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New Orleans Pelicans should strongly consider Ime Udoka at head coach

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A search has begun to fill what David Griffin coins “the most attractive job in the NBA.” Here is part seven of our spotlight series in trying to unearth the best coaching candidate.

Chicago Bulls v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

On Saturday, August 15th, the New Orleans Pelicans announced the end of head coach Alvin Gentry’s tenure and executive vice president David Griffin made clear that the organization will be in no rush to hire a successor, preaching patience in their process.

“We will not be quick with this at all. This is not a rush,” Griffin said in response to a question regarding the timetable. “We have a job that we believe is going to be the most attractive in the NBA, quite frankly. With all of the candidates still in the (Orlando) bubble – and there are some that may not be – candidates you may want to talk to are still with teams, in many circumstances.

So, let’s take a closer look at potential candidates who may be the right long-term fit to lead Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and the rest of the roster to the next level.

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Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach Ime Udoka has been one of the rising stars among assistant coaches for a while now.

After a 12-year career as a basketball journeyman, that included stints both in the NBA and overseas, Udoka joined Gregg Popovich’s staff in San Antonio in 2012.

From 2012-19, the Spurs went a combined 398-176, averaging 56.8 wins per season, with an NBA title, two Finals appearances, and three trips to the conference final.

Udoka shared the bench with future head coaches Mike Budenholzer, Brett Brown, Jim Boylen; as well as current Brooklyn Nets GM Sean Marks. Ettore Messina and Becky Hammon, two other hot names in coaching circles, were also there.

This past season, Udoka joined Brown in Philadelphia, where he replaced Monty Williams as the 76ers’ lead assistant. He turned down opportunities in New Orleans and Sacramento, citing his ties to his former colleague. Philly was eliminated in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, with Ben Simmons sidelined and Joel Embiid giving another inconsistent showing in the postseason.

In May of last year, he interviewed for the Cleveland Cavaliers head coaching job that eventually went to John Beilein. This season, he has interviewed for the New York Knicks job that went to Tom Thibodeau, and could be the frontrunner for the Chicago Bulls’ vacancy.

Even during his playing days, Udoka was seen as someone with the potential to lead a team. During a webinar appearance earlier this summer, he revealed that his former coach Isiah Thomas was the first to mention it to him while Udoka was playing for the Knicks’ Summer League team.

It became clear to Popovich pretty quickly that he was a future coach. Udoka revealed that Popovich, Budenholzer, and Brown would frequently joke that with all the time Udoka spent at the facility, he “might as well get into coaching.”

With former Orlando Magic and Nets coach Jacque Vaughn’s departure from the Spurs staff, Udoka jumped at the opportunity to become Popovich’s newest understudy.

The organization and culture of the Spurs had Udoka completely enamored, as he revealed during the Mary Kline Classic Sports and Business webinar.

“When my sister visited me [during my first season there], I said ‘something’s not right here’. It’s almost too good to be true. People can’t be this genuine.”

One of the major needs for the New Orleans Pelicans is strengthening the foundation laid last season, to truly become a team capable of not bowing down. That comes through defining the culture of the franchise, and building its identity. Udoka embraced the values of the Spurs’ organization.

“So, to their credit, from top to bottom it’s one goal: win games, win championships and they want to take everything else off your plate. And that obviously comes from Pop, RC [Buford] and the owners. It’s great symmetry out there and it trickles down to Timmy [Tim Duncan] as a player, as the leader. Top to bottom symmetry. No egos, no agendas, all basketball. That’s what makes San Antonio great.”

In accepting the challenge in Philadelphia this past season, Udoka saw an opportunity to test what he had learned in San Antonio in a completely new environment, even with a familiar face in Brown at the helm.

“I just felt it was time for a change, to see different basketball philosophies.” Udoka said. “I want to see different things, be around different players, get back to the ‘real’ NBA because you know, San Antonio was like the Fantasy Land at that time, get around with some young guys but personal growth was the biggest thing. I felt like I learned a lot in San Antonio and I just want a different perspective.”

However, Udoka is not simply a member of the Popovich coaching tree. He has shown a desire to continue to learn from other basketball minds, having attended the NBPA coaching clinics for three consecutive years, learning from Dallas’ Rick Carlise and University of Virginia head coach Tony Bennett.

Defensive Principles

Ime Udoka’s calling card has been defense, another area in which New Orleans has, shall we say, been incredibly deficient with a lack of adherence and execution of basic defensive principles including but not limited too:

  • Rebounding
  • Communication
  • Man-ball awareness
  • Bumping the cutter
  • Going over/under screens
  • Closing out on shooters
  • Limiting penetration
  • Defending the corner 3
  • Stopping the ball in transition
  • Help and recovery

Just a few things to work on.

As Philly’s de facto defensive coordinator, he helped the Sixers post the NBA’s eighth-best defensive rating (108.4) and tenth-best net rating (2.3).

He overhauled Philadelphia’s approach to attacking the pick and roll and getting the ball out of the hands of scoring guards, and he put an emphasis on creating turnovers.

The 76ers were ninth in the NBA in steals (8.0), blocks (5.3), and points allowed off turnovers (16.4). Philly improved from 27th to 23 in opponent’s turnovers. They finished third in second chance points allowed (11.6), though they were simply average at stopping points in the paint, finishing 15th there (48.1). That’s still higher than teams like Denver, Oklahoma City, and Houston, and roughly two baskets better than the Pelicans.

Offensive Execution

In adjusting the Sixers offense, Udoka and Brown focused on defining roles for each player.

Philadelphia finished 14th in the NBA in offensive rating at 110.7, sandwiching them between Denver and the Pelicans. If you’re concerned about pace, and you know who you are, Philly wasn’t the fastest team by a long shot, but they finished ahead of other playoff participants in Oklahoma City, Indiana, Utah, Orlando, Miami, and Denver, and just four tenths of a point behind the league’s best offense in Dallas.

Ultimately, it doesn’t seem that Udoka is beholden to any particular style of play. The Spurs have been noted for their versatility over the years. Udoka brought those same principles to Philadelphia. If anything, this year’s postseason has shown that the ability to adjust based on opponent and personnel is vital for any head coach (See Miami/Milwaukee).

In the clip below, Udoka explains the Spurs’ ICE defense for the pick and roll, and their motion offense.

Teaching the Game

Udoka has a strong background in player development in all areas of the court, working with Aldridge, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and was seen as a key player in the development of 2x Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.

His head coaching experience has been limited to leading the Spurs’ Summer League squads in 2013 and 2014. The Spurs were a combined 4-2 in seeding play and 2-2 in the playoffs.

As the game becomes more and more global, building relationships with international players and coaches is a vital part of today’s NBA. Udoka, a native of Nigeria, has played abroad and was approached by the Nigerian national team. With the league’s expansion and investment in the continent, his insights could prove extremely valuable.

Unearthing international gems is a hallmark of the Spurs organization. The Pelicans haven’t had a single frontline international player that they’ve drafted, though we all have our fingers crossed for Didi Louzada.

And, as you saw in the clip above, Udoka stressed the Spurs’ commitment to finding players with high basketball intelligence, another quality the Pelicans have had in short supply.

Communication Counts

Udoka is known for being a great communicator, and not only with on the court matters.

LaMarcus Aldrige considered him instrumental to luring him from Portland to San Antonio. Aldridge told USA Today’s Sam Amick how the deal got done in 2015:

“I thought (Udoka) was staying in San Antonio for the summer, so I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a jet going to Dallas. You could get a flight from Dallas to San Antonio (to head home).’ So he was like, ‘Cool.’ So he gets on the jet, and I’m like, ‘We’re leaving. You should buy your flight (to San Antonio from Dallas) on the plane. Go buy your flight.’ He was like, ‘I ain’t buying no flight.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He’s like, ‘I live here (in Los Angeles) right now. I’m flying just to answer any questions that you have.’ I was like, ‘Man, you’re crazy.’ I said, ‘Get off the plane.’ He said, ‘No, I’m going to answer any question that you have.’ So I’m like, ‘You don’t have to do this. Don’t do this.’ He’s like, ‘Nah, I’m not getting off.’”

Former Spurs/current Memphis Grizzlies forward Kyle Anderson said this of Udoka; “If he has to get on you, he’ll get on you, but he knows how to talk to us. [He] knows how to handle players.”

Udoka believes in building relationships. He knows that building those ties are critical in today’s NBA. It was what drew him to San Antonio in the first place.

“Anybody can do Xs and Os and game plan for a team and scheme,” he said to ESPN in 2018. “Pops got all the bases covered. He’s great in all areas, but he’s the best at relating to the players. Building a relationship with those players.”

His authenticity is what has drawn the eyes of the league’s executives.

“The one thing that Pop stressed a lot is be yourself. The fundamentals, the basics, and your foundations of basketball is the kind that we all agree with but you have to put your own personal touch on it and be authentic,” he said.

“I’ve had a few head coaching interviews now and that’s one thing I try to say. I’m not trying to be Pop. I’ve learned a ton from him and you take those things forever with you but you have to be yourself and be authentic. You have to be yourself. Knowing that winning basketball is; we all learned the right way but you have to be your own person at the end of the day.”

Udoka checks all of the boxes. He has the player pedigree, comes from a culture of success, and has proven to be a leader and a student of his craft. He’d bring authority and accountability to the locker room, and he’s shown that he can make young players and veterans alike better.

If Ime Udoka is named as the next coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, I have to believe that he’d have a tremendous opportunity for success and a plan to take advantage of it.

All along I’ve emphasized characteristics and character above all in the Pelicans’ coaching search.

Ime Udoka has the characteristics and the character to be the coach for the present and the future of New Orleans basketball.

And, his partner is the stunning Nia Long. So, bonus.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @DMGrubb.

Previous articles on the next potential head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans: