By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Introductory press conferences for head coaches do not often produce much in the way of substantial, meaningful messages. Ownership is happy, the new hire is happy. Smiles across the board. Fluff flowing through the microphone. A photo op more than anything else.
And to be sure, there was plenty of sunshine and plenty of gumdrops during the introduction of Ime Udoka as the 18th head coach of the Boston Celtics on Monday. Though the circumstances of Brad Stevens moving from the bench to the front office still remain a bit puzzling, the Celtics seemed to be quite happy with landing Udoka for his first head coaching gig.
Yet amid all of the standard level of introductory optimism, there was one message from the 43-year-old that seemed rather significant -- in a franchise-shaping sort of way.
"Talking to Kawhi Leonard as a young guy, and I used to tell him, 'Why wait? What are you waiting for? These guys, don't give 'em too much respect.' And I'd say the same thing to Jayson [Tatum] and Jaylen [Brown]," Udoka said. "You know, the sky is the limit. The fact that you're not all-NBA, that should be a chip on your shoulder. You should play with that edge and want to prove people wrong. But my message to them would be 'why wait?' The talent is there, the work ethic is there, the chance to be a better leader and more vocal at times, but don't wait for anything. Go out and take it now."
Coachspeak? Sure, to an extent.
But in terms of the right message at the right time for the right people, that mentality right there figures to be precisely what the Boston Celtics and their young stars need. (Consider, too, that Gregg Popovich once said that Udoka was better than him at speaking to and connecting with star players.)
That may be applicable at all times, no doubt. But a quick peek around the NBA at this exact moment shows that the league may have stepped into a new era this year, without much fanfare. That era, of course, is one where the NBA title is actually up for grabs, with several teams legitimately in the running to take home the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
For those who enjoy open competition, it has really been a long time coming.
For one, the days of the NBA Finals essentially being The LeBron James Invitational looks like it's over. James made the Finals for eight straight years and nine of the past 10 years (with three different teams). He won four of them. This year, his Lakers won their play-in game but lost in six games to the Suns. Anthony Davis' injury was obviously a significant factor, but the point is, as James hits his 37th birthday next year, his reign of dominance may be over.
In conjunction with that is the development that the predictable nature of the NBA Finals matchup may be gone. Maybe. Witnessing the Warriors play the Cavaliers in June for four straight seasons, and watching the Warriors reach five consecutive Finals, it did do quite a bit of damage in terms of allowing real, true championship beliefs build in NBA cities around the continent. The dissolution of that notion began with the Raptors' win in 2019 ... but LeBron going out and winning the bubble trophy a year later with the Lakers worked to stifle that just a bit.
Now, though, it feels safe to say those days are gone. The final four involves the Suns, Clippers, Bucks and Hawks. To say that quartet lacks a championship pedigree would be akin to saying Tacko Fall is not very short.
Out West, the Clippers are in their first conference finals in franchise history. The Suns have made two Finals in their 53-year history; their most recent trip was 1993, the one before that was 1976, and they lost both of those series. The Suns hadn't even made the playoffs for 10 years prior to this one; they're now one win away from the NBA Finals.
In the East, The Bucks haven't been to the Finals since 1974. They won it all in their only other Finals appearance in 1971. For Milwaukee ... it's been a while. And since the Hawks moved to Atlanta in 1968, they've made zero NBA Finals. This year marks just their second conference finals, and they also went three years without making the playoffs prior to this season. (The St. Louis Hawks won a title way back in 1958 and lost three other Finals from 1957-61.)
If that quartet doesn't declare that the fight for an NBA title is wide open, then nothing does.
Granted, there's plenty of talent on those rosters. Trae Young is a bona fide young star in Atlanta. Giannis Antetokounmpo is, obviously, an MVP, and Khris Middleton is a two-time All-Star in Milwaukee. Jrue Holiday is a three-time All-NBA defender, too. In Phoenix, Devin Booker appears to really be a special scorer, and the 35-year-old Chris Paul is a Hall of Famer. Deandre Ayton's ascent appears to have begun as well. The Clippers may be the closest thing to a superteam on paper, but with Kawhi Leonard out, it's been Paul George and Reggie Jackson leading the way.
Those teams have some great players, without a doubt. But the point is: So do the Celtics.
Udoka recognizes that. And after being a part of the staff on the East's would-be superteam in Brooklyn, he has absolutely no issues with pushing his two young stars to carry this Boston team to play at a championship level -- and to do it in short order.
"It's huge. It's something that you see -- and the perception of them outside this organization is All-NBA level players, MVP-caliber players," Udoka said of Brown and Tatum. "It's my job to put them in situations to be successful, push them to be greater, and like I said, the sky's the limit for those guys. When all the job openings happened this summer, I think it was pretty evident that Boston is the one, the most attractive, based on the organization, the history, the expectations, but also the players on the roster. You have two foundational young pillars like those two, it's exciting to build around them, continue to help them grow and reach their potential. So the sky is the limit with those two."
Any coach in that position would say something similar. But Udoka's history, Brown's and Tatum's potential, and the current landscape of the NBA playoff field combine to make this mindset particularly significant at this precise point in time.
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