Mar 21, 2022; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Boston Celtics Head Coach Ime Udoka works during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports
Richard Justice: The Rockets have hired a competent, no-nonsense head coach in Ime Udoka. Also, it’s complicated.
The Rockets have hired an extremely competent, no-nonsense head coach in Ime Udoka. He’s such a solid hire strictly from a basketball standpoint that it’s fair to wonder if he’s now the most competent person in their basketball operation. So, there’s that.
He was on Gregg Popovich’s bench for seven of his nine seasons as an NBA assistant, so he knows how a great coach—and a great organization—operate.
He drew rave reviews for leading the 2021-2022 Celtics to the NBA Finals in his only season as a head coach. In a short time, he instilled San Antonio-like discipline and a defensive mind-set that the Rockets desperately need.
The Boston Globe described a “stoic but confident” approach that helped him gain the trust of his best players. Like Popovich, he could be brutally honest in his one-on-relationships with players.
In the end, he brings too much to the table to be out of work very long. But he also brings some baggage. He did not get a second season with the Celtics after being suspended and eventually fired after reports of an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate surfaced shortly before the beginning of his second season.
To make matters worse, The Boston Globe reported that “Udoka had been warned about the relationship before and continued it following the Celtics’ trip to the NBA Finals.”
But it’s a testament to the loyalty his players felt for him that they were upset about his firing. Some, including superstar Jayson Tatum, stayed in touch with him.
He hasn’t said one word publicly about any of this, that is, if he understands the problems with his personal conduct and if he has undergone counseling. These are extremely personal issues that most of us would be reluctant to discuss publicly.
But in this most public of positions, he presumably convinced Rockets executives that he will not embarrass another organization. The Rockets had to be sold on him being worth the potential blowback because they had their choice of a long list of other first-rate coaches, including Nick Nurse, Frank Vogel and Kenny Atkinson.
Udoka will bring instant credibility to the bench at a time when the Rockets are hoping for a transformational off-season even if they don’t win next month’s Victor Wembanyama lottery.
With or without Wembanyama, they’ll add an impact rookie to go with a core of gifted (and undisciplined) young guys like Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., and Jabari Smith Jr. The Rockets also have $64 million in salary cap space, the most of any NBA team, and Udoka’s hiring, along with the young talent, will make this an attractive destination.
That’s probably why they’ve been linked to a James Harden reunion tour, and he’s certain to be one of the names general manager Rafael Stone considers in the coming months.
The Rockets apparently need a stronger voice from their head coach, if only to occasionally remind Stone that a coach can’t succeed without a certain amount of authority and autonomy.
Perhaps Stephen Silas had not earned those things. That’s not true given that he had paid his dues as a respected assistant and is widely viewed as a decent man put into an impossible situation..
Stone may have believed he was being helpful when he added part-time coach to his job description. According to The Athletic, he was “routinely present for practices, shootarounds, coaches meetings and film sessions at home and on the road, often giving his input and suggestions of his own accord.
“And on one occasion prior to the 2021-22 season, Stone interrupted a Silas-led session to give his input on and show defensive positions to a few players who were present, sources with direct knowledge of the instance say.
“The interference reached a point where Silas eventually had to inform Stone he could no longer halt the coach’s practice sessions. `Stephen had to address the front office and check them,’ one source familiar with the matter said. Such an incident never happened again.”
In addition, Silas was ordered by the front office to remove veteran point guard John Wall from his rotation, according to The Athletic. However, in defense of Stone, Silas apparently had trouble connecting with some of his players and sometimes did not hold players accountable.
In other words, the whole thing was a mess and probably not what Silas signed up for when he agreed to coach a team that still had James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook asked to be traded shortly after that Silas’ hiring, and Harden eventually wanted to move on too, playing just eight games under the new coach.
That the Rockets were 59-177 during Silas’ three seasons should not be traced back to him. But in evaluating the arc of his three seasons, the Rockets believed they could do better.
In Udoka, they’ve upgraded one of the organization’s two most important positions. As they embark on an important off-season, they’re off to an excellent start.