert Williams has shown promise as a bouncy rim runner and shot blocker, but he’s also failed to stay healthy and can be a restricted free agent in 2022. Rookies Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard and second-year players Romeo Langford and Grant Williams have all had positive moments. But their trade value isn’t significant because their potential as players is unclear.
This team is also lacking veteran leadership; Tristan Thompson is the only player other than Walker who is at least 30 years old, and he will become a free agent in 2022. So will the team’s longest-tenured player, Marcus Smart. So much needs to change, but how much can? The best NBA decision-makers have a knack for turning nothing into something. They take a long view. They take risks. They’re fearless. When considering what the Stevens hire means for Boston with all the challenges ahead, Ainge’s first controversial move comes to mind.
Along with the potential hiring of Udoka and the fact that they need to bring in more talent, leadership, and depth to their roster, the Celtics also have to figure out how to round out Udoka’s coaching staff. Udoka can still retain the coaching staff from the previous year, but it is for sure that he would want to have the opportunity to pick out his assistant coaches based on his own preference and style, along with the system that he would want to employ on his team.