Ime Udoka leads NBA coaching reform


Ime Udoka has led the Celtics to the Eatern Conference Finals.

Ime Udoka has led the Celtics to the Eatern Conference Finals.
picture: Getty Images

If the success of Boston’s Ime Udoka and New Orleans’ Willie Green has taught NBA ownership anything, hiring coaches should be out with the old and in with the new. These two rising stars of coaching found themselves in a dysfunctional mess when Udoka attempted to piece together a team that had fallen apart under Brad Stevens. At the same time, Green was tasked with coaching a Pelicans team whose superstar Zion Williamson was out for many reasons.

Both made cases for the Coach of the Year award. But they also advocated a reformation that should have taken place decades ago. NBA franchises need to stop hiring the same failed veteran coaches to run their franchises and instead rely on former players who paid their dues as assistant coaches.

This could be a step forward by addressing the racial disparity that deters black coaches from headroll opportunities. This imbalance has persisted for decades. As proof that it’s still alive and well, Steve Nash landed the job as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets with no coaching experience whatsoever on his resume to lead a disjointed Nets team to a first-round win and an embarrassing to lead overall performance. Nash was gift-wrapped as first-time coaches Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and later James Harden, only to bombard him with one of the worst coaching debuts in recent memory.

Additionally, coaches with outdated methods and stupid records like Stan Van Gundy and Mike D’Antoni are swamped around every time a playoff team coach is outed in an underperforming manner. How about raising the more-than-likely Black main assistant instead?

Like last year, when Nate McMillian got his hands on the reins after the Atlanta Hawks fired Lloyd Pierce just to lead the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals; or when Doc Rivers was replaced by Ty Lue last season with the Clippers as he led them to the Western Conference Finals. Those were just two examples of black assistants taking their teams to higher heights than their black predecessors. Exactly the kind of pedigree and confidence the NBA should have more of. Over the past two decades, when a black head coach has been fired, he has almost always been replaced by a white counterpart. Think Avery Johnson in Dallas, Lionel Hollins in Memphis, Doc Rivers in Boston, Mark Jackson in the Golden State, Dwayne Casey in Toronto.

Some franchises have not hired a black head coach in the past 20 years, such as the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Utah Jazz.

Other success stories this season include Cleveland’s JB Bickerstaff, Dallas’ Jason Kidd, Minnesota’s Chris Finch, and Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins, all young, quick-witted coaches who have proven that the NBA can help the next generation of basketball minds in good hands is .

But it’s not just about handing out handouts to black coaches. Two of this season’s best, Willie Green and Ime Udoka, earned their coaching jobs as successful and popular assistants, Green under Monty Williams at the Suns and Udoka under Greg Popovich at the Spurs. These two men are excellent examples of child prodigies who have come out of old coaching trees.

But the coaching problem goes beyond race. Some of the worst, most overrated coaches are black too. Doc Rivers underachieved at every stop he was given. Since taking charge of the Paul Pierce-led Boston Celtics in 2004, he’s had all-star teams that he’s never realized the potential of. He still has the opportunity to coach some of the best teams in the NBA based on the only NBA championship he won in 2007 with Kevin Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen. Much like D’Antoni, who never left the NBA coaching rumor mill based on his success nearly 20 years ago with the Phoenix Suns (2003-08) only to go with the New York Knicks (2008-12). Angeles Lakers (2012-14) and underperforming with the Houston Rockets (2016-20). D’Antoni has been tipped as the potential next head coach for the Charlotte Hornets.

Just look at the Sacramento Kings’ recent coaching conundrum, the ill-fated franchise chose between Mike Brown and Mark Jackson, two of the worst coaches in recent memory. With the Warriors, Brown has replaced Steve Kerr, who was out due to health and safety protocols. After Golden State’s Game 5 performance, which saw the Warriors lose by 39, it’s a wonder Sacramento didn’t rescind their offer. Didn’t anyone in the Kings’ front office remember his last two headstops in Los Angeles and Cleveland?

Jackson, on the other hand, sullied his coaching legacy as a motivator who built the early stages of the Warriors’ later dynasty with a history of shenanigans involving the team’s front office and spent too much time in the church he attended during the season pastor and shove his religious agenda into the dressing room. Jackson was apparently banned from the NBA for both these antics and his unimaginative offensive plans as a Warriors coach.

Perhaps the message here is to stop recycling the same tired and worn-out head coaches who proved losers and give vacancies to young, bright assistants and ex-players who put in the sweat capital. Proximity has never been more important when it comes to reaching young players. Last season’s Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau has already fulfilled his team’s potential as his yelling and arrogant squad management has drained his reception in NYC. On the other hand, Jason Kidd’s coaching flexibility and positional experience at point guard has unlocked another level in Luka Dončić, Jalen Brunson and the rest of the Mavs. Something Rick Carlisle couldn’t achieve when his old-school approach hit a wall last season despite his brilliance and championship acumen.

The generation gap was one of the reasons Van Gundy burned out in New Orleans within a year. Gamers of today, unlike older generations, seek a degree of empathy and belonging. Alumni who played in the late ’90s and mid-2000s have the potential to be the next wave of brilliant NBA minds. This group includes Green, Udoka, Kidd, Lue, Chauncey Billups in Portland. These guys played throughout the last decade and were part of the transition to the current Space and Pace era. You understand the emphasis on positionless basketball and guard-focused offenses.

With openings in Charlotte and Los Angeles, and potentially Philadelphia and Utah as well, NBA front offices need to look around the NBA to see the success of young coaches, particularly ex-players, with small market franchises. As the on-court product evolves, sideline schemes and sensibilities also evolve. Executives can address both the age and racial divides simultaneously by investing in the experience of former players who have learned from the league’s brightest minds.

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