Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens has often talked about how much he had to learn on the fly when he was plucked out of Butler and hired as Boston’s coach in 2013. Stevens had never played or coached in the NBA, and there was so much to digest.
But for first-year Celtics coach Ime Udoka, the adjustment was not as drastic. He played in parts of eight NBA seasons and then spent nine years as an NBA assistant coach. So even though Udoka has been in his current post for just more than six months, his years as an evaluator and league observer could put him in position to offer Stevens input in advance of the Feb. 10 trade deadline, Stevens’s first in his new role.
“It’s a benefit,” Udoka said. “Been around a lot of organizations, as a player and coach, and so have a lot of relationships as far as that and knowledge of personnel in general. Whether we’re working with guys predraft years ago, I’ve always had hands on somebody or have knowledge of them.
“And so that’s a benefit for sure, from my end. But Brad’s got that covered as well. He’s been around long enough now to form those relationships. It’s in a different capacity now, but I think we all know what we need and know the lay of the land of the league and personnel pretty well now.”
Udoka said that he and Stevens are talking daily about various ways to tinker with the roster. But he emphasized that he is primarily responsible for guiding the team that is currently in front of him. He added that Stevens has already had plenty of discussions with other teams that have not even reached him.
“Some things that aren’t realistic, but anything that’s starting to possibly have an impact, obviously, we’ll talk about it and run through some things and where we’re at overall and what we’d like to improve on,” Udoka said.
“And so those are the discussions we have daily. But he’s taken — he took probably 10 phone calls after our game [Monday]. And so those things we don’t always talk about, nothing realistic.”
In recent years, the Celtics’ goals at the trade deadline have been obvious. They were widely viewed as an Eastern Conference contender, and constantly sought ways to continue their ascension.
This year, the path is not quite as clear. They are 23-22 and entered Tuesday night in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. With no instant path to title contention on the horizon, Stevens could step back and look for ways to fortify the future roster around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
On the other hand, the Celtics have won five of their last six games, and the conference standings remain quite bunched. They enter Wednesday night just 5½ games behind the Heat and Bulls, who are in a virtual tie for first.
Celtics forward Al Horford acknowledged Tuesday that he has kept track of the standings more this season than ever before. He said he believes the conference remains “up for grabs,” and with one powerful stretch, Boston could push into contention. The Celtics have the NBA’s sixth-easiest remaining schedule.
Although Stevens, at some point, will have to consider a wait-until-next-year approach, Horford said he and his teammates will never view their situation through that prism.
“We should never look at it in that way,” he said. “We’re focused on the season and the things we need to do and what we can be as this group, as this team here right now. In no way, shape, or form are we looking ahead of anything like that.
“The biggest thing is how good we can be with the group that we have and try to figure it out. We have the players, we have it here, and it’s hard, but that’s the challenge.”
Celtics guard Marcus Smart remained sidelined Tuesday because of COVID-19 protocol and center Robert Williams had yet to rejoin the team following the birth of his child Monday. Also, Aaron Nesmith sat out after rolling his ankle in the fourth quarter of the win over the Pelicans Monday. Udoka said that Williams is expected to return to face the Hornets Wednesday and Nesmith is day to day. Smart, meanwhile, has yet to register a negative COVID-19 test, Udoka said.