Considering who is in charge of the process, there is no surprise the Celtics coaching search is going to be a meticulous process.
Newly minted president of basketball operations Brad Stevens has already interviewed four team assistants in the past week and has now expanded his prospect list to Chauncey Billups, Darvin Ham, and Ime Udoka in addition to several other league assistants looking for their first head coaching opportunity.
It’s going to be a thorough search and several league executives feel as if the Celtics will have their choice of candidates because it’s the best job on the market.
Since Danny Ainge stepped down and Stevens took over, three NBA jobs have opened — Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, and Portland Trail Blazers. Celtics assistant Jerome Allen is scheduled to meet with the Trail Blazers while the Pacers are interested in former Blazers coach Terry Stotts and are monitoring the situation in Dallas with Rick Carlisle.
There needs to be a sense of urgency in Stevens’s search because of the other openings. The Trail Blazers are also believed to be interested in Billups but it’s a difficult situation. The Blazers have been perennially thumped from the first round of the playoffs and superstar guard Damian Lillard needs more roster help.
The Celtics have the advantage in their search, but it will be difficult for Stevens to sell his assistants as the head coach if the team’s brass believes there were major issues in how the team was coached last year.
Stevens had trouble communicating with this team and the result was a 36-36 record and a first-round elimination in the playoffs. COVID-19 issues and injuries also need to be considered as well as the Celtics’ performance in their playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets.
The Celtics pushed the Nets to five games with a healthy James Harden along with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Without Harden, who was injured 43 seconds into Game 1, the Nets have embarrassed the fully stocked Milwaukee Bucks in the first two games, which reflects better on how well the Celtics were coached in that series, despite lacking considerable talent to compete.
The perception of Stevens improves as the Nets continue to wipe out opponents and that will aid his coaching staff if they are seeking jobs around the NBA. Jay Larranaga, who was a finalist for the Charlotte job two years ago, interviewed with Stevens as did former G-League coach Scott Morrison and Joe Mazzulla, who worked primarily with the Celtics guards.
Allen may have the best chance of the assistants to earn the job and his skills are being coveted around the league, so he will be on a staff next season. Stevens is going to have to hustle to interview Billups because he is in the midst of a playoff series with the Los Angeles Clippers against the Utah Jazz.
Billups appears to be the favorite in the race. He established himself as a floor leader and astute basketball mind as a player and a potential front office executive and head coach after his playing days. What’s critical to Stevens is finding a coach who has the respect and command of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, someone with NBA stripes and perhaps even a championship.
The five-time All-Star also won the 2004 NBA Finals MVP and was three times All-NBA. He is the most accomplished candidate so far, but Stevens’s search will spread throughout the league. Ham is a veteran assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks and has been waiting for his first head coaching opportunity.
Udoka is under the Gregg Popovich coaching tree and has watched the Celtics closely as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers and Nets over the past few years.
What is impressive so far about the coaching search is Stevens going outside his box and comfort zone. Despite Stevens participating in various offseason coaching camps, he is bringing in a wide array of coaches, many of them he does not know well.
The issue with the Celtics in recent years is their lack of foresight in filling their front office with fresh and diverse voices. Ainge was so accustomed to having his regular team around him and it led to some unwise personnel and draft decisions.
Stevens appears determined to be so thorough with this search that he will pick the right candidate and there may be more than one candidate who is suitable for the job. The Celtics’ past reputation, the presence of Brown and Tatum and the potential to compete for an NBA championship in the near future makes this the best job available.
There are some very recent lessons that could be learned by Stevens in the process. Indiana thought it had its head coach for the next decade when it nabbed Nate Bjorkgren off the Toronto Raptors staff. He lasted just one season because he couldn’t relate to the playoffs.
Seasoned head coach Nate McMillan has turned around the Atlanta Hawks after the Pacers fired him last fall. The common denominator is coaching acumen and relating to players. Stevens obviously plans to find a candidate who can fill multiple roles as a head coach and it’s refreshing to see that he is exploring coaches who may be able to do what he was unable in his final few seasons — reach the players completely and create a fruitful environment for rapid improvement.