Can Ime Udoka Help the Boston Celtics Break Through?

By Patrick Hayes   June 27, 2021 

Can Ime Udoka Help the Boston Celtics Break Through?

In Ime Udoka’s introductory press conference as the new Boston Celtics coach, he had the unique position of being introduced by his predecessor.

Udoka is taking over for Brad Stevens, who was promoted to oversee basketball operations for the Celtics after longtime executive Danny Ainge stepped down. Being hired by the guy you’re replacing could be awkward, but Udoka wasted no time pointing out something the Celtics need to improve.

“Sorry to mention this Brad, but 27th in assists last year, we want to have more team basketball there,” Udoka said.

The Celtics relying on isolation basketball came, in part, out of necessity, especially in the playoffs. The team played large stretches of the season without starting point guard Kemba Walker. Veteran backup Jeff Teague didn’t work out. And star Jaylen Brown went down with a season-ending injury just before the playoffs started, so much of Boston’s offense became the Jayson Tatum show.

Jun 1, 2021; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Boston Celtics small forward Jayson Tatum (0) and Brooklyn Nets shooting guard Landry Shamet (20) fight for a loose ball during the third quarter of game five of the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Barclays Center. Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It was usually a very good show, too. Tatum had four 50-point games in a torrid two-month stretch in the season and clearly took another leap in his development as one of the league’s best scorers this season. 

Prior to his injury, Brown, too, had a breakout season. He averaged 25 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists per game and made nearly 40 percent of his three-pointers.

Udoka takes over a team that has clear, big needs to address in the offseason, but having two franchise players in place certainly makes things much easier. Here are three pressing questions for the Celtics heading into the offseason.

Can they end their point guard curse?

The Celtics have certainly had big names at the position in recent years. Isaiah Thomas had an MVP-caliber season and was an All-Star. He was traded for another All-Star in Kyrie Irving. When Irving left as a free agent, he was replaced by Walker.

May 22, 2021; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker (8) drives the ball defended by Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) during the first quarter of game one in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. at Barclays Center. Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, all three players also had massive injury problems in Boston. Walker was shipped to Oklahoma City with a first round pick for former Celtic Al Horford in a move that was largely to shed the remaining years on Walker’s contract, but also acknowledged that Walker’s ball-dominance wasn’t a particularly great fit next to Tatum and Brown, who also both need the ball in their hands a lot.

As far as replacing Walker, last year’s surprising rookie Payton Pritchard could possibly see a bigger role. Pritchard made good contributions as a rookie and actually beat out the veteran Teague for a rotation spot. He’s a great spot-up shooter, so the spacing he provides is a natural fit next to Tatum and Brown. Even if he’s not the starter depending on what Boston does in free agency, expect him to be on the court more as the team prioritizes spacing to create more driving lanes for Tatum and Brown to attack the basket. 

Speaking of spacing, Horford is back

The Celtics never really wanted to lose Horford in free agency, and his signing in Philadelphia two years ago qualifies as a bit of surprise. His fit was poor with the Sixers, and Philadelphia sent him to the Thunder in a salary dump just one year later.

Mar 24, 2021; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Al Horford (42) shoots as Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas (17) defends the shot during the second half at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Memphis won 116-107. Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

In Oklahoma City, though, Horford showed that even though he’s slowed down with age, he is still a valuable and intelligent player. In particular, he brings two things the Celtics lacked last season – shooting and interior defense.

Robert Williams III emerged as a good shot-blocker, rebounder, and finisher last season, but he doesn’t space the floor. Horford also creates more room for Tatum and Brown to operate. His presence, along with more minutes from Pritchard or any other spot-up shooters the Celtics add, also likely help address Udoka’s assists concerns as better shooters will create more opportunities for the team’s stars to set up open shots on the perimeter.

Horford will also help anchor the defense inside and provide a valuable mentor for Williams, who is a great rim-protector but not a great one-on-one defender just yet.

Can Udoka infuse his toughness on the roster?

For all of his accolades and success as a tactician while coaching the Celtics, Stevens was never a player himself. That often matters.

Udoka, during his playing days, was one of the toughest and hardest working defenders in the league. In his introductory press conference, he said he wants to “bring the dog out in guys.” The Celtics have two players in Brown and Marcus Smart who should quickly buy into that philosophy, and a third in Horford who has been one of the top defensive big men in the league the majority of his career. 

Boston entered last season with massive expectations after making the Eastern Conference Finals the previous season. They struggled much of the season, though, and didn’t get reliable production from anyone other than Brown and Tatum. If Udoka can get the team to re-commit on defense and play with consistent effort each game, Boston could once again be among the upper-echelon teams in the Eastern Conference.

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