By Ric Bucher, melissa rodlin Y Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writers
Just three months after leading the Boston Celts to the NBA Finals in his first season as head coach, Ime Udoka is at the center of the drama and uncertainty that is upending the organization.
Udoka was suspended by the team for the entirety of the 2022-23 season on Thursday, just one day after ESPN and The Athletic reported that he had had a consensual intimate relationship with a team staff member that violated organizational policy.
Udoka released a statement following the Celtics’ decision:
The ripple effects of unprecedented punishment will surely be felt throughout the organization and the league in the days to come. Our NBA reporters Ric Bucher, Melissa Rohlin and Yaron Weitzman spoke with NBA sources to detail what’s next.
Where do the Celtics go from here?
In place of Udoka, the Celtics will turn to assistant coach Joe Mazzulla, according to a report from ESPN.
At just 34 years old, Mazzulla takes charge of a team that is coming off one final and hoping for another. This would be a tall order for any coach, let alone one with no experience as the lead voice of an NBA team. The good news for Celtics fans is that Mazzulla seems to be loved throughout the organization.
“The players like him and respect him,” a Celtics source said. Asked about Mazzulla during last year’s playoff race, Celtics star Jayson Tatum said, “I love Joe… [I] I can’t say enough good things about Joe, and everyone appreciates what he brings to this team, and I’m glad we have him.”
Mazzulla, who as a point guard helped lead West Virginia to the NCAA Final Four in 2010, first joined the Celtics organization in 2016 as an assistant for their G League team, the Maine Red Claws. The next season, he left to become the head coach at Division II Fairmont State, where he stayed for three years before joining Brad Stevens’ coaching staff with the Celtics in 2019. The job was a dream come true for the Celtics. Rhode Island. native who, according to his friends, supported the Celtics as a kid.
Player development was his initial focus. He worked closely with Kemba Walker, among others.
“The players accepted it,” said Scott Morrison, an assistant with the Celtics at the time and Mazzulla’s head coach during his time with the Red Claws. “He tells them what it is without being abrasive and in my experience, players like that. They like being coached.”
He connected with the players because he was as competitive as they were. Case in point: During the bubble, he and Morrison took up swimming as a hobby; within a few days, Morrison said, Mazzulla had watched hours of YouTube researching proper techniques and strategies to never lose a race.
In June 2021, Stevens resigned as head coach and became general manager of the Celtics. Shortly after, he hired Udoka. Mazzulla was one of two Stevens assistants held.
“I talked to everyone in the organization when they signed me, including the players, and it got rave reviews,” Udoka said of Mazzulla in June. “I didn’t know much about him going into it, but I take player feedback to a high value, and he was a guy who agreed with the consensus.”
Udoka promoted Mazzulla to a “front of the bank” job. He handed over X and O responsibilities to him. Mazzulla worked with former assistant principal Will Hardy on planning the game. Players noticed a difference.
“He’s become much more knowledgeable, more detailed, more vocal and more comfortable in his role as a coach,” Tatum said last spring. “You’ve seen the growth since his first year, and he has helped me tremendously as a player and as a person.”
Tatum wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Mazzula interviewed for the Jazz’s head coaching vacancy this summer. Utah, led by former Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, hired Hardy but then tried to hire Mazzulla as his primary assistant, according to sources familiar with the situation. The Celtics had previously planned to upgrade Mazzulla to Hardy’s job, but in the wake of the Utah chase, they also gave him a raise.
The Celtics know Mazzulla will have to deal with a learning curve — don’t be surprised if they add a former head coach or veteran assistant to their staff — and they know Udoka’s success in establishing a culture of responsibility and selflessness helped them turn their season around last year and make it to the Finals.
But they also have a loaded roster and believe that, in Mazzulla, they still have a head coach who knows the strengths and weaknesses of the group and how to best move the pieces.
You never know how someone will react to being the boss, the one with the last word and in a position to be blamed when things go wrong. But Mazzulla’s colleagues, friends and, most importantly, bosses trust his ability to pick up where Udoka left off.
How are others in the league reacting?
The lingering question is: Will the team pick up where it left off? And if not, does Mazulla have the presence and personality to put it on track?
The Celtics struggled until the middle of last year’s season when Udoka publicly demanded more from his stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, particularly on defense.
“[Udoka’s] he had a great presence,” said an Eastern Conference GM. “He challenged those guys early. He was not afraid. They snapped at him and he didn’t flinch. It’s the Larry Brown rule: we can find ways to score, but can we get players to defend and rebound? That’s the hard part. I made them defend and rebound.”
Coaches willing and able to challenge their stars and get them to respond are a rare breed, even in the NBA. Rival executives and scouts are skeptical the Celtics can find two first-year head coaches in a row with the ability to bounce back from a slow start.
“You have to believe that the entire Boston Celtics organization is sick right now,” the Eastern Conference general manager said. “Absolutely sick. They were a legitimate title contender. It puts them on a really slippery slope. Let’s say they get off to a good start, I think they could continue with that. But if they get some kind of shaky start, fingers will be pointed, the leadership. It will be written about and talked about and potentially get into everyone’s head.”
There is no record of a previous NBA head coach being suspended for having an affair with someone in the organization, although league sources said over the years the discovery of extramarital affairs has been a factor in the firing of several head coaches and executives, even if they were not publicly cited at the time.
There have been similar incidents at the university level with various repercussions. Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino was fired in 2012 for an affair he had with a former women’s volleyball player hired as his assistant. Pokey Chatman, now an assistant coach for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, resigned as LSU women’s basketball coach in 2007 after it was reported that she had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a former player while that player was a member of the team. And former Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino violated the morality clause of his contract by having sex with a woman at an Italian restaurant — the woman later married the team’s team manager — but the Cardinals opted instead. not fire Pitino.
Whether there will be backlash within the league over Udoka’s punishment is still up in the air. Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, did not respond to a text message seeking comment and the NBCA has not issued a statement about Udoka.
How this could affect Udoka and the Celtics in the long run
Just three months ago, Udoka and the Celtics were very close to the top of the NBA. Now the Celtics, still considered favorites in the Eastern Conference after bringing back their core of Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, will have to figure out how to play without their leader.
It’s a tough break for a team that credited Udoka for turning a 23-24 start last season into a second-seeded finish with a 51-31 record.
The question now is: How much will this affect the Celtics’ future success?
“Throughout the season, Boston has some dynamic players and [they] they’ve established an on-court culture of toughness and competition, talent will help carry them out,” said an NBA scout. “But make no mistake, losing Udoka will be a huge blow because he did a great job last season.” .
Udoka expertly walked the tightrope of harshly criticizing his players while at the same time making them believe in themselves, establishing himself as a standout coach in his first year on the job. He led the Celtics to a 26-6 record in their last 32 games and, in the playoffs, helped them beat Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Miami.
During the NBA Finals, the Celtics heaped praise on their soft-spoken leader, who was known for his brutal honesty and who quickly earned the trust and respect of everyone around him.
“It’s plain and simple. I think his energy has rubbed off on all of us,” Smart said after the Celtics opened the Finals with an upset victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 in San Francisco.
For Udoka, his star was finally on the rise after establishing himself as one of the top assists in the league after nine seasons with San Antonio, Philadelphia and Brooklyn.
He showed the world that in his first season as head coach he belonged, finishing fourth in voting for NBA coach of the year.
“It holds everyone accountable from the top down, you know, the open door policy,” Tatum said in May. “…I think it’s great for the group and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Now, it is fair to wonder if this suspension could prevent his ascension. According to a report from TNT, Udoka will not resign from his position, but his future is still unclear beyond the 2022-23 season.
Regardless, in a league where there are only 30 head coaching positions, many of which are revolving doors, a significant suspension is a definite blow to a budding career.
“Depending on the facts, you may need to go into the shadows for a while and then take a few steps back so you can move forward again,” an NBA scout told FOX Sports.
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