BOSTON — The Celtics needed to digest another surprise Wednesday when the Brooklyn Nets hired someone other than Ime Udoka to replace Steve Nash as head coach.
“Shout out to Jake Vaughn,” said Jaylen Brown. “Or is it Jack?”
The new Nets coach is named Jacque Vaughn. But from Boston’s perspective, he might as well be called “not Ime Udoka.” Before settling on Vaughn, the Nets were expected to hire Udoka as Nash’s successor. Even Vaughn joked about being the “write-in candidate” for the position after days of reports suggesting Udoka would soon take over the job. When Brooklyn went in another direction, the pivot thrust uncertainty back onto the Celtics. For now, Udoka remains a part of the organization, still technically the Boston head coach, though he is suspended for at least the remainder of this season and apparently open to taking another job.
If the Celtics players weren’t prepared before for the possibility of Udoka coaching another team this season, they should be now. Though the Nets ultimately passed on Udoka, their level of interest in him suggested that some team could eventually be willing to overlook the reason for his suspension of him, an intimate relationship with a subordinate female employee.
Based on conversations with people in various roles for NBA teams, not everybody inside the league views Udoka’s transgressions the same way. Some, who have at least a basic understanding of the situation, take his actions very seriously and believe he deserved this substantial punishment Others believe the Celtics did n’t need to suspend Udoka in the first place. The latter view could help to explain why the Nets, before eventually passing on Udoka, appeared ready to give him another chance so soon after the beginning of his suspension. Brown seems to believe they would have done so if not for their other current public relations nightmare, Kyrie Irving.
“I think that’s probably what hindered him from probably getting that spot,” Brown said.
The Nets retreated from Udoka partly because of the public outcry that met the reports they were preparing to hire him, according to The Athletic‘s Shams Charania. Any other team that considers hiring Udoka will need to deal with similar backlash. Still, Brown hopes Udoka can land back on his feet di lui soon. If another team is willing to hire him. Team sources, who were granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the subject, said the Celtics intend to allow him to pursue any other opportunity.
Beyond the Nets, several other clubs could soon be looking for a new head coach. The most interesting potential fit might be in Philadelphia, where Udoka worked as an assistant coach during the 2019-20 season. At 5-6, the 76ers haven’t had the type of start they anticipated under Doc Rivers. Should the team eventually decide to move on from him, the core of Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey would be an enticing mix for prospective coaching candidates. Even if that position doesn’t materialize, Udoka seems eager to get back to work. Eager enough that he was seemingly willing to take on an extremely difficult job in Brooklyn, where Kevin Durant recently requested a trade, Ben Simmons has n’t played anywhere near his best and Irving has repeatedly been destructive.
Boston was willing to let Udoka walk without demanding any compensation in return, according to league sources, who were granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the subject. If Udoka had finalized a contract with Brooklyn, the Celtics could have moved forward. Instead, the organization still has unfinished business with him. If Udoka fails to get another job this season, the Celtics will need to decide his future themselves. Based on their initial openness to let him leave for another team, they certainly appear likely to move on from him regardless of whether another organization hires him away first. But they haven’t stated an intention to do so yet.
In the meantime, interim coach Joe Mazzulla has needed to deal with the whiplash of an evolving situation. Like others, he thought Udoka would be leaving for the Nets, then later learned about Brooklyn changing its mind. Mazzulla has tried not to let the back-and-forth impact him.
“I just have a job to do,” he said. “Just focus on that. The guys are bought in. They trust me for the position that I’m in. And I just can’t take that trust for granted. I’ve just gotta do my job, whatever we’ve gotta do to win. And it will figure itself out.”
On the court, the Celtics have typically figured things out so far. After rolling Detroit on Wednesday night, 128-112, Brown said Boston’s offensive style has been “so fun that we take it for granted at times, because it’s just easy every single time down.”
Several Celtics players have expressed their support for Mazzulla, who has guided the team to an 8-3 start under the strange circumstances. Brown said the whole team believes in Mazzulla.
“We trust Joe,” said Grant Williams. “We feel like we’re capable of making a deep run in (these) playoffs, a deep run in this league with the man at the helm. And we’ll trust our captain along the way.”
At the same time, Udoka’s near hire in Brooklyn produced an emotional time in the Celtics’ locker room. Players seemed to be caught off guard by the possibility that Udoka could have resurfaced with a rival team so soon. Al Horford acknowledged that locker room frustration over the situation was “a real thing.” Despite the circumstances of Udoka’s suspension, which led the team to hand down the punishment days before training camp, the players’ respect for him has not disappeared. When Udoka still seemed headed for Brooklyn, Williams called the coach “a phenomenal guy” and said Udoka would be worthy of a coaching spot anywhere.
“That’s one of the things that we know the talent and ability he has and the type of person he is,” Williams told The Athletic. “For us, yes, we were able to do some special things in the year that he was here, but we’re capable of doing it without him and he’s capable of doing some stuff without us as well. His personality, his demeanor, his coaching ability, those have all shown.
One day, Udoka will almost certainly coach again. Just not yet. After his potential chance in Brooklyn deteriorated, his future remains unresolved, a question mark clattering behind the Celtics season.
“For us, we just focus on the team that we have and the staff that we have,” said Williams on Wednesday. “We’re focused on the season.”
(Photo of Joe Mazzulla and Ime Udoka: Elsa / Getty Images)