For the first time since 2013, the Sixers are searching for a new head coach.
With the team announcing Monday that it has fired Brett Brown, we’re continuing our series analyzing candidates to replace Brown with current Sixers assistant Ime Udoka. We’ve looked so far at reported candidates Tyronn Lue and Jay Wright.
Udoka is “among the early candidates” for the Sixers’ head coaching vacancy, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania.
Let’s examine the case for and against promoting him to head coach:
The case for Udoka
If you decided during the middle of a random game this season to focus on Udoka, you’d see someone conducting himself like a head coach. He was constantly thinking and making defensive tweaks – communicating between free throws that Joel Embiid and Al Horford should swap matchups; giving Matisse Thybulle a few words of advice at the end of a timeout; shouting out to trap as an opposing guard waited to initiate the final possession of a quarter.
Every coach has their own unique demeanor that works for them, of course, but the 43-year-old Udoka seems to have a nice mix of player-like intensity and poise on the sidelines.
Following Brown’s firing and the comment Josh Richardson made about “accountability” being a problem this year, it’s clear general manager Elton Brand will be considering qualities beyond X’s and O’s, including how coaches interact with and, perhaps, occasionally discipline the team’s stars.
“There’s a balance that you have to strike,” Brand said on a conference call Tuesday. “The players have to be educated and they have to know why you’re asking them to do this so that they buy in. If they don’t, that’s exactly what happens. Repercussions … I don’t know how many coaches would take one of their star players out because they didn’t listen to them on one or two plays. Now, should they have? That has to be determined. And will the next coach? That will be determined also.”
Udoka played in 316 NBA games between 2003-04 and 2010-11, plus a few seasons overseas, before spending seven years as an assistant under Gregg Popovich with the Spurs and then heading to the Sixers. From his experience with Udoka the player, Popovich thought he was well-suited for coaching.
“I am who I am, and that is part of the reason Pop brought me in,” Udoka told Jabari Young for a story in The Athletic last summer, “because he knew me as a player and he knew that would translate well to coaching.”
It is no surprise that Udoka’s name has appeared in reports about several head coach openings, including the Nets and Bulls. He had extensive responsibilities under Popovich – scouting and game planning for eight or nine opponents, he said last September – and spent this season as Brown’s de facto defensive coordinator and lead assistant. Outside of the fact that he has no head coaching experience, there aren’t any real gaps in his resume.
The case against Udoka
In a literal sense, Udoka fails to meet the criteria of being a “new voice, new perspective,” which Brand said he wanted. That clearly doesn’t eliminate him as a candidate, though – it’s not like he’s been entrenched in the organization forever.
A more legitimate mark against Udoka is how his defense performed. At Brown’s “Coach the Coaches” Clinic almost a year ago, Udoka previewed a few defensive changes, both schematic and philosophical, that he believed would help the Sixers force more turnovers and defend the pick-and-roll better. Though the team’s turnovers forced per game rose a bit, from 12.7 to 13.8, pick-and-roll defense was a recurring issue.
The Sixers sometimes moved the big man up or blitzed when the “over and drop” approach wasn’t working, but they often struggled to adjust and slow down guards like Devin Booker and Damian Lillard once they started hot. The team finished eighth in defensive rating, which was disappointing given the apparent talent on that side of the ball.
Obviously, any results this season ultimately fall on Brown, who admitted that he could’ve changed the pick-and-roll coverage earlier in the Celtics series. If he’s promoted, Udoka will have the final say for the first time.
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