Celtics coach Ime Udoka caught a large striped bass while fishing off Boston Harbor Thursday, a respite following a long, grueling season that ended with a loss to the Warriors in the NBA Finals last week.
But it is clear that the rest of this summer will be no holiday for the coach, who just finished his first season with the team. By Thursday night, he was back in the Celtics draft room, and on Friday morning he was already talking about ways the team can improve and eventually take that final, massive step to the top of the basketball world.
“You look back and you understand the accomplishments and some of the growth we had, and you look back and you’re proud of that,” Udoka said. “But at this point in time, you still have a sour taste in your mouth based on how it finished and us not accomplishing the ultimate goal.”
Udoka enters this offseason encouraged, however. After the Celtics stumbled at the start and sat in 11th place in the Eastern Conference as late as January, they roared into the playoffs, eliminated stars such as Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jimmy Butler, and put an early scare into the Warriors before fading.
Even within the organization, there was a sense that the initial plan installed by Udoka and first-year president of basketball operations Brad Stevens had been fast-tracked.
“Big-picture-wise, we had a lot of progress in certain areas that we can improve on still,” Udoka said. “But kind of expedited the process of getting to where we wanted to. Laid the foundation and have some things we can look forward to going into next year. Can obviously hit the ground running a little bit differently than this first year with a new staff.”
After selecting Alabama guard JD Davison with the 53rd pick of Thursday night’s draft, the Celtics are expected to be active in free agency but are not really positioned to make seismic moves. They will have a $6.3 million taxpayer’s mid-level exception to dangle as they look to fortify the bench, along with several big trade exceptions that would allow them to acquire players from other teams without sending back matching salaries in return.
The biggest exception, worth $17.1 million, will expire in late July. The draft was the first big opportunity to use one of them, but free agency, which opens next week, will present new chances.
“At the end of the day, trade exceptions are a tool, but it’s not our only avenue,” Stevens said late Thursday night. “I think we’ve got the ability to do some small things in free agency with the taxpayer mid-level and the ability to add minimums. If that thing [vanishes] because we don’t find the right deal, we still have two other [trade exceptions] to use towards the trade deadline.”
Udoka said several times Friday that the Celtics will prioritize improvement from within. There is still room for growth from young players such as Payton Pritchard, Grant Williams, and Aaron Nesmith, and the coaches will be responsible for helping unlock it.
But Udoka added that the Celtics’ run to the brink of an NBA title behind young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown should make the franchise an attractive destination for veterans, too.
He said that when he was an assistant with the Spurs, who lost in the Finals in 2013 before winning a title a year later, the team’s playoff success and its bubbling potential behind rising star Kawhi Leonard led veterans such as LaMarcus Aldridge and David West to sign in 2015. The Celtics are in a similar spot.
“Great players attract others and talk to each other throughout the season and the offseason,” Udoka said. “Just watching us on that stage and the growth of our young guys, that’s appealing to other players. When you have guys like Jaylen, Jayson, guys who have a bright future, you start to look at longevity and consistency across the board. That’s appealing to other guys.”
Udoka does not want to veer from the team’s defensive identity, but he acknowledged that they could use a boost from playmaking and scoring off the bench.
“We had some young guys we really relied on, Payton, Derrick [White], Grant, and those guys grew tremendously throughout the year, and we need to see more of that,” Udoka said. “But certain positions and roles need to be touched on and we have a good amount of names that we’re looking at and hopefully some of those things work out.”
There is also a chance for some shuffling within the coaching staff. Udoka said that assistant coaches Will Hardy and Joe Mazzulla remain in the mix for the Utah Jazz’s top job. He said that if one leaves, he will likely look to promote from within.