Why the Boston Celtics’ success this season might impact Ime Udoka’s job prospects next season
The Boston Celtics have the best record in the NBA. They have the league’s best offense. They have two legitimate superstars and a bevy of depth. Even their losses tell a story of dominance. Of their four defeats this season, two came in overtime.
They may also have, in all this success under interim head coach Joe Mazzulla, a lesson for the rest of the league: That when it comes to Ime Udoka, the juice simply won’t be worth the squeeze.
Mazulla is a 34-year-old interim head coach of the NBA’s best team because his former boss, Udoka, finds himself suspended for the season after the Celtics accused him of unspecified violations of team policy. Subsequent reports claimed Udoka’s punishment stemmed from an alleged inappropriate relationship with an employee.
Yet the fuzziness of the situation and ugliness of the implications had not entirely dampened enthusiasm for Udoka’s return to a head coaching post somewhere in the league. And on first blush, why not?
He led the Celtics to an NBA Finals berth in his first year as a head coach. He’d unlocked a strident defensive excellence from a team that lacked it the year before. By all accounts, he’d been a beloved and effective leader of his players.
Those around the NBA believe he will never coach the Celtics again. Yet the regard for his coaching skills was so high that the Brooklyn Nets were still considering hiring him just two weeks into the season to replace Steve Nash.
Brooklyn eventually backed away from the idea, but the dye was cast and an idea with it: This guy is so good, whatever his baggage, someone will eventually give him another chance.
But the Celtics’ surge under Mazzulla might just be enough to reach a different conclusion: Don’t hire Udoka; he simply won’t be worth it.
Perhaps this is wrong. Perhaps, in a league with a dearth of talent in all areas, including coaching, Udoka has some true genius worthy of a team’s trust. This certainly isn’t an attack on second chances — people should get them, yes, of course. But only if they’re seeking one for reasons that aren’t disqualifying, and only if they’re valuable enough to be worth the trouble.
It’s hard to answer the first question. We don’t know exactly, truly or with any specificity, what led a star coach coming off a stunning debut season to land where he has. But it’s safe to assume the Celtics would not have gone this route unless the alleged behavior in question was so egregious that action had to be taken.
But the thing we do know, now, is that the Celtics don’t seem to need Udoka to be great. They are great without him. Yes, he got them to a Finals, and there’s no telling yet if Mazzula can do the same. But we also know that Udoka’s Celtics were downright pedestrian at this point in his tenure last season and that Mazzulla has not needed the same lag time to find his and his team’s groove.
We often conflate a coach’s greatness with that of his team. The magic, or happenstance, of a coach’s impact on a team is so hard to parse. Yes, Udoka coached that team. But Mazzulla’s short tenure and the Celtics’ blazing start sure seem to suggest this is a team that can succeed under a range of coaches.
They made three Eastern Conference finals under Brad Stevens. They made one under Udoka. And they’re the favorites to get at least that far this season.
Udoka’s run to an NBA Finals shouldn’t guarantee him a job, just as it never truly guaranteed his long-term greatness as a coach. The way he’s lost his hold on his gig in Boston should make any prospective GM weary. Throw in how thoroughly Boston does not miss him this season, and the idea of hiring him down the line, when things “cool off,” seems like a risk without enough chances at the right reward.
David Blatt made an NBA Finals, and then got fired while his 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers team had a 30-11 record. He hasn’t sniffed the NBA since. Frank Vogel led the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA championship just two years ago. He’s also unemployed.
Scott Brooks. Stan Van Gundy. Mike Brown. Avery Johnson. A lot of head coaches have taken talented basketball teams to the Finals and later seen their head-coaching careers wane. Of that group, only Brown is currently a head coach.
None had to be forcibly suspended under a cloud of allegations.
There’s a lot to see in the Celtics’ dominating start to the season, including the fact they do not need their disgraced, soon-to-be-former head coach to be the league’s best team.
There will be — in the next round of NBA head coach hires, or in the round after that — an Ime Udoka conundrum: To hire or not to hire.
By then, as with most things, the negativity and worry will have faded. But maybe it’s now, when other things are on the mind, that the Boston Celtics have already told the rest of the league how to proceed: The guy’s not worth it.
Source: CBS Sports