Back in September, ESPN published preseason predictions from its panel of NBA experts. In the category of Coach of the Year, Ime Udoka was given the third-best odds of winning, while also receiving 16.7% of the first-place votes.
After the Celtics’ dark days of November and December, however, absolutely no one thought Udoka would win COY. Far from it – according to many Boston fans and media, he didn’t even deserve to finish out the season.
But the narrative has changed dramatically over the past two months. Udoka has now emerged as a legitimate candidate, thanks to his leadership that has completely turned the season around.
The Celtics started the season 18-21.— StatMuse (@statmuse) March 6, 2022
The coach and players called out each other:
"They don’t want to pass the ball"
"Looking in the mirror? Nah"
"They lack mental toughness"
They are now 39-27 with the NBA’s best defense.
One of the greatest in-season turnarounds ever. pic.twitter.com/HEM68xeAp7
You may be thinking, “wait a minute – Ime was also the coach when the won-lost record was terrible. How can their improvement justify him being Coach of the Year?”
Well, there is historical precedent to this situation. In the 2016-17 season, the Miami Heat were 11-30 halfway through their schedule. In the second half, they went 30-11 to finish at 41-41. They placed ninth in the Eastern Conference and missed the playoffs. Nevertheless, based on the Heat’s turnaround, Erik Spoelstra finished 2nd in the COY voting.
Related fun fact: the Celtics that season went 53-29 and were the top team in the East, yet Brad Stevens finished fourth. That’s how awards voting goes sometimes.
Today’s Celtics have 16 regular-season games remaining, and obviously anything can happen. However, if they continue on their recent trajectory, Udoka will have a stronger case than Spoelstra did, because:
a.) The Celtics never fell as far below .500 as those Heat did.
b.) Boston is firmly in the playoff picture.
Still, let’s take a minute to recall exactly how far the Celtics have come back. When the season began, fans were optimistic about the new coach and hopeful to shake the “win one, lose one” pattern of the previous season.
Except that’s how Udoka’s tenure began, with the team struggling to put together even a modest three-game win streak. The head coach was criticized for his rotations, his switch-everything defense, and the chronic blown leads, to name a few.
The nadir came on January 6, when the Celtics visited the Knicks. Boston took a 25-point lead in the second quarter of the nationally televised game. The outcome seemed decided until the Knicks had a 14-0 run that bridged halftime. New York took the lead late in the fourth quarter as former Celtic Evan Fournier shot lights-out on his way to a career-high 41 points.
Jayson Tatum’s jump shot tied the score with 1.5 seconds remaining, but the disaster concluded with RJ Barrett banking home a well-defended three at the buzzer. The humiliated Celtics fell to 18-21 and 11th place in the East. Even qualifying for the play-in tournament was in doubt.
Afterwards, Udoka was direct.
Ime Udoka: “I think it’s a lack of mental toughness to fight through those adverse times.”— Jay King (@ByJayKing) January 7, 2022
Said they need “a calming presence to slow us down and get us what we want” down the stretch.
Some fans on Twitter were even more direct – towards Udoka. These were actual tweets, names omitted to protect them from second-guessing.
- You are embarrassing @celtics #FireIme
- I have hung in there with this #Celtics team all season long. I’ve been relentlessly optimistic. Tonight has finally broke me. #FireIme
- I’ve seen enough of this #%&$ storm #fireime and trade everyone but the Jays, Smart, and Rob.
Perhaps that rough night galvanized the Celtics, with the principles that Udoka had been preaching since his hiring – ball movement, defensive cohesion, trusting your teammates – finally beginning to sink in. Udoka motivated the team to play the right way, and the wins began to come. After the Knicks debacle, Boston was 9-4 for the rest of January. In February, with Brad Stevens adding roster reinforcements at the trade deadline, they went 9-2, earning Udoka the Coach of the Month honor.
At 3-0 so far in March, the Celtics have rocketed up the NBA standings, now battling for a top-four playoff berth and homecourt advantage in at least the first round.
“I think we took our lumps early finishing games,” Udoka said after one of the February wins. “Like I said the other day, the team has always responded well to being challenged. Even in the games we were losing, the way we were losing early, I was always optimistic because we did build big leads with people in and out of the lineup. The team never stopped fighting or stopped playing the right way.”
He added, “They’ve bought in on the defensive side of the ball effort-wise, offensively sharing it. You see the difference as far as that. It just takes a little time, it’s not going to happen overnight and I understand that. And so, once they all buy-in, and like I said, they’ve all been receptive to coaching and criticism and challenging them, and so I love the group for that.”
That certainly sounds like COY-level leadership. With the season ending in less than five weeks, we’ll soon see if the voters agree.