Some things in life are guaranteed. Apple will release new iPhones, LeBron James will keep defying what we know about the aging process, and Celtics head coach Ime Udoka will keep running the same tired system until the wheels come off.
Well, somebody better call Fred Flintstone because the Celtics are pushing this cart by foot, and nobody knows if it’s in drive or reverse. From the moment Udoka took the reigns as the Boston Celtics head coach, we were promised more ball movement with the notion of improved offense an implied byproduct.
"Sorry to mention this, Brad, but 27th in assists last year, we want to have more team basketball there," Udoka joked with former head coach and now President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens during his introductory press conference.
When Udoka made that joke, I'm sure we all thought to ourselves, "he's going for the top-10 in assists," but as it turns out, five spots higher was all Udoka was aiming for. A little over a quarter of the way through the season, the Celtics sit 22nd in the league for assists. The funny thing is, according to NBA Stats, Boston finished last year ranked 25th in the league for dimes per game with 23.5; this year, despite ranking higher, the team is averaging fewer assists with just 22.6.
So much for ball movement.
But the stickiness of the rock is only a symptom of the problem, not the root cause. Unfortunately, we're still in the early investigatory stages of understanding what ails the Celtics. But like most issues, we can decipher some of the leading factors to their problems.
I think we all know that certain players on the Celtics roster command a fair amount of leeway; that's one of the benefits of being an All-Star, but what about everybody else? We speak about those players not hitting shots or the team not playing with the desired passion and application.
But these are the same players who could get hot one night and face a DNP the next. Of course, we're looking at Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, and the like when discussing this part of the problem, but the issue can ring true for anyone outside of the team's top-6 in the rotation.
But why is this happening? Rigidity. Udoka has made it clear he values defense over everything else. Play good defense, get consistent minutes. Bounce the air out of the ball? Oh well, you got stops. Bricked seven of your nine shots? It's cool you got two steals and were a valuable helper on the weakside.
Sure, it makes sense; shooters have bad nights, but defense will always be there if you're willing to apply yourself and operate with the correct intensity. But the defense Udoka runs is very niche. It requires a particular type of player to excel within his system legitimately: a player that can slide up or down positions, somebody who understands when to help vs. when to stand pat, when to hedge vs. when to stick with the cutter/roller.
To understand those notions, you need reps within the system, while being able to defend multiple positions is something you either have or don't. News flash: most players in the NBA, don't have that ability; it's why those that do come at a premium. Sure, you can say that every team in the league runs a switch system, and that's true, but almost none of them do so exclusively, and none of them are as committed to the cause as Udoka expects the Celtics to be.
Look at the other teams in the league. They diversify their offensive approach based on their personnel. You see switch 1-through-5, then switch 1-4 with drop, man-to-man, box-and-one, zone - heck, we saw all of these schemes when the Celtics faced the Los Angeles Clippers. Why? Because head coach Ty Lue was adjusting his team's approach based on who was on the floor and how the Celtics were trying to attack on offense.
So, you have two options for players who aren't stars: conform and improve within a rigid system, or play sparingly and then get berated for not being hot despite limited playing time. But then, how can you be expected to provide an offensive impact if your minutes aren't consistent? How can you improve on the team's defensive principles if you're not getting the live game reps? Are we to believe that garbage time reps are enough to build value for these assets?
Think back to how Brandon Boston Jr. smoked the Celtics in the second quarter against the Clippers. He did so because he was playing with freedom. When you're not worried a mistake will get your butt glued to the bench, you begin to play your game and impact winning because of it.
We could dive into the offensive deficiencies too, but in truth, they all stem from the rotations and personnel Udoka is putting on the floor. Some of those issues have been forced, due to injury, others have been putting too much stock in defense, leading to non-shooting lineups getting far too many minutes together, we only have to look at the team's 24-of-91 shooting from deep over the last three games of the road trip for proof there.
This leads us to another aspect of this team's struggles: a coach who has taken accountability too far. Towards the end of last season and throughout the beginning of this one, the word “accountability” was somewhat of a critical phrase for Celtics fans, and Udoka has provided that in bunches. But calling guys out in the media may be his road to ruin, if not now, in the near future. Why? Because when have you heard the Celtics coach hold his hands up and be like, "this one's on me guys, I made a mistake here?" I can think of one example: when he didn't convey the message that he didn't want the team to foul down the stretch against the Dallas Mavericks.
"It was not supposed to be a foul. A few of the guys asked me coming out of timeout. That's a mistake there. That's on me. I've gotta let everybody know and make sure they know," Udoka explained as he took ownership for the lack of understanding from his team.
Yet, taking ownership once, and holding players accountable after almost every game isn't going to work if you're not winning. Perhaps this coaching style is what the Celtics players wanted, or maybe it's what they need, but the proof is in the pudding. And right now, that pudding is failing to rise.
It does make you wonder, though, who is challenging Udoka? His coaching staff is comprised of hand-picked coaches he would deem friends or at least like-minded individuals who see the game in a similar light to him. So, if everybody is constantly operating in "yes men" roles, where does the contention come from? Everybody needs a certain amount of pushback to hone their craft, and it's fair to wonder if Udoka is getting his fair share.
Of course, some of the issues within this roster are older than Udoka's tenure. The slow starts, mental lapses, lack of effort and application - these all hindered the latter years of Brad Steven's reign, so it's fair to say this unit isn't the most coachable. But that's what Udoka was bought in for, to connect with this team and get them on the same page, pulling in the same direction. And it wouldn’t be fair on the Celtics head coach not to acknowledge the fact that he’s a rookie in this role, and is learning on the job. But it seems he’s not giving players opportunities to learn and progress and there’s little rope for him to develop his own skills while being beyond reproach.
Right now, it would seem that Udoka was another symptom of the Celtics' unidentifiable ailment when he was supposed to be the cure. It's still far too early to call for a change in leadership, probably by a year or two if we're being honest with each other. Still, we've had a large enough sample size to know that Udoka needs to be more flexible with his rotations, schemes, and motivational methods.
After all, he was the one saying that you have to coach different personalities in different ways, and so far, we've only seen one way - Udoka's way, and that needs to change.