Ime Udoka's first season as an NBA head coach has been a whirlwind. For starters, there's the impact that comes with undergoing another dramatic makeover to the roster. That transformation included moving on from Kemba Walker, not bringing back Evan Fournier, reuniting with Al Horford, and the late summer signing of Dennis Schroder, a one-year partnership that ended early.
Those decisions produced significant changes, as Marcus Smart became Boston's floor general and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown would have the ball in their hands more than their previous NBA seasons.
Players had to adjust to their new responsibilities while adapting to the differences in what an almost entirely new coaching staff was asking of them compared to the previous regime.
As the Celtics grew more comfortable with new roles, teammates, and assignments, they constantly dealt with injuries and Covid-19-related absences, and they were one of the five NBA teams most affected by the latter, per ESPN's Kevin Pelton. As a result, their starting lineup has played together for slightly more than a third of the season, sharing the court in 23 of Boston's 60 games.
There were plenty of winnable games along the way, as evidenced by their 11-18 record in clutch situations, meaning the difference in the score was five points or fewer within the last five minutes of the matchup. However, all of those factors mentioned stood in the way of the Celtics playing up to their potential consistently.
But as the Celtics got healthy and the schedule softened, the team found its footing. Since New Year's Eve, they're 18-7 and have the highest net and plus-minus rating, allowing the fewest points per 100 possessions, and rank ninth in offensive rating.
Defensively, Boston's acclimated to Udoka's switch-heavy scheme. And they've become as difficult for offenses to operate against as any defense in the league since Udoka's decision to have Robert Williams guard, typically opposing fours, so he can patrol the rim more frequently while also being able to close out to the near-side corner.
Williams also has the versatility to handle counters like a team pulling him out to the wing, even when tasked with defending shiftier players than those he usually guards.
Udoka's change now has Al Horford, who's plenty versatile in his own right, primarily defending the opposing big man who's most often the one setting on-ball screens. Even with the Celtics' elder statesman taking on that responsibility, it doesn't compromise Boston's switch-heavy scheme.
The same goes for when the Celtics bring in members of their second unit, such as the three most-featured players off Boston's bench, Derrick White, Grant Williams, and Daniel Theis.
Offensively, the decisions the Celtics made at the trade deadline, most notably acquiring White and parting with Schroder, have reshaped the roster to better suit the style of play Udoka preaches. Lessons imprinted on him as a player and coach with the San Antonio Spurs, the team Boston acquired White from, call for an uptempo pace of play and quick decisions with the ball.
Schroder's ability to utilize his speed and craftiness off the dribble to consistently get into the paint and often to the rim made Boston's offense more dynamic, but constantly slowing down the pace of play made it more difficult for the offense to properly function.
Conversely, in White, the Celtics added a type of player that's become increasingly difficult to find in the NBA, a connector. He makes quick decisions, consistently pushes the pace, and he's active without the ball.
That style of play is infectious. Helping make this a smooth transition, one where White's habits can rub off on his new teammates, is he worked with Udoka his first two years in the NBA while the latter was a Spurs assistant coach. Will Hardy, who came from San Antonio to join Udoka's staff, was with him the first four years of White's NBA career, only not working with him for the 49 games White spent with the Spurs this season.
In his first four games with the Celtics, White's averaging 12.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. He's quickly making an impact on both ends of the floor, and he's already a part of Boston's closing lineup.
White's only converting on 23.1 percent of the 6.5 threes he's hoisting per game since joining the Celtics. But the team reasonably believes his effectiveness from beyond the arc will receive a similar bump to the ones Evan Fournier and Josh Richardson got from the open looks afforded to them playing alongside Tatum and Brown.
Whether that happens will play a role in how far Boston goes in the postseason. But just as Udoka's tinkering defensively has provided the Celtics with a significant boost on that end, reshaping the roster to more accurately meet his vision offensively and complement the team's core members will give Boston a better chance of avoiding a quick exit from the playoffs.
Udoka's faced considerable adversity in his first year as an NBA head coach and handled it well. He's also able to call out players, including Tatum and Brown, whether it's in a team setting or when speaking to the media postgame, without having to fear how they'll respond.
Growth isn't always linear. But what Udoka's establishing in his first year on the job speaks well for the direction this team's going, which is vital to Tatum and Brown staying with the Celtics beyond their current contracts.