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In defense of Coach Udoka

As a coach who looks for his players to take ownership of their team, I can relate to Udoka’s style

NBA: Boston Celtics at Minnesota Timberwolves Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

“A player-coached team is always better than a coach-coached team.” — Tom Izzo, Michigan State head coach and NCAA National Champion

Folks... coaching is much harder than it looks.

For every in-game decision made on the fly, there are countless hours of film, game planning and other forms of preparation that stand behind it. For every play call in a late-game situation, there are countless hours spent in the gym working on those specific shots. For every media session and quote in front of the cameras, there are dozens of personal conversations and relationship-building efforts that are never seen.

Ime Udoka’s style as a leader has been, at times, criticized by fans and media members for his often different approach than the one taken by his predecessor Brad Stevens. Udoka has little problem addressing the team’s woes in terms that are more than coachspeak; he’s forthcoming with basketball specifics and X’s and O’s. What goes undiscussed is how this isn’t the only time such a conversation is taking place, and that Udoka is likely speaking to his players in the same frank manner.

Udoka’s also faced criticism for the simplicity of his late-game playbook and the high frequency of isolation ball for Jayson Tatum on his watch. There are many who believe (perhaps rightfully so) that there’s a correlation between those trends and the fact the Boston Celtics are currently 2-11 in games decided by 5 points or less.

As a coach myself, I spend a lot of time studying Udoka’s mannerisms, tendencies and impact. What I’ve noticed is a general trend, one that actually aligns with most of my coaching philosophies: Udoka is trying, in everything that he does, to get his players to take accountability for the team.

Three decades ago, Phil Jackson was anointed “Zen Master,” the leader of the Chicago Bulls three-peat dynasties. His coaching tactics were somewhat subtle: rarely yell or berate players in-game, use unorthodox moves to energize his players and rely on the stars of his team to bring the passion, fire and competitive juices that others feed off.

Today’s best example of Jackson’s philosophies in action is Golden State Warriors and now Team USA head coach Steve Kerr, also a multiple-time champion. Kerr once stepped aside during the game to let the players command the huddle, draw up plays and find ways to communicate with each other. The goal of Kerr’s plan was to increase communication on a team where they were struggling to speak:

When he spoke about the maneuver postgame, Kerr had this to say, a gem of a reminder for all coaches and spectators alike:

“It’s their team. I think that’s one of the first things you have to consider as a coach... It’s the players’ team, it’s their team and they have to take ownership of it. As coaches, our job is to nudge them in the right direction, guide them, but we don’t control them. They determine their own fate.”

Without ranting about my own team, our coaching staff did the same this week. We pulled aside our players and had them explain and organize each drill in practice while we, as coaches, pumped in crowd noise. Our in-game issue has been our communication, especially through mistakes, when opposing crowds get loud and when we play with masks on. But the ultimate goal isn’t just to fix the communication problems, it’s to help them realize that the team is theirs to take ownership of and that we, as coaches, can’t fix everything for them.

The direct conversations that come as a result are always more meaningful player-to-player. Rarely do players feel like when they make a mistake that they let their coach down. They feel it for their teammates, their friends and battle partners. Accountability is about realizing that if that’s who you’re trying to win games for, only the collective of those competitors can be the ones who truly fix the team’s problems.

Udoka finds himself in a similar position. There are issues in Boston, from shot selection to inconsistent defense, spurts that are defined by a lack of competitive spirit and too many guys trying to fix mistakes individually through hero ball. But his process, the most effective way to judge a coach, has been one I greatly admire and think is ultimately the right one for success.

Take this late-game possession against the New York Knicks from Thursday night, a key turnover from Dennis Schroder. The Celtics were running a late-game play, drawn up by Udoka, when Schroder drove the ball baseline. Marcus Smart, standing in the corner, throws up his arms as if to signal that Dennis is screwing up what they talked about in the huddle.

How can we know if what Udoka called would work if the players constantly break off the play to do their own thing? And while Udoka needs to continue to stress to his players the importance of team-based basketball and executing selflessly, if he were to disallow or specifically scold Schroder for such a play, it would go against the principles of letting the players take ownership.

What we are seeing is a team that fails to make the right decisions, particularly late-game, when given the freedom to take ownership over the product. We see a coach who allows them to do so, then calls them out specifically for the lack of care and ownership, not necessarily the execution. He is critiquing his players on the process, and if ultimately they can learn and fix those issues, the execution will take care of itself.

There’s no need to sugarcoat how disappointing the season has been in Boston. Udoka, with much of what he has brought to the table, isn’t and shouldn’t be immune from criticism. All effective leadership sees those at the top of the organization ultimately take responsibility for what goes on beneath them.

But maybe, just maybe, the lack of self-accountability in media sessions is a ploy to motivate his team to take greater responsibility. Maybe the change from the Brad Stevens “I have to do better” tropes night after night is actually a good thing for this team.

Maybe changing a team’s process and competitive spirit takes longer than 40 games to accomplish.