Boston is a city of champions. The New England Patriots just wrapped up a 15-year dynasty (and might be starting a new one). The Boston Red Sox seem to be back in title contention. The Boston Bruins are perennially good. The Boston Celtics are tied for the most rings in NBA history. Needless to say, fans always have extremely high expectations.
So, when the Celtics struggled last season, a lot of people began to point fingers. Some said the C’s should trade Jaylen Brown, some said the players weren’t playing up to par, and a large portion blamed then head coach Brad Stevens. Once Stevens was promoted to President of Basketball Operations, the team hired Ime Udoka, and most people were satisfied with the move.
That is not the case anymore.
As the C’s continue to grapple with many of the same issues they faced last year, fans are starting to find people to blame once again. There are lots of different opinions, but a common theme (once again) is blaming the coach, but it’s completely unfair to be blaming Udoka right now.
First and foremost, Udoka is someone that the players wanted, according to Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald. Before he was hired, Stevens and the organization made sure to consult their core players before making the move:
Per league source, the Tatum/Brown/Smart axis was consulted. "(The Celtics) wouldn't do anything unless key players were on board with it."— Mark Murphy (@Murf56) June 23, 2021
Udoka coached all three players on Team USA a couple of years ago. He’s obviously someone that they were happy to play for, and very few had any complaints when the hiring was made. According to The Athletic’s Jared Weiss, players were ready to welcome a coaching change after last year. They wanted someone who would hold them more accountable:
“At season’s end, multiple sources close to the players said several members of the locker room were welcoming a coaching change, noting Stevens did not appear to hold key players accountable, with complaints he was favoring Smart over others. The common refrain was that the team should hire a person of color with NBA playing experience to coach.”
In his introductory press conference, Udoka said that he is “quick to put my arm around guys, but also quick to hold them accountable.” He even referenced the fact that “guys want to be held accountable.” So far this season, he has not been afraid to speak out after games. Udoka has called the team out for not playing together, mentioned when specific players needed to be better, and even questioned the team’s overall pride.
All of this is not an excuse for the team’s poor play this season, but rather a baseline for expectations for the players and the coach. How exactly has he been doing?
Well, at the start of the season it was clear what sort of offense Udoka wanted to run. He wanted to shoot a lot of threes and play super fast. From the start of the season to November 1st (Boston’s 2–5 start), the Celtics ranked tenth in three-point attempts (39.4) and 11th in pace (101.19).
In theory, that should be exactly how the Celtics should be playing with the players they have on their roster. However, the players Udoka got were not the players that he believed he was getting. Let’s take a look at the three-point shooting numbers from last season of some of Boston’s key players:
- Jayson Tatum: 38.6 percent
- Marcus Smart: 33.0 percent
- Al Horford (only 28 games played): 36.8 percent
- Payton Pritchard: 41.1 percent
Based on those percentages, Udoka’s plan should’ve worked. Now, let’s see what those players shot from deep from the start of the season up until November 1st:
- Jayson Tatum: 27.1 percent
- Marcus Smart: 28.2 percent
- Al Horford: 28.6 percent
- Payton Pritchard: 31.3 percent
Three of the four players on the list saw at least a 10 percent drop-off in three-point percentage from last year. Not only that, but those numbers would be a career low for everyone except for Smart (lowest since 2015-16 season). And before the “Pritchard didn’t play enough” argument comes to light, he played in six of the seven games during that span, averaging nearly 14 minutes a night and 2.7 threes per game.
As far as pace goes, Stevens never ran a particularly fast offense, but outside of Horford, this team is young and athletic. They should have no problem getting out and running. Udoka simply got a different version of the Celtics than he was expecting, so of course his offensive game hasn’t been going as planned.
Since then, though, Udoka has made some very necessary adjustments. From November 2nd up until now, the C’s rank 19th in three-point attempts (34.4) and 22nd in pace (96.87). That would be the least three-pointers the C’s have attempted and the slowest pace they have played at since the 2017-18 season. Udoka saw how his team was playing, switched up the game plan, and Boston has a record of 11-9 since then. It’s still not where most want it to be, but it’s worlds ahead of the pace they were on after starting the year 2-5.
He implemented a drive-and-kick offense that’s shown flashes of success. However, he can only do so much. The players are the ones who need to execute the offensive game plan. Lately, they haven’t been doing that. Udoka called out his starters for playing too selfishly after Boston’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs a couple of weeks ago:
“It’s habits that we need to break. Not trying to go isolation. We got Marcus, Jaylen, Jayson, and Dennis starting. They need to learn to play together, not try to just get baskets for themselves.”
Udoka has made some changes on the defensive end, too. At the start of the season, he had the Celtics switching everything. This meant guards would be matched up against centers and vice versa. It led to a ton of mismatches and the Celtics getting killed on the glass.
Over their 2-5 stretch to start the year, the Celtics were getting out-rebounded 46.1 to 52.3 on a nightly basis and held a defensive rating of 110.3 (27th in NBA). Since then, the C’s are out-rebounding opponents 46.0 to 43.6 and have a defensive rating of 106.0 (6th in the NBA). Udoka stopped switching as much and the team picked up the pace in a massive way on defense.
Boston’s new head coach has made more adjustments than most realize, and it’s leading to better results. The improvements are there on both ends of the floor, and the numbers show that. As for those complaining about him not making any lineup changes, that could be on the horizon. Udoka spoke about that possibility after the Celtics’ most recent loss to the Phoenix Suns:
“It’s [potential lineup changes] something we’ll definitely take a look at. Twenty-seven games is a good sample size. ... But the effort part, or the fight or pride, whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t matter who’s playing. That has been lacking of late.”
The latter half of that quote sticks out, too. One of the main complaints on their last road trip has been that the Celtics aren’t playing with any energy. And if they are, they don’t do it with enough consistency.
“Just the overall effort and pride to end the trip wasn’t a good feeling, obviously… Tonight obviously wasn’t ideal.”
Udoka could be seen getting visibly frustrated with Boston’s poor defense throughout their loss to the Suns. He threw his hands up in the air multiple times out of confusion and even angrily called a timeout midway through the second quarter after a lapse on defense.
Clearly, Udoka is not content with letting his players slack off on defense. He’s a defensive-minded coach who realizes that, in order for this team to be playing at their full potential, they need to be great on defense. But what’s he supposed to do about defensive effort? Based on both his words and actions, he’s already been telling the team to play with more energy. Evidently, they just aren’t listening.
Not only should Udoka not be blamed for Boston’s problems, but he deserves some credit for turning things around. The Celtics’ breaking out of their shooting slumps helped, but his adjustments have been, for the most part, on point this season. Now, it’s simply up to the players to start putting in more effort.