It was only a matter of time before winning and the chance to upgrade the on-court product would trump ethical standards for an NBA team. That team was the Houston Rockets, who are reportedly hiring former Celtics coach Ime Udoka to lead their downtrodden franchise.
The Celtics suspended Udoka in September for inappropriate behavior regarding an improper relationship with a subordinate. No other information has been released, but according to NBA sources, Udoka had been warned about the relationship before and continued it following the Celtics’ trip to the NBA Finals.
Considering the circumstances, the possibility of lawsuits, and concern about how Udoka’s presence in the organization would impact Celtics female employees, there was no way he was going to return following his one-year suspension.
The Celtics named Joe Mazzulla the interim coach, then made him the permanent coach in February. The club finished with the NBA’s second-best record and are one win away from reaching the Eastern Conference semifinals. They have moved on.
Udoka has kept a low profile, but did show interest in the vacant Brooklyn position in December. The interest was mutual before the Nets suddenly pulled back and hired Jacque Vaughn. The fact teams were beginning to consider Udoka for coaching vacancies so soon after his suspension was an indication that teams were not concerned how he would interact with employees moving forward. Or, they are more concerned with escaping the NBA cellar than the perception of hiring a coach coming off a messy ethical situation.
We won’t have any idea until perhaps the press conference whether Udoka has taken steps or pursued any personal counseling after such an embarrassing public misdoing. We do know that he’s an elite basketball coach that took the Celtics to the NBA Finals in his first season, instilling a defensive mind-set and needed discipline in a team that had fallen short in recent years because of late-game lapses.
With a stoic but confident approach, Udoka gained the trust of the Celtics’ cornerstones and helped the core improve with his brutal honesty. As a coach, he enjoyed a remarkable first season. Off the floor, Udoka was carrying out a relationship with a subordinate that many in the organization were fully aware of.
The Rockets, however, are a desperate franchise with a slew of recent lottery picks that have yet to mesh or gain consistency. In three years under former coach Stephen Silas, the Rockets were 59-177, led by a bunch of players seemingly consumed with personal statistics over winning concepts.
Silas was considered too nice, a truly good man who paid his dues as an assistant but was thrust into a no-win situation with undisciplined kids. Houston has not been NBA relevant since trading James Harden to the Nets in Silas’s first season, and they needed a proven no-nonsense coach to push the franchise to the next level.
Houston also has a 14 percent chance to land the No. 1 pick in June’s draft, which is guaranteed to be potential generational talent Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-5-inch Frenchman with point guard skills. Udoka didn’t necessarily want to take on a reclamation project — he also had spoken with the Raptors — but the potential of the Rockets young standouts Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., and Jabari Smith Jr., along with another top pick, make possible a swift reincarnation.
There is no doubt Udoka will have a positive impact on the Rockets as a coach. Houston has undergone an extensive rebuild with five first-round picks over the past two years, and the talent base is there. The club also has salary cap space to pursue a major free agent and there have been rumors for months about a potential Harden reunion.
Many Celtics players were loyal to Udoka, and were upset and confused about his departure. Some players have maintained contact with him, including superstar Jayson Tatum. He’s a players’ coach who had years as an assistant under Gregg Popovich to sharpen his relationship and communication skills with his players.
He also has an astute basketball mind and his defensive concepts — with the help of Mazzulla — helped Boston become the best defensive team in the NBA.
There’s a lot to like about Ime Udoka as a coach and the Celtics did not want to part with him, which is a testament to how strongly the organization and ownership felt about his off-court actions.
Whether Udoka is as honest and up front about his off-court actions and suspension as he was with his Celtics players will be an interesting story line in coming days. He will have to acknowledge his past, his mistakes and his regrets — if he has any.
It didn’t take long for Udoka to return to the NBA. There was no question he would be hired eventually, but it’s been less than a year. Is that enough time to reflect? To reinvent? To express repentance?
The Rockets are certainly hiring a good basketball coach. The question is whether he is an improved man.