Celtics

If Ime Udoka is headed to the Nets, the Celtics seem happy to let him walk

The Celtics were almost shockingly ready to let Udoka walk when a suitor came calling.

Ime Udoka
Ime Udoka is reportedly headed to the Nets, ending his one-year tenure with the Celtics. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

COMMENTARY

The last question Ime Udoka fielded from the media as head coach of the Celtics was about J.D. Davison.

Udoka was a little more than a week removed from the apocalyptic scene after Game 6 of the NBA Finals. The Celtics were just beginning to bandage their wounds in preparation for another run at a title when Udoka addressed the media via Zoom one day after the draft.

Davison — for obvious reasons — was largely an afterthought at Udoka’s press conference, but after the requisite queries about getting ready for 2022-23, a reporter asked Udoka about the late second-round pick (who eventually inked a two-way deal).

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“First and foremost, excited about the young guy,” Udoka said, before going on to praise Davison’s athleticism and note that the Spurs — where Udoka’s coaching career began — found some gems late in the draft.

And that was it. No one on the Zoom call could have possibly known what was in store — that Udoka would soon be suspended for his role in an ugly workplace situation. Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, citing the Celtics’ own independent investigation into the matter, Udoka “used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship.” Wojnarowski’s source described the verbiage Udoka used as “especially concerning” coming from Udoka’s position of power. The placement of the word “prior” in the above report seemed deeply significant.

And then — as it always does — the NBA world kept turning. The dazed Celtics fumbled through Media Day. Assistant coach Joe Mazzulla was placed in charge on an interim basis with the possibility of permanent status, and his early success helped calm the storm temporarily until Tuesday.

The Nets — who fired Steve Nash after a lackluster, deeply dramatic start — reportedly want to hire Udoka. Per reports, the Celtics allowed interviews to happen without incident and don’t plan to demand draft compensation from the Nets, even though Udoka remains under contract.

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We still don’t know many details about Udoka’s suspension. The Celtics’ organization has been a steel trap (and justifiably so, after social media took part in a reprehensible hunt for the unnamed woman in the wake of Udoka’s suspension). With the exception of a few well-placed leaks that paint a vague picture of what happened, the team has aggressively tried to move on.

One of the few things we can comfortably parse from all of this — from the moment Brad Stevens sat at a table in front of reporters with a remarkably steely expression the day after the news broke to Tuesday’s tandem of Shams and Woj Bombs — is that the front office views Udoka’s violation as an enormous deal.

The Celtics seem happy to put Udoka in their rear-view mirrors.

In a vacuum, Udoka’s coaching credentials are unimpeachable. Before joining the Celtics, he was considered a rising star and a no-questions-asked future head coach. After the Celtics entrusted him with their team — at perhaps the franchise’s highest-leverage moment of the last decade, with the Jays teetering and trade rumors swirling — he took a talented group that kept tripping on the doorstep and helped them finally step through into the NBA Finals (with a little help from Jimmy Butler’s questionable shot selection).

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Now, Udoka is poised to take all of that coaching talent — all of that ability to command and direct a chaotic locker room — to an Atlantic Division rival with championship talent but one of the most chaotic locker rooms in recent memory. The Nets need direction and a steady hand desperately, and while it’s impossible to say with certainty whether Udoka can provide those things with Kevin Durant and (especially) Kyrie Irving instead of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, his history suggests it’s possible.

Meanwhile, Mazzulla has been good, and his players offer plenty of positive affirmation, but he hasn’t been so overwhelmingly good that he looks like a no-brainer as the team’s future. The Celtics’ offense has been excellent, but their defense — which was No. 1 in almost every category under Udoka — is in the bottom half of the league after six games.

And still, the Celtics didn’t challenge any of this. No draft compensation, no gamesmanship, no further questions. Don’t let the door hit you.

It’s possible that the Celtics are Mazzulla’s team now, but we know with certainty that they are not Udoka’s team.

The Celtics appear resolutely and entirely finished with Udoka. Whatever he did — whatever he said prior to the beginning of his inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate — seems to have crossed a line the Celtics are staunchly unwilling to cross with him.

The second-to-last time Udoka spoke to reporters as the head coach of the Celtics was in the wake of the Game 6 loss.

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“The message is everybody come back better,” Udoka said in his closing remarks. “Let’s not be satisfied.

“It’s not guaranteed you’re going to be here.”

Imagine if anyone had known how right he was.

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