Only Brad Stevens could hire a coach that is just as mysterious as he was when he took over the Celtics’ helm eight years ago.
There is not one person in the NBA with a negative thing to say about Ime Udoka, the Celtics next head coach, and Udoka has quietly ascended into one of the best jobs in the NBA with a tireless work ethic and patience.
Stevens wanted to hire a former player. Check. He wanted to hire a person of color. Check. He wanted to hire someone with extensive experience coaching in different systems. Check. He wanted to hire someone perhaps without the big name, but with a pristine reputation. Check.
It was no shock Stevens and the 43-year-old Udoka bonded during the interview process. They have definite similarities. They are nearly the same age and Stevens has been watching Udoka for years as he has risen from the San Antonio Spurs staff to the Philadelphia 76ers and finally the Brooklyn Nets.
And while Celtics faithful may not be familiar with Udoka because we have never seen him publicly speak or he doesn’t have a Twitter account, he is the right candidate for this job.
That’s not to say Chauncey Billups or Darvin Ham would not have been equally strong choices. But it was apparent Udoka had made a connection with Stevens to convince the new Celtics president of basketball operations to select Udoka as his replacement as the next head coach.
As a staff member of Gregg Popovich’s FIBA Team USA coaching staff in 2019, Udoka bonded with Celtics participants Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. It spoke to the importance the Celtics placed on hiring a communicator who could relate and reach the Celtics’ younger stars.
Stevens was astute about reaching out to the team’s top players for their opinion on the future head coach. And Stevens also had to act fast because Udoka was coveted by several teams.
In the three weeks since Stevens took over as president of basketball operations for the departed Danny Ainge, five other NBA jobs became available and Udoka was on the top of the list for teams such as Portland, New Orleans and Orlando.
But the Celtics job was perceived as being the best coaching opportunity. Stevens went through the methodical and private process of conducting interviews with coaches whose teams were in the playoffs. Although his Nets were eliminated in Game 7 by the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, Udoka has been credited with being a key asset to first-year coach Steve Nash after spending several years with Brett Brown in the resurrection of the 76ers and in San Antonio with Popovich for seven years before that.
Experience is not an issue for Udoka, he just needed his first opportunity to become a head coach. And his hiring is indicative that the Celtics organization is opening to hiring outside of the box, outside their comfort zone. Stevens hired someone outside of his circle. The Celtics hired their sixth Black coach and one with no NBA experience.
There had been a perception that qualified Black assistant coaches were getting passed up for jobs by analytics-based and more inexperienced coaches, and in some cases, such as with Nate Bjorkgren in Indiana, it backfired.
Udoka could have taken over an NBA team years ago. He had more experience and higher regard in league circles than Taylor Jenkins in Memphis or Mark Daigneault in Oklahoma City, who were unheralded before getting their first NBA jobs.
Udoka has played with great players and coached great players. He has waited for his turn to become a serious coaching candidate. And it was apparent that this offseason would be his golden opportunity. The fact that he’s watched the Celtics several times a season while with Philadelphia and Brooklyn gives him a familiarity with the roster and the team’s strengths and weaknesses.
The Nets eliminated the Celtics in five games last month. Udoka had to game plan against Boston, devise ways to contain Tatum and counter Stevens’s tactics to slow the Nets down on offense. And we will get to know much more about this mystery man over the next few months.
He will have to develop his own personal style of play. He will have to adapt his philosophy to the Celtics’ roster and he will be expected to win immediately because of the talent he inherits. Meanwhile, Stevens’s job is to upgrade the roster from last season.
He has already made the right move to improve the culture. Udoka will now have to assemble a staff that will have an impact on the entire roster but especially help upgrade the games of Tatum and Brown. Udoka played in the league, learned from some of the best coaches and has obviously prepared for the opportunity to take over his own team.
We will learn more about Udoka starting today. But he made enough of an impression on Stevens to win the job the past few days. Stevens sought to hire a coach he would work with closely but also trust enough to allow him to run the team as he desires.
In the span of five days, Stevens traded the team’s highest-paid player to clear much-needed salary cap space and hired a coach who is well-equipped to lead the Celtics to the next level. Not a bad first few weeks on the job.