On Monday — after the Celtics outlasted the Cavaliers in a battle that answered the question “Who wants to eke out an unsatisfying win more?” — Jayson Tatum was asked for a progress report on new coach Ime Udoka.
Tatum opened with his go-to line regarding Udoka, noting how difficult it must be to be a first-year head coach. Then he touched on something new.
“It’s like we’re in a relationship,” Tatum said. “We try to help each other out to achieve the same goal.”
Tatum is both correct and also the wrong person to answer that question because he has struggled enormously to hold up his end of that equation. Tatum isn’t missing shots on purpose, of course, and this cold snap almost certainly isn’t permanent. The 23-year-old later noted — in a very candid answer about his struggles — that he has never missed this much in his career before, and he fully expects himself to figure it out. But Tatum’s struggles have thrown a wrench into every plan the Celtics made this season, and they make evaluating Udoka roughly a fifth of the way through his first season difficult.
Still, there are some genuinely positive signs poking through the concrete.
Celtics media and fans have raised a lot of concerns about Udoka — some fair, some less so. We will get to them.
But before we look at the concerns, let’s examine the positives.
After a slow start — as in a bottom-10 percentile start — the Celtics have roared back to life. Per the NBA’s stats site, the Celtics have the 10th-best defensive rating — fourth-best in their last 10 games (and again, the season is just 14 games old). The Celtics have excellent defensive personnel, and Udoka is building something that seems to work.
He seems to have a process as well.
“First 10 games, we really felt like we really got to where we needed to be,” Udoka said on Monday. “Still can grow in that area, but offensively is kind of the focus now, the shift and see how we can score more than 98, because we’re holding teams under 100.”
In other words: The defense came together first, and now the offense needs to follow suit.
It’s a process.
So what are Celtics fans most concerned with? Based on our scientific method of data discovery (tweeting a couple things about Udoka and reading the replies), the biggest concerns are three-fold: Rotations, end-of-game strategy, and usage of the young guys.
First, the rotations. Udoka has repeated over and over that players have been “in and out” of the lineup since preseason. Even still, Udoka has largely put together successful lineups. Six of eight of his most-used groupings have a positive net rating.
What’s more, some of those lineups have been excellent. The second-most used lineup this season (108 possessions) is Dennis Schröder, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Tatum, and Rob Williams, which has a net rating of 6.2, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s equal to the Suns’ team net rating, which is the fifth-best net rating in the NBA.
The third-most used lineup — the fully healthy starters: Smart, Brown, Tatum, Brown, and Horford — have a net rating of +7.5 in 106 possessions, which slots in between Utah and Miami at second and third-best in the league.
There are clunkers, to be sure. The starting lineup without Jaylen Brown breaks even at 0.0. The 25 possessions played by Schröder, Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, and Al Horford were an unmitigated small-sample-size disaster at -23.3, although you can see how a lineup like that might come together with Brown out.
In general, however, Udoka’s lineups have been fine.
So what about his end-of-game strategy?
That’s a more interesting question. Cleaning the Glass has a stat called “expected win differential.” In simple terms, it measures how many wins a team should have given its offensive and defensive ratings. Statistically, the 7-7 Celtics should be 8-6 (pessimistically) or 9-5 (optimistically).
Of course, that number could be skewed by any number of circumstances. For instance: Tatum is shooting 29.4 percent in the last three minutes of games that are within five points, and an almost-comical 12.5 percent in the final minute of close games. His usage rate is steady in the mid-30s, which puts him in the 100th percentile of all forwards.
Translation: Tatum shoots more than anyone else in the NBA at his position in crunch time, and this season, he misses almost all of his shots.
Would a better performance by Tatum fix all of the late-game issues? Maybe not, but it isn’t a major stretch to imagine improved crunch-time numbers from Tatum boosting the Celtics to 8-6 or 9-5. If the Celtics were 9-5 while Tatum struggles, the conversation might be very different.
Finally, there’s the question of the young players. Udoka — perhaps emboldened by Brad Stevens who coached the same way — prefers to play his veterans. That leaves Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith, in particular, out in the cold. Pritchard is averaging just 10.6 minutes per game, while Nesmith plays just 9.5. Josh Richardson, meanwhile, plays 24.2 minutes per contest.
But consider the mandate Udoka received from Celtics management when he was hired. All offseason, Stevens hammered the point that everything the organization does should make life easier for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Maybe Pritchard and Nesmith would help, but Udoka is hardly alone among coaches in trusting veterans more than youth.
Another thing to consider: Presumably, Udoka is looking to make a splash. The Celtics can say what they want about making Udoka their next long-term coach, but while developing Pritchard and Nesmith might be useful from an organizational perspective, they are not the focus. Udoka’s task is primarily to turn the Celtics into a contender and — secondarily, but certainly related — to make Boston a place where Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown want to play long-term.
If Udoka (very reasonably) sees keeping Tatum and Brown happy as crucial to his job security, and if he (very reasonably) sees wins as the way to keep Tatum and Brown happy, it’s a short trip to “play veterans at all times if possible.”
So who is Udoka as a coach?
None of this is meant to be apologia — no coach is perfect, few first-year coaches are elite, and Udoka is hardly an exception. Tatum, for example, is running much more isolation offense and significantly less pick-and-roll. Presumably, there are a lot of ways Stevens and the front office would like to see Udoka improve.
But the underachieving Celtics are knocking on the door of a solid season. Udoka isn’t Gregg Popovich. He also isn’t Stevens, or Mike D’Antoni, or (thankfully) Jason Kidd, or anyone else. Udoka is himself — a new coach whose mettle in the director’s chair is yet to be fully tested.
The early indicators are positive enough. Celtics fans might be smart to give Udoka’s style of coaching a chance to emerge.
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