Ime Udoka will reportedly be the next head coach of the Nets because Brooklyn’s brass evidently believes two things: that he can succeed where Steve Nash failed, and that nothing else matters more than that.
The Nets’ decision-makers — whether that’s owner Joe Tsai, general manager Sean Marks, superstar Kevin Durant, or all of the above — are willing to suffer whatever slings and arrows come their way for sprinting to hire Udoka, despite the still-not-yet-former Boston coach being less than six weeks into a season-long suspension. In case you’ve forgotten, the Celtics sent Udoka away just before the start of training camp for multiple violations of their code of conduct, stemming from “unwanted comments” and “crude language” toward a subordinate staff member with whom he also had an improper intimate relationship.
The Celtics will reportedly not seek any compensation for the still-under-contract Udoka, apparently so content just to wash their hands of the workplace issue that ended his time with the team that they’ll let him walk to a division rival. The Nets will happily eat the outrage — what’s another helping this week, after all? — because they think he can take a $194 million roster that has opened the season 2-6 and get it playing like the championship-caliber club they paid for.
They saw what Udoka did for those Celtics, helping a team that seemed to have plateaued reach the NBA Finals, and they want him to do it for them. They’ll wade through muck, mire and whatever questions they have to deflect — about power dynamics and actions having consequences, about the importance of creating safe workplaces for all employees, about a “vetting” and “due diligence” process seemingly conducted at light speed — because they see wins on the other side.
It is, if nothing else, one hell of a way to get people to momentarily stop talking about your point guard’s tacit support of virulent antisemitic tropes. It’s also one hell of a tall order.
The Nets will likely be better than they’ve been so far, tied for 13th in the East with a 2-6 record and the NBA’s fourth-worst net rating. Joe Harris and Seth Curry should get healthier, filling out a thin wing rotation and helping bolster a disappointing 19th-ranked offense. Some regression to the mean for opponents who have shot a blistering 41.2 percent against Brooklyn from 3-point range would help put out a few of the defensive fires. But the journey to something better in Brooklyn begins with building a defense that doesn’t give up quite so many good looks — and on that score, Udoka would still have many, many miles to go.
Marks insisted during his Tuesday news conference that, despite the immediate pivot from reports of Nash’s exit to reports of Udoka’s imminent arrival, he hadn’t yet hired his next head coach. He did say, though, that the attributes he’s looking for include “having a voice [and] being able to hold guys accountable” when they’re not providing consistent defensive effort. Udoka spoke with that sort of voice in Boston, plainly calling the Celtics on the carpet when necessary — like, after an early-January collapse against the Knicks that dropped them to 18-21. The Celtics would go 33-10 the rest of the way, with far and away the NBA’s best defense and its no. 2 offense, developing a brand of toughness, tenacity and two-way versatility that fueled their run to the Finals.
“What [the Celtics] all asked for was who I am — someone who is going to be direct and straightforward and hold guys accountable,” Udoka told Sam Amick of The Athletic in March. “What might be uncomfortable to some people is pretty much who I was and have always been — someone to be honest with them and direct.”
(If you’re wondering how all that talk of accountability squares with the circumstances of Udoka’s departure from Boston’s bench, and with the Nets’ eagerness to go after him in the midst of it … well, you’re not alone.)
Udoka’s Celtics carried that direct style onto the court, brutalizing opposing offenses because, well, they could. He could lean on lineups featuring five excellent defenders able to guard multiple positions, the smallest of whom was Marcus Smart, who A) is far from “small” at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, B) has always played more like a bulletproof kaiju than a traditional combo guard, and C) friggin’ won Defensive Player of the Year.
Smart, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown could all guard opponents’ top scorers and seamlessly hand off perimeter assignments. Al Horford was spry enough to hold up on guards for stretches before tracking back to clean the defensive boards. That flexibility enabled Udoka to make the tactical shift that changed Boston’s season: having Robert Williams III guard the low-usage shooters that opponents typically stash in the corner, and empowering him to wreak havoc as a roving, rotating, shot-blocking menace. That unlocked Boston’s best self; no team switched more picks last season, or allowed fewer points per chance on switches, than the Celtics.
That’s the kind of impact that Marks and Co. seem to be banking on Udoka making in Brooklyn. There’s just one problem: To borrow a line from another former Celtics coach, Smart ain’t walking through that door. None of Boston’s top defenders are.
Udoka takes over a Brooklyn team that has mostly been a defensive disaster to start the season. After Tuesday’s second-half implosion against the Bulls, the Nets rank 28th in points allowed per possession outside of garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass, and dead last in defensive rebounding rate. They’re bottom-10 in [very deep inhale] opponent free-throw rate, points given up off turnovers, points allowed per play in the half-court and in transition, in defending players on off-ball screens, and in points per play given up to both ball-handlers and roll men in the pick-and-roll [cleansing exhale].
They have been bad in just about every way a defense can be bad. If Udoka’s going to change that and shepherd some epic turnaround, he’s going to have to do so by getting Brooklyn’s players to commit to a degree that Nash couldn’t manage, and also by somehow transmogrifying a bunch of small guards and whippet-thin big men into a unit that can actually get stops.
A frontcourt of Durant, Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton provides the length and quickness to play a switching defense; the Nets have switched screens more often than any other team in the NBA this season, and actually rank a respectable 12th in the league in points allowed per possession on those plays, according to Second Spectrum. You’re only going to be able to switch so much against the best opponents, though, when you’re also giving heavy minutes to 6-foot-2-and-under liabilities like Irving, Curry and Patty Mills, whom smart offenses will mismatch-hunt into oblivion when it counts. Those switches are especially untenable if the Nets leave those smalls as the last line of defense to protect the rim (where opponents are shooting a robust 65 percent against Brooklyn) and finish possessions with rebounds (which Brooklyn does worse than everybody but the newly Rudy Gobert-less Jazz).
Then again, a steadier diet of drop coverage would demand those smaller guards commit to slithering around screens and locking onto ball-handlers more tightly, lest Brooklyn start conceding even more wide-open J’s and unadulterated drives to the basket than they already do. Considering the Nets have been the most permissive drop-coverage defense in the NBA by far this season, you’d imagine Udoka would prefer to look elsewhere for his answers.
Maybe he can find them. Along with whatever else he brings to the job, Udoka has prior relationships with all of Brooklyn’s principals: with Marks from their days under Gregg Popovich’s wing in San Antonio; with Durant (whom SNY’s Ian Begley reports is “a huge fan of Udoka”) and Irving from Udoka’s stint as one of Nash’s assistants during the 2020-21 season; and with Simmons from his time on Brett Brown’s staff in Philadelphia. Buy-in from your best players gives you a chance to be heard; all Udoka has to do is parlay that into increased engagement up and down the roster.
Oh, and get Simmons back to being the Defensive Player of the Year-caliber game-wrecker he was before the wheels fell off. While also fostering enough progress in Simmons’s offensive game that he can afford to keep him on the court in close games without fear he’ll disappear or disintegrate.
And find a way to prevent Durant from having to keep playing 38 minutes a night, at age 34, coming off three straight injury-curtailed seasons. And do it all while ensuring that his direct, criticize-the-players-in-the-media approach doesn’t backfire with three of the NBA’s more, shall we say, particular stars. And while steering around the myriad other potholes, landmines and manifestations of extant psychic anguish that have seemed endemic to Barclays Center ever since KD and Kyrie touched down.
If Udoka can do all that, then this season, and this impossibly frustrating chapter in the largely benighted history of the Nets’ franchise, might yet be salvaged. If the Nets can just win — something the Durant-Irving duo has really only done during those first few months James Harden was on the team, if we’re being honest — then maybe everybody will forget about how unnecessarily chaotic and deeply cynical this has all become. That seems to be the bet in Brooklyn, anyway; given everything else the Nets have wagered to somehow land here, they probably feel it’s the only logical one to make.