The Hymnal of Ime Udoka
If you’ve not been to a church service there are those moments where the pastor says, "Now, turn to page 47 in your hymnal and join us in singing…." whatever is on page 47. Everyone opens up the hymnal, goes to page 47, and sings.
It’s more than halfway through the season; what have we learned about the hymnal that Coach Udoka wants the Celtics to sing from together?
Player Leadership Is Important…
Back in early October, Coach Udoka said he was going to return to a 60-year Celtics’ tradition and name not one but a pair of team captains this year. The last captain was Rajon Rondo in 2014 and prior to that, the Cs had had one or two captains each year from 1950 through 2014. Many people saw this as a way of making sure that team concepts were heard and reinforced player-to-player, not just coach-to-player. Also, captains can provide a way for players to channel frustrations to the coaching staff while maintaining a buffer. I don’t think anyone in Celtics fandom who heard the news thought it was a bad idea and there was plenty of good-natured speculation on who would wear the mantle: Tatum, Brown, Smart, and Al Horford were the four most apparent candidates.
And then… no one was named and the idea kind of just got swept aside with no real explanation just that the four leading candidates all lead in their own ways. So, the Celtics have leadership without designated leaders. Which, as a philosophy is just fine, but why announce that there would be designated leaders beforehand? My guess (emphasis on guess) is that the Coach didn’t have it locked down before he made the announcement and got some degree of significant pushback that squelched the arrangement.
By the way if you want to have a fun reminder of what the leadership of a captaincy can mean, take a look at at this clip of the Nets-Celtics game from 2002. Start at the 11:30 mark and just let it play. Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce were co-captains that year and Walker called out everyone including Pierce at the quarter break.
The Celtics Will Play With "Pace & Space"...
Celtics fans were shown lots of pre-season and early season clips showing which parts of the San Antonio offense Coach Udoka would bring in to benefit the Celtics individually and as a team. And early on we did see the Celtics use some of these plays and even when a shot didn’t go down, there was hope. The Celtics were using their youth and athleticism to take advantage of opponents before they could get their defenses set (Pace) or use ball and player movement to generate open looks (Space)
But at the same time, too often we’ve been treated to the ball crossing halfcourt at what I term "Grampa Speed"; individual ball-handlers keep the ball rather than share it; movement that is around the periphery of the three-point line rather than using the entirety of the floor; and players who camp out for a three or who stand and watch as (usually) Tatum, Schröder, or Brown run a one-on-one (or one-on-two or -three) game.
Holding Players Accountable is Important…
We’ve seen it countless times: make a thoughtless mistake and a player gets some time on the bench. Coach Udoka seemed to come in saying that no one was going to be immune from being held responsible for their performance from the top down, himself included. The idea that actions have consequences is not a new one, but it is always refreshing to see it put into action.
Granted COVID has made it difficult to have a consistent "next man up" rotation, but even still no one has been immune to outbreaks of dumb. Which is going to happen and that’s when you take the offender and give them 2-3 minutes in the Cocach’s Penalty Box for Excessive Dumbness. Then you put them back in the game. Too often this year it seems that players like Pritchard, Nesmith, and Langford spend more like 2-3 games wearing the dunce cap, while upper rotation players don’t get a chance to sit and benefit from coaching wisdom up close.
Everything is Important… Until It’s Not
Of all the things that concern me about the Celtics first-season under Coach Udoka is that I’m not seeing a clear through-line to his coaching philosophy on the court. Are the Celtics a "Defense wins ballgames" club who even when the offense struggles will play 48 minutes of defense? Not really. Are they a "Dive and get dirty" extra effort team? A few players have that in them, but not top to bottom. They certainly aren’t built on outscoring their own defensive shortcomings team.
Who are these Celtics and what principles do they embody in their play?
I honestly don’t know. I’d love to sing along with the rest of the church, but I have the blue hymnal, and those folks over there have the red ones, while the folks in the back of the church don’t seem to have any at all.
Okay, I’m a fan; I’m not gonna be on the inside. But it sure feels like the players aren’t getting clear guidance. And if that is the case, then I would consider that a failure that rests with our first-year head coach. Whether it’s a failure born of inexperience or temperament, I don’t think anyone can say at this point. But like Grant Williams being told "Here’s what you need to do to be successful" and then doing it, someone in the Celtics organization should be having conversations with the Coach about what he needs to be doing in order to do better.
Find the damn hymnal, guys.