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Ime Udoka’s success reflecting on Steve Nash, but is the comparison justified?

2021 NBA Playoffs - Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Revisionist history or not, a narrative has taken hold of both NBA punditry and Nets fandom: the Nets should have dumped Steve Nash after he led the Nets to a 48-24 record in his rookie year and hired Ime Udoka, then the Nets defensive coordinator, as Brooklyn’s head coach.

It’s a reflection of both Udoka’s success in the post-season, his Celtics being up 1-0 over the favored Warriors and Nash’s disappointing regular season (44-28) and a first round sweep by Boston.

Ian O’Connor of the Post is the latest columnist to suggest the Nets would be better off with Udoka rather than Nash:

Once more with feeling, either Nets general manager Sean Marks and owner Joe Tsai didn’t know that Udoka was special, or did know that he was special, but lacked the do-whatever-it-takes nerve to replace head coach Steve Nash with his assistant before said assistant jumped to the division rival Celtics, who now stand three victories away from an NBA title.

Neither explanation is any good.

Udoka may have even teased Marks and Nash after his Game 1 victory.

“We look at ourselves as a unit,” Udoka said. “A complete team. We look at the other teams, Brooklyn with Durant, the Bucks with [Giannis] Antetokounmpo, Miami with [Jimmy] Butler. We pride ourselves on being a team that plays together.”

That of course is a big part of the narrative, that Marks and Nash let the players run wild, run the team while Udoka is in charge in Beantown. That sub-narrative, of course, doesn’t take into account some realities.

It seems highly unlikely that even if Marks thought about a switch (and there’s no evidence or suggestion of that) he’d be replacing one rookie coach with another while trying to win a title. And Nash, despite a steep learning curve that first year, did finish with a .667 winning percentage in his first year, giving him the highest winning percentage of any Nets coach ... ever. And yes, it’s hard to believe that Kevin Durant, Nash’s biggest supporter on the roster, would go along with a dramatic move.

KD has on various occasions pointed to all the issues that Nash has had to face this season in particular in endorsing him continuing on.

“Come on, man. Yeah,” Durant told reporters at the end of the season when asked if Nash should continue on. “Steve has been dealt a crazy hand the last two years, he’s been having to deal with so much stuff as a head coach for the first time, COVID, trades. I’m proud of his passion for us.”

Earlier in April, KD told reporters that he thought Nash had handled his job “perfectly.”

“I think he’s done a great job. The last two years, he’s been dealt a wild hand: injuries, trades, disgruntled players, guys in and out of the lineup, and stuff that he can’t control,” said KD. “I felt like he’s handled it the best as he could.”

As any Nets fan can recount, that litany of issues includes Kyrie Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated, limiting him to 29 games; Kevin Durant’s sprained MCL which caused him to miss six weeks and led to an 11-game losing streak; James Harden’s unhappiness and ultimate trade to Philly; Ben Simmons being unable to play after said trade; Joe Harris missing all but 14 games and undergoing two surgeries on the same ankle. Not to mention, COVID health and safety protocols and a ferris wheel of players jumping on and off the roster.

Should Durant have such a major role? Of course. He is arguably the best player in the world and one has signed an extension with Brooklyn through 2026.

Meanwhile, as Brian Lewis reports, Udoka has said his year in Brooklyn and his prior season in Philadelphia help him develop as a head coach after seven years as an assistant to Gregg Popovich.

“I’ve stated quite a number of times how beneficial it was to get out of San Antonio and get back to the real NBA,” Udoka half-joked this week. “Seven years in San Antonio and the foundation and the base of who I am as a coach and who I was as a player was beneficial. But to leave for those two years was probably just as much, if not more, invaluable for my preparation to be a head coach, due to a lot of reasons.

“Some situations, obviously in Philadelphia with winning on the line and getting fired after that; Brooklyn, an intense situation with a win-now mentality and superstar players. … all bode well for me going forward. San Antonio is a little bit of a fairy tale, Boy Scouts, and (they) do whatever you ask. I needed to get back to the real side of the NBA that I was in as a player. That helped me navigate some of the things earlier this year.”

He meant the early days of this season when he, like Nash last season, took some time to develop as a head coach. (And it should be noted that Daryl Morey isn’t getting any criticism for firing Udoka when he dumped Brett Brown and his staff after the 2019-20 season.)

Whether Udoka is a better coach than Nash is less of a question than whether a switch a year ago would have made sense, considering a number of circumstances. Then again, O’Connor notes that similar circumstances prevented the New York Giants promote assistants named Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry and Bill Belichick, each of whom went on to a Hall of Fame career as a head coach elsewhere in the NFL.