CHICAGO— When the Rockets completed their full-speed-ahead hiring process, making Ime Udoka the coach to guide them through their much-discussed next phase of rebuilding and beyond, they celebrated the style and coaching acumen they believed made him the obvious choice.
Those qualities were the right place to start. But there was more to learn in the process.
Udoka prepared for the position for years, most notably as a top assistant under Gregg Popovich with the Spurs, and then as a 76ers and Nets assistant before his one season as head coach of the Celtics. But his time in Boston lasted just one season.
That season reached the NBA Finals but the ways that team played, the offense it ran and the defensive style it used, could not entirely reveal Udoka’s philosophies since so much of that was determined by the talent on the roster.
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When the Rockets hired Mike D’Antoni, they knew he believed in the power of the 3-pointer. When they hired Jeff Van Gundy, they knew he didn’t, or at least not until looking for what 20 years ago were considered to be better shots.
With Udoka, they needed to learn about his tastes and philosophies, his preferred way to have the young roster he inherits play.
With that in mind, Udoka chatted in a break between NBA draft combine games and workouts to talk about the way he will instruct the Rockets to play and his own philosophies.
Q: With some guys, you know, “this is his philosophies, this is how his teams played all these years.” What you did in Boston had to be directed by the roster at the time. What are your constants, your philosophy or the ways you most like to see basketball played?
A: I would say regardless of any team or personnel, the one thing you want to see is offensively, team basketball, unselfishness, guys playing the right way. And that goes across the board, no matter who you’re with. And then I would say from the defensive standpoint, a good defensive team, defensive individuals and team defense in general.
I think, for me, you expect certain things out of guys and to me, it’s a big effort thing on the defensive end. And when you have capable guys, all these athletic young guys, it’s just a mentality shift for the most part. So, always want a good defensive team and then unselfishness on the offensive end.
Q: Talking about defense then, in Boston you typically played two bigs. One at least was incredibly mobile, and you switched a lot. Are those things that you feel like in 2023-24, that’s how the best defenses are played in the NBA?
A: Yeah, I would say in general, teams struggle against teams that can switch and keep all the actions in front of them. You put the onus on guys one-on-one. My philosophy in general is to make teams beat you one-on-one. With USA basketball a few years ago, Doug Collins said, “Make teams make plays, not run plays.”
So, that’s kind of my concept as far as that. Take them out of all their actions and make someone have to beat you one-on-one. Teams have one or two maybe — not every team has even one — quality guy that can beat good defenders one-on-one.
Q:Do you have the guys right now who can do that?
A: Yeah. The first thing I would say is we have competitive guys and that’s a big part of it. Guys with a chip on their shoulder, guys who want to be pushed to be great. Defense is a mentality and effort. And so, with our guys having that competitive nature, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to be good defenders.
Q:Can Alperen Sengun be that kind of defensive player at center?
A: Yeah, I think anytime you’re a cerebral player, you can figure things out. And so, people have to understand and it’s my job as well to understand people’s limitations and so you don’t put them in positions where they can’t succeed. You’re not going to have certain guys sitting back and in a drop position when they’re not great rim protectors and at a disadvantage. So, you tweak things to adjust to your personnel and being a smart player, he should be able pick up all these concepts easily.
Q:Jalen Green has his strengths and his struggles defensively. What do you see in what he can be?
A: If you have all these physical attributes, to me, there’s no reason you can’t be a good defender. You have length, athleticism. I mean, a big part is getting stronger. We have a younger team. Some guys need to obviously get stronger in that department and that helps right off top. But I always go back to that mentality shift. If your focus has always been offense and you’ve had success with that, you’re going to kind of gear toward that more so than the other end. But understanding big picture of what always helps you win, you look at every successful team, and defense is a constant.
Q:Last year, the Rockets were great on the offensive boards. They led the league in offensive rebound percentage and second-chance points. It was thought that was why they gave up so many transition points, the most in the league. First, do you agree with going to the boards the way they did, and does that necessitate sacrifices in transition defense?
A: I was always a guy that was geared more towards stopping the transition, making teams beat you in thehalf court. But something that our team did naturally well, at that level, top of the league, you don’t want to take away that strength. I think it’s just another added layer to being hard to guard offensively, teams worrying about you on the offensive glass. I played against a number of teams that did that and it really puts a lot of stress.
Then, I look at your first layer of transition defense is you being able to attack the offensive glass. Teams are less receptive to run out or leak out … if they know you’re a great offensive rebounding team. So, you can negate some of that transition. I would say the biggest part of the transition (defense) was our turnovers, being 30th in turnovers. Those are obviously going to lead to a ton of fast break points and easy baskets.
Q:There were so many times defensively, the recognition seemed to make them a step behind. Is that something you grow out of or can be taught out of? Does it just take time?
A: Those are those are things you can definitely learn and grow out of, but you don’t want certain mistakes to happen over and over. You need to learn from those and not make the same ones. It was a problem. Individual defenders, I think we have really good guys on the ball. But the team defense was lacking at times, the rotations behind were lacking. That was evident in the film I watched, a lot of lack of rotations and team defense behind it. But those things can be cleaned up.
Q:There was a defensive want to from last year’s rookies, Tari Eason and Jabari Smith Jr., and obviously some tools and even some successes. Do you have a sense of what they can be and what that could do for the group?”
A: I think they’re only scratching the surface, what they did last year. You see some natural tendencies there, which is a great thing, especially for younger guys. They have that that dog mentality, and they want to guard and take on the challenge. And so, anytime you have that you can only go up from there. There’s some natural skillsets and things you can’t teach, obviously tremendous length and versatility to be able to guard multiple positions.
So, those guys have a head start on that and that’s only going to be become better for the group. And that’s my thing, to challenge and push them in that area to become even better but they’ve already set the example of what they can be.
Q:Offensively, Boston didn’t run a ton of high pick-and-roll. Was that a philosophical thing? Is that just because the personnel or would that be something we can expect to see with Houston, to move away from that?
A: It’s a little bit of both. Sometimes, you want to force movement. And certain go-to possessions, you go to your strengths, and that was certain guys having the ball in their hands in a pick-and-roll. You want to well-rounded team-concept offensively. You tried to initiate movement on your own.
We did a lot of side-to-side action where the ball swung and got to the second side. But when it’s money time and winning time, we had the ball in the guy’s hands to go to those actions. And so, it’s a balance of both, getting the team involved, but using guys strengths, as well. So, we do have guys that need to be more efficient in the pick and roll. But they’re really good at it and so we’ll use both.
Q:You ran plenty of iso with the Jays (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.) That’s pretty far removed from the San Antonio years. Are you a Pop disciple when it comes to the ball movement, the pass-and-move style, or is that then and this is now?
A: There’s a balance. We understand how hard that is for other teams to guard. But at the same time, you have to use your personnel to your advantage. The way we played “the beautiful game” in San Antonio, honestly it was due to a lack of a go-to guy. Tony (Parker) was great in the pick-and-roll, Timmy (Duncan) in the post, Manu (Ginobili,) we had a young Kawhi (Leonard.) But there wasn’t a dominant one-on-one scorer. We got LaMarcus (Aldridge) later and talked about, we play this way for a reason, because we can’t just hand the ball to somebody.
When you haveJayson and Jaylen, you want to take advantage of that, especially when teams are switching. You want to take advantage of matchups. We have guys capable of getting a basket. We’ll use that to our advantage.
Q:The Rockets used iso the 13th most often and were 11th in points per possession in iso, and that was with a team that ranked 27th offensively. They must have been good at it. But the San Antonio style might fit the Rockets strengths. What fits your roster?
A: We have capable guys that can score on their own, but my job is to help them grow in certain areas. You want them to become betterplaymakers. You want them to get to the spot and get to the basket. We have two guys (Green and Kevin Porter Jr.) that are really good at that. We understand the attention they’re going to draw. They need to make the right play.
Q:Offensively, Sengun has unusual abilities. How do you best use that talent, especially when you also have dynamic scoring guards?
A: It adds to the versatility you can have offensively. Anytime you have a big that can initiate offense, whether its from the high post or off the block, you want to take advantage of hisskillset. The (Nikola) Jokic comments are there for a reason because he does some of the passing and has the vision and can score from different areas on the court. He’s deadly in the pocket. You can hit him on the half roll, and he can make all the plays there. That just makes it easier for everyone else.
A guy like Kevin Porter who shot in the high 40s on spot up 3s only took two a game. You want to use that, move him around and have other guys initiate offense to get him those shots.Alperen has a unique skillset that we want to take advantage of.
Q:How do you set up your staff? Do you have a guy that coaches the defense and a guy who run the offense?
A: I don’t use an offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator thing. The way I learned and what helped me become more well rounded is to do a little bit of everything. That’s the way I learned for seven years under Pop. We have guys who scout (opposing) teams. We have a game plan for how we’re going to defend these guys and what offensive concepts work against them. I think it helps (coaches) grow, which I’m big on.
For me, I like to hear different voices. I want the players to hear different voices, not just the same guy talking about defense. I think it works for the team. Pop is well-rounded and he wanted us to be focused on everything, player development, relationships, offense, defense,game plans, everything.
A: That’s his thing. I’m not a wine guy.
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