The Celtics are beginning their first coaching search in eight years. The previous one was brief. A few days after Doc Rivers opted to step down and accept a larger role with the Clippers, Danny Ainge decided on Butler University coach Brad Stevens, who accepted the job shortly after the offer.
This time, the Celtics have a larger pool of candidates from which to choose and it’s Stevens making the decision following Ainge’s retirement. Being one of the few NBA jobs open, and it being the Celtics with two All-Stars and a roster expected to reach the playoffs, it is considered a premium job.
While it’s difficult to determine what Stevens is seeking, the consensus around the NBA is that the Celtics are looking for a coach with NBA playing experience who can relate to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and command their respect.
There are a number of possible candidates, but here are six with which Celtics fans should be familiar:
Chauncey Billups — The former Celtic is now a Clippers assistant coach under ex-Celtics assistant Tyronn Lue. Billups has been regarded as a future NBA coach or general manager and there were talks with his hometown Nuggets about a position before he decided to stay at ESPN. Knowing he needed to gain experience to be considered for a head coaching job, Billups joined the Clippers. He is the most accomplished candidate, with a reputation as a leader on the 2003-04 Pistons championship team. Billups would seem like a natural to build relationships with players and use his basketball acumen to take the Celtics to the next level. Odds: 4/1.
Sam Cassell — Another former player with Celtics ties, Cassell is now with Rivers in Philadelphia after spending five years as an assistant with the Wizards and another six with Rivers with the Clippers. Cassell has coached teams in summer leagues and has been groomed to lead his own team. He has paid his dues as an assistant, is familiar with the Celtics’ brass after being a member of the 2007-08 title team, and is highly respected around the league. Cassell also has an affable style and personality that is popular with players. Odds: 4/1
Ime Udoka — He doesn’t carry a big name, but Udoka is a highly respected assistant waiting for his first big opportunity. Udoka, 43, is a member of Steve Nash’s staff in Brooklyn and was with Brett Brown’s staff in Philadelphia, so he is familiar with the Celtics. Udoka comes from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree with the Spurs and won a title as an assistant in 2014. He may not bring the sizzle of other coaches, but Udoka should get a long look. Odds: 8/1.
Jerome Allen — The Celtics assistant is a former coach at Penn and has been with Boston for the past four years. He has been a positive influence, forging close relationships with the players, but it may be difficult to sell ownership on someone on the current staff with such close ties to Stevens. Still, Allen’s goal is to be an NBA head coach, and he’s been an asset to Stevens. Odds: 16/1.
Jay Larranaga — Another assistant on Stevens’s staff, Larranaga was a finalist for the Hornets job that went to James Borrego. He has worked closely with Tatum and Brown and can be credited with aiding their ascension. Again, it may be difficult for Larranaga to have a chance because it may be perceived that Stevens is playing favorites. If it doesn’t work out for Larranaga, he could be a holdover on the new coach’s staff. Odds: 16/1.
Kara Lawson — The Duke women’s coach spent a season with the Celtics as an assistant before joining the Blue Devils in a season that was short-lived because of COVID-19. Would Lawson leave Duke and her new recruits for an NBA opportunity? Is the timing right? The Celtics think highly of Lawson and she was popular with the players because of her work ethic and basketball knowledge. It may be a difficult sell because of her commitment to Duke, but Lawson will get an interview if she wants it. Odds: 8/1.
DOWN IN FLAMES
Another early exit for Blazers
The Trail Blazers looked as if they were ready to advance past the first round, taking Game 1 in Denver behind Damian Lillard’s brilliant performance. But they then lost four of the next five, including in double overtime in Game 5 with Lillard scoring 55 points.
Finally, the Blazers blewa 14-point lead in Game 6 and lost at home. Season over, despite Lillard again being one of the best players in the league. Lillard left a cryptic post on Instagram, asking whether loyalty lasts forever.
General manager Neal Olshey has to determine how to bring the Blazers to the next level. His first move was to part ways with coach Terry Stotts, who leaves after nine seasons but just one appearance in the Western Conference finals.
Remember when the Blazers had apparently won the offseason, acquiring Robert Covington and Enes Kanter, and signing Harry Giles and Derrick Jones Jr.?
But it still came down to a lack of defense and not enough support for Lillard. Jusuf Nurkic came back from injury but couldn’t stay out of foul trouble in the Denver series, defending likely MVP Nikola Jokic. Stotts did a solid job but was not able to fully take advantage of Lillard’s brilliance.
Lillard has three more years on his contract and a player option for a fourth, so he isn’t going anywhere unless the Blazers trade him. Instead, they will likely try to again upgrade the roster after hiring a new coach.
“It’s disappointing to lose in the playoffs,” Stotts said after the Game 6 loss to the Nuggets. “Denver is a great team. Jokic is a great player. But I couldn’t be more proud of what we did to put ourselves in a position to be the sixth seed. It’s almost like last season and this season were rolled into one long season. Last season was very challenging for a lot of different reasons. Our expectations were high. With Nurkic missing 35 games and CJ [McCollum] missing 25 games there’s a lot to be proud of, what we did in the regular season. At the end of the season, to do what we did was pretty impressive. We had been written off and we weren’t. That showed a lot of character in our guys.”
Nurkic wasn’t completely happy with his role. He played about 24 minutes per game, with Kanter taking the other minutes. It kept Nurkic from getting into foul trouble, but he wanted more.
“I don’t want to point the finger,” Nurkic said when asked why the Blazers came up short. “They just outplayed us. I give them credit. I don’t know if I’m going to be back. I’m going to leave that to Rich Paul, my agent. I’m going to take a step away from basketball.
“I wish my role was bigger. I think I can help more. It’s hard when you have one of the best players ever to play this game and you still feel it’s not enough. In the right situation [I want to be back]. This is not it.”
Lillard is 30 and in the prime of his career, but he has to determine whether it’s worth sticking with the Blazers when they continue to fall short of competing with the elite teams in the West.
“When this is your job and this is what you want, it’s disappointing,” he said. “What we have now isn’t good enough. I don’t know what changes will be made. We came up short against a team without their starting point guard and shooting guard. Will Barton didn’t play and Jamal Murray didn’t play and we came up short, so what we have isn’t good enough to win a championship.”
to make in D.C.
The Wizards may have been hit by COVID-19 harder than any NBA team this season. What’s more, they had more than one day off in a row just once (March 19-20) after the All-Star break. Still, Washington won 17 of its last 23 games and earned the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference before losing to the top-seeded 76ers in the first round.
There are major issues, however, within the organization. Coach Scott Brooks just completed the final year of his contract, and general manager Tommy Sheppard did not commit to bringing him back.
“We’re not doing anything about that today,” Sheppard said this past week. “We’re going to do a thorough evaluation from top to bottom of our whole organization and ways we can get better. But any question about that stuff, that’s not for today.
“I will say this. Scotty did a hell of a job keeping this team together through the most difficult, dark moments probably in franchise history. Some of the moments we faced early in the season, to finish the way we did, 17-6, and to be able to go 19-10 since the trade deadline, I think speaks very highly of a cohesive unit that was able to overcome great odds, and Scotty did a great job with that.”
Brooks is a quality coach, but the question is whether he can lead the Wizards to the next level. He was fired in Oklahoma City because the Thunder had plateaued. Overall, the Wizards have been mediocre during his tenure, despite being expected to make a run when they acquired Russell Westbrook for the disgruntled John Wall in December.
Westbrook did set the career triple-double mark previously held by Oscar Robertson, but showed the same flaws he did in previous stops, namely turnovers near the end of games, and below-average 3-point shooting. Bradley Beal earned his third All-Star selection and is the Wizards’ true franchise player, but he’s entering the final year of his contract and will have to determine whether he wants to make a long-term commitment to Washington.
Beal has had his ups and downs in nine seasons with the Wizards, but the organization moved Wall to give him the keys to the franchise. Beal and Westbrook played well together, but are they enough to help the Wizards compete with the conference’s elite?
“We need to be a much better team next year to compete at the level we want to compete at,” Sheppard said. “We’ve gotten better since last year. Our record has improved. We got to the playoffs. I think that’s going to be the expectation moving forward, but we want to finish much higher than that. We made the play-in, but now that’s no longer acceptable. We have to be better next season.”
Beal has not said he will re-sign with the Wizards, but he was pleased with the team’s progress this season. He’s been part of a lot of underachieving teams. He wants to be considered an elite player, and that means playing in bigger games.
The Wizards have never been a popular free agent destination, so Sheppard will have to be creative in how he builds the roster. But he wants to build that roster around Beal.
“Everything starts with Bradley Beal,” Sheppard said. “This team moving forward, we put this team around Bradley. Russell and Bradley have created an environment where that is second to none. There’s no drama. There’s genuine brotherhood. We bring it every single day. I look at all the options we have available to us moving forward, and it starts with time. This season, to get to where we are, was a remarkable achievement. What Russell brought to this team, he was an incredible co-pilot to Bradley, creating an environment that there’s accountability among the players.”
There’s a wrinkle to the Beal situation. Other teams could make trade offers for Beal, knowing he’s entering the final year of his deal. If Sheppard isn’t certain Beal will re-sign, he could accept one of those offers to get reasonable compensation.
Sheppard’s plan is to encourage Beal to re-sign by upgrading the roster. Robin Lopez, Raul Neto, Ish Smith, and Alex Len are all free agents. The Wizards need more perimeter shooting and another solid wing defender to help one of the league’s worst defensive teams.
“Nothing’s changed for me and Bradley,” Sheppard said. “Straight-line conversation with him has always been transparent and very direct, and that’s how it will continue. I know he was very pleased with this season in terms of what we were able to accomplish, making him feel like this is a place where we can be a contender. I think he’s positive about moving forward in the future. Our moves need to be about production, not about the press conference.”
Sheppard first must decide whether to keep Brooks as coach. And then the Wizards have to determine how they can improve in a stacked conference. Westbrook is signed for two more years. Daniel Gafford could be the team’s starting center after being a throw-in in a trade with the Bulls. Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija are former lottery picks that should develop into major contributors.
The future could be bright in Washington, but there are question marks that have to be addressed in the coming months.
“We’re going to formulate a lot of information, a lot of opinions, and I’m going to sit with Scotty and see the things they can do better,” Sheppard said. “It’s never down to one person. There hasn’t been that continuity that successful teams have year in and year out. That’s what we want, continuity.”
One of the major issues for the Nets in their second-round series against the Bucks is who will defend Giannis Antetokounmpo, who flourished against Brooklyn this season. The Nets will be without Jeff Green (foot) for at least the first few games and have been using Blake Griffin as a starter. That may not have hurt against the Celtics, who constantly went at Griffin in pick-and-rolls, but he can’t defend Antetokounmpo. During the regular season, the Nets used DeAndre Jordan against Antetokounmpo, and that didn’t work. Jordan, once the Nets’ starting center, did not play against the Celtics. Kevin Durant could get the assignment against Antetokounmpo, but it would be taxing to attempt to defend him, and then be depended on to score. The Nets lack quality big men, a byproduct of gutting their roster to sign Durant and Kyrie Irving, and then trading for James Harden … For a few days, the Celtics’ coaching vacancy was the only one in the NBA, but there were two moves on Saturday, as the Trail Blazers parted ways with Terry Stotts and the Magic decided to move on from Steve Clifford. That creates more competition for the Celtics and likely speeds up the search for their desired candidate. Most of the league’s worst teams have newer coaches, such as Minnesota (Chris Finch), Houston (Stephen Silas), and Oklahoma City (Mark Daigneault), while Sacramento (Luke Walton) and Cleveland (J.B. Bickerstaff) have given their coaches endorsements for next season. There could be potential openings in Washington (Brooks) and Indiana (Nate Bjorkgren) … The NBA released the early-entry numbers, and 353 college and international players have submitted their names, for a 60-player draft. Many of these are players just looking to get an evaluation before returning to school, while others decided not to use the extra year of eligibility granted because of the pandemic. The whopping number of is the byproduct of college players wanting to begin their professional careers, and submitting their names knowing full well they don’t have a chance of getting drafted. But they just want to go to through the process and get a shot with a G-League team or a club overseas. One of the more interesting names to declare is Howard University center Makur Maker, who played just two games for the Bison before suffering an injury, and could return to school. This is expected to be a top-heavy draft, so expect several sleepers and second-round picks to make NBA rosters.