Growing up, my high school system implemented a grading system that replaced the letter F with E. So grades could be A, B, C, D, or E. The idea was that the letter F sent the message to children that they were failures. I get it, but whatever.
I bring this up because it is a reminder that there’s a very real human element going on here. So throwing around terms like “soft” or “giving up” is reactionary and irresponsible. With that said, this team has not collectively played in a manner worthy of wearing the Boston Celtics uniform. We’re five games into the season. There’s simply no excuse for not giving maximum effort.
Normally I’d say that five games is also too early to judge a team’s identity, and I will point out that there’s still plenty of time to turn things around. However, the concerning thing is that so much of this feels like a carry-over from last season. You can’t blame this on Brad Stevens losing the locker room. The team has a new voice and explicitly requested a coach that holds them accountable.
“For whatever reason, we were lacking in intensity and focus this morning,” Udoka explained. “I told them that you’re going to get your ass kicked tonight if you come with that focus in the game, and for three quarters we played the same way. Waited to get down 15 and started to play with the effort that we played in the other four games. It’s disappointing. We’ll have a chance at it again on Saturday if we feel we bring the right intensity, we’ll be okay, but you gotta show up every night. You can’t just pick and choose and think you’re going to beat people.”
I don’t know what the answer is for Ime here. Do you bench people showing less than maximum effort? Do you make an example out of poor performers? Do you make everyone run laps when one guy is dogging it in practice? Does any of that actually work at the pro level?
This is a very human element and every single person on the team is wired differently and responds in their own unique way to stress. In some ways, this is just like any one of us feeling stress at work or at home or whatever. In other real ways this is completely unique to anything most of us experience (unless you happen to be a professional athlete making generational wealth but also bearing the weight of a city’s fans on your shoulders).
The Celtics hired Ime specifically for this purpose. Anyone can draw up offensive sets and implement a switching defense and make substitutions. Udoka was known for his relationship building in other stops. He’s self described as “warm, but firm.” He’s going to need to find the right buttons to push (warmly, but firmly) with these guys.
If anything, this is a unique opportunity for Ime (and Brad Stevens). They can stand before the team and say, “look, we changed the coach, we added more veterans, we gave a lot of you guys contract extensions. We’ve done everything we can to put you in position to win. At some point, it comes down to you. You have to make the right effort out there and follow the game plan every single play and we’ll have a chance to beat any team in this league.”
The unspoken threat here is that if they don’t get the job done, the logical next step is to make personnel changes. Stevens is always going to be looking to upgrade the roster, but the last resort is to make fundamental changes with the core group. I don’t think that is necessary any time soon (again, it is so early) but it is something you have to keep in the back of your mind.
Basketball is such a game of feel and instinct. Actions repeated become habits. Habits become contagious. You see players take on the personality of their coach or fellow players. This can cut both ways. Hanging heads after mistakes can seep into a team’s rhythms. Complaining to refs can become part of a team’s identity. Or on the flipside, defensive effort can be a spark to encourage others to follow suit. Passing rewards cutters and cutters open more opportunities for shooters. Ball movement can be as celebrated as making 3’s.
This is Udoka’s first big challenge. He can’t be blamed for any specific performance, but it is his responsibility to get this team prepared mentally, physically, and even emotionally. He’s got to find the right balance and the team needs to support him by following his guidance.