As he began the transition from head coach to president of basketball operations, Brad Stevens huddled his veteran players looking for brutally honest advice. What could Stevens have done better and what did his players want in their next head coach?
Stevens yearned to pare down his seemingly endless list of potential coaches and identify a candidate who checked the boxes of what his players wanted most. He especially sought to find them what he could not offer.
"I had the great opportunity to sit with a group of players that I've coached, you know, in Marcus [Smart’s] case for seven years, but Jaylen [Brown] for five, Jayson [Tatum] for four, several others for multiple years and say, ‘How could I have done a better job coaching you? What could I have done that you'd be looking for in the next coach? And I think that those were tremendous conversations,” Stevens told NBC Sports Boston.
"They were all really kind. So I had to push them a little bit to get down to it because I knew some of the answers. But that was really good. And it helped kind of frame even more what I was looking for in the next coach.”
Everything his players said steered Stevens towards Ime Udoka, the 43-year-old former NBA role player who distinguished himself over the past nine years with stints as an assistant in San Antonio, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn.
On Monday, Stevens and the Celtics formally introduced Udoka as their new coach. Co-owner Steve Pagliuca noted, "Hopefully our 18th coach for our 18th banner, that would be good symmetry there."
Udoka’s challenge is to do what Stevens felt he could no longer do: get even more out of the core of this team. Udoka said all the right things during Monday’s press conference -- and even playfully roasted his new boss about finishing 27th in assists last season -- but repeatedly fell back to one theme: maximizing the “pillars” of the team, especially Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Conversations with those pillars kept steering Stevens to Udoka.
“Sometimes the guys that don't play as much just wanted more freedom and wanted more shots. Guys who do play a lot wanted more freedom and wanted more shots,” deadpanned Stevens. “No, [the players' input was] good. Just little things like, 'Hey, would you want a different cadence to practice? Would you want a different gameday setup? What are you looking for in a person that can really push you that you're really excited to learn under?' All of those type of things.
"And I said this at our [press] conference with Danny [Ainge] a couple of weeks ago: I thought there's a benefit in a new voice and fresh perspective. I think that's a good thing. Sometimes you can open yourself up for some humble feedback, right?
"But the guys were great to me. We’ve got a good relationship. I want them to do great. They know that. And, at the same time, I wanted to know just from, again, a personality standpoint and a style standpoint, what they would be excited about. Because there's so many good candidates. But Ime stood out to me in that regard."
The question, of course, is how Udoka will be different than Stevens. They both exude the same quiet confidence with a not-too-high-not-too-low demeanor. Stevens joked about how he only knew Udoka as “the guy that was yelling out our play calls” in the playoffs each of the past two years and it can feel a little bit like the meme with two Spidermen pointing at each other.
But the big potential difference seems to boil down to Udoka’s potential to demand players like Tatum and Brown to go to an even higher level. It was interesting to us that Stevens suggested that Udoka is “warm, but demanding.” So we asked Udoka what that description means to him.
"I guess it's the relationships that I’ve had with some of the guys and how I’ve kind of cultivated those with players in the past,” said Udoka, who worked with superstars like Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, and Brooklyn’s Big Three of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving last year.
"I'm quick to put my arm around guys but also quick to hold them accountable. And so there's a fine balance there. But that's all based on relationships and respect and what I do demand from those guys. So I guess that's what [Stevens] meant by that. I've had those relationships with guys throughout my career. What's gotten me to this point, and I think what the players respect … guys want to be held accountable, want to be demanded to do certain things. And I have no problem doing that.
"So it comes natural for me and something that I definitely take into account with everybody, you have to do it a different way at times with certain players. But I think, at the end of the day, they all want that and that’s something that is second nature for me. So I have no problem doing it.”
During his press conference, Udoka noted that Boston players have already asked him to push them harder.
"They’re going to allow me to coach them, push them. They know I’m going to be on their ass, and that’s what they like about me. They’ve asked me about that,” said Udoka. "They want to be pushed, they want to be directed towards winning, and you expect that from your stars.
"They all have different personality traits. Marcus is one way, Jaylen is one way, and Jayson is as well. But, bottom line, they want to win and help us get No. 18. That part was attractive. Obviously, you see the physical talent. Now this is a chance to see them grow and become better leaders, more vocal, and continue to push them to be great.”
Udoka can wrap his arm around Tatum when the pair head to Tokyo together next month for the Olympic games. It was Team USA interaction two years ago at the 2019 FIBA World Cup that might have helped lay the groundwork for Udoka’s arrival in Boston after the relationships he forged with Tatum, Brown, and Smart there.
But it’s the accountability and firmness that might dictate whether Boston truly emerges as a title contender. Stevens admitted there was work ahead to rebuild a championship-caliber roster. Udoka must get more out of what is already in place, not only pushing Tatum and Brown, but getting recent first-round picks to develop more.
Stevens got a lot out of his teams during his tenure on the bench and often overachieved with talent-deprived rosters. He seemed to struggle more with the burden of expectations.
The talent that’s left behind made this a desirable job for Udoka, who suggested that Boston was clearly the most tantalizing opening in the league this summer. But the challenge is in front of him: Find a way to squeeze even more out of this group than Stevens did to this point.