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Smart on team adjusting to Udoka’s system: it’s not going to happen overnight

Udoka’s reputation and coaching education blinded some of us to the task at hand.

Boston Celtics v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images


That's how best to describe the buzz among Boston Celtics fans following the news of Ime Udoka's hiring. Here we had one of the brightest young assistant coaches and a former player with genuine NBA experience, stepping into his first head coaching job, bringing a wave of modernized ideas on how basketball should be played.

Or, at least, that's what we thought.

When you've spent seven years learning from the incredible Gregg Popovich, then another year under Brett Brown, before spending your final season as an assistant sitting next to offensive visionary Mike D'Antoni, people are going to have expectations. How could you not learn a thing or two about coaching when you've been around some of the NBA's most remarkable minds for the last decade?

And so, a narrative was born.

“He’s a stalwart. People overemphasize X’s-and-O’s in the league. All the coaches know their X’s-and-O’s. It's basketball. It's not analytical geometry or something like that. That stuff's not tough. But to understand how to get the most out of people, to develop relationships with players, to make people accountable, to make them want to play for you are really the keys. He's got all of that," Greg Popovich said after Team USA's first practice when asked about Udoka's first head coaching job.

Popovich went on to call Udoka a "communicator," stating that Udoka's greatest strength is his ability to get his point across, getting everybody on the same page. Music to our ears! After months of rhetoric aimed at Brad Stevens for being too passive, here was a coach who spoke of accountability and unselfishness, all while coming with a stamp of approval from Popovich for an ability to relay his instructions.

When Udoka met the media at his introductory press conference, he joked with his predecessor-turned-boss, Brad Stevens, that the team's ball movement was going to improve. "27th in assists last year. We want to have more team basketball there, but at the same time, you have to understand what your personnel dictates," Udoka bantered when being introduced as the Celtics' new head coach.

The table for the Celtics to resume their march towards another banner was firmly set. What followed was a total rebuild of the coaching staff, with each newcomer bringing reputation, experience, and NBA know-how with them. Everything looked like peaches and cream.

But sometimes, you say what you believe in before you've read the room. While there has been an improvement in ball movement, the Celtics currently sit 19th in assists per game and have been on a downward slide in terms of ball movement over their last couple of games.

We're firmly entrenched in the current NBA season, sitting with a 10-10 record, questioning what's going wrong. Credit to Udoka, he's navigating the current topsy-turvy nature of this Celtics team like a true professional and has presided over a vast improvement on defense.

“Just imagine doing something for years, and then you come into a job where you went to school to get a degree for this job. And then out of nowhere, something that you’ve never studied for, never had experience with, they come in and tell you they wanna do, and it’s supposed to happen overnight. And it’s not gonna happen. You’re gonna take time, you’re gonna have to learn, have to adjust, you’re gonna have to find out how to do it in a quicker way to help you. And that’s what we’re doing,

Ime’s a different coach than what we were used to for those years here in this organization. He brings a different method, mentality to this team, and we knew coming in that it wasn’t going to be easy, we knew we were gonna have ups and downs. Especially learning a new system, learning how he wants us to play, and just getting re-familiarized with him and his coaching staff, but we’ve been doing a great job. Like I said, it’s not gonna be easy, and the patience that Ime has had with us, and that we’ve had with one another just shows the growth and maturity that this team has,” Marcus Smart commented on the team's growth and struggles under Udoka following the team's hard-fought victory over the Toronto Raptors.

But the offense — the area where we all found so much hope during the summer — has fallen flat. But is that Udoka's fault? A look at the numbers suggests that the Celtics are generating open looks at an impressive rate. They're just not falling. So, perhaps Udoka's system is working to an extent, but again, the Celtics continue to be an offense predicated on your turn, my turn isolation plays.

"At times, we're trying to get ourselves going and not coming in ready to play. We shouldn't have to take two, three shots to get us in a rhythm to get us going, come out and play the way we do in the second, third, fourth quarter from the start. And guys were trying to find a rhythm instead of playing together, and that's what it looks like to me in the first quarter at times,” Udoka said after his team fell into a deep hole against the Spurs, completed a comeback, took a lead, but didn’t score in the final three minutes in San Antonio. “Everybody's worried about their game and getting themselves going, instead of what's best for the team and playing together. And when we do that, it's very apparent that we're different offensively."

So, with 20 games of the season now in the history books, three things have become apparent:

  1. Defense was easier to sell to this unit, and they have adopted their new coach's methods quickly and successfully for the most part.
  2. The Celtics aren’t playing the brand of offense Udoka is preaching.
  3. This roster's bad habits on offense are deeply ingrained and will take time to re-wire.

Udoka may be an exceptional communicator, but good (and bad) habits aren't constructed overnight, nor are they developed in a little over three months. These changes take time, work, and sacrifice, and Udoka only controls the first two portions of that trifecta.

In the hyperbolic world of sports media, sports fandom, and social media, it's easily forgotten or overlooked that change takes time. Winning doesn't come easy, not at the elite level of any sport.

So, maybe these struggles were always in the cards, but the excitement around Udoka's pedigree and reputation blinded us to the issues that trouble the roster. We expected an immediate return on our emotional investment over the summer, which was both unrealistic and unfair. Udoka needs time to imprint his methodology on this team; he needs time to educate Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on the roles he envisions them thriving in as the team’s foundation. Still, most importantly, he needed far more breathing room than the majority of us afforded him.

Udoka may or may not be the right coach for the job. Only time will tell. But after twenty games of his first season in charge, it would seem that he's going to need every ounce of those communication skills.

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