Ime Udoka Suspended: What’s Next for the Celtics and More?

Via Rick Bucher, Melissa Rohlin and Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writers

Just three months after taking the lead Boston Celtics Reaching the NBA Finals in his first season as head coach, Ime Udoka was at the center of the drama and uncertainty that transformed the organization.

Udoka was suspended for the entire 2022-23 season by the team on Thursday, just a day after ESPN and The Athletic reported that he had been in an intimate relationship with a team member in violation of organization policy.

Udoka released a statement following the Celtics decision:

Will certainly feel the ripple effect of an unprecedented penalty in the organization and tournament in the coming days. Our NBA reporters – Ric Bucher, Melissa Rohlin and Yaron Weitzman – spoke to sources around the NBA to detail what happens 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 took over a team that was about to reach the Finals and expected another. This would be a noble task for any coach, let alone a coach with no experience leading 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. When asked about Mazzulla during last year’s playoffs, the Celtics star Jayson Tatum said, “I love Joe… [I] Can’t say enough good things about Joe, and everyone appreciates what he brings to this team, and I’m so glad we have him. ”

Mazzulla, who helped lead West Virginia to the 2010 NCAA Finals, first joined the Celtics’ organization in 2016, as an assistant to their G League team, the Maine Red Claws. The following season, he left to become head coach for Division II Fairmont State, where he remained for three years before being included on Brad Stevens’ coaching staff with the Celtics in 2019. The job was a whirlwind. dream come true for the Rhode Island native who, according to friends, originated in the Celtics while growing up.

Player development was his initial focus. He has worked closely with Kemba Walker, among others.

Scott Morrison, the Celtics’ assistant at the time and Mazzulla’s head coach during his time with the Red Claws, said: “The players fell in love with him. “He told them what it was that wasn’t abrasive and in my experience, the players are like that. They love to be coached.”

He connects with the players because he is just as competitive as they are. An example: In the bubble, he and Morrison chose to swim as a hobby; Within a few days, Morrison said, Mazzulla watched hours on YouTube researching the right techniques and strategies so he never lost a race.

In June 2021, Stevens stepped down as head coach and became general manager of the Celtics. Soon after, he hires Udoka. Mazzulla was one of two of Stevens’ assistants to be retained.

“I spoke to everyone in the organization when I was recruited, including the players, and he received excellent reviews,” Udoka said of Mazzulla in June. “I don’t know much about him going into it, but I value the opinions of the players, and he’s a consensus guy.”

Udoka promoted Mazzulla to a “sitting on the bench” job. He gave him the extra responsibility of X, and O. Mazzulla worked with former lead assistant Will Hardy on game planning. The players noticed a difference.

“He’s got a lot more understanding, and more detailed, better vocals and is more comfortable in his role as coach,” Tatum said last spring. “You’ve seen his growth from his first year, and he’s helped me a lot as a player and as a person.”

Tatum is not the only one who feels this way. Mazzula interviewed for the position of head coach of Jazz this summer. Utah, led by former Celtics GM Danny Ainge, hired Hardy instead – but later tried hiring Mazzulla as its primary assistant, according to sources close to the matter. The Celtics had planned to lift Mazzulla to Hardy’s shoulder, but, in the face of Utah’s pursuit, also gave him a raise.

The Celtics know Mazzulla will face 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 setting up their culture of responsibility and forgiveness helped them turn the tide last season and reach the Finals.

But they also have a full roster and believe that, in Mazzulla, they still have a head coach who knows the strengths, weaknesses and best moves of the pieces.

You never know how someone will react when they become the boss, who has the final say and is in a position to be blamed when things go wrong. But Mazzulla’s colleagues, friends and – most importantly – his bosses all believe in his ability to continue the journey Udoka left unfinished.

How are others around the league reacting?

The lingering question is: Will the team continue where it left off? And if not, does Mazulla have the presence and personality to set it on track?

The Celtics struggled until the middle of last season when Udoka publicly asked for more of his stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, especially in defence.

“[Udoka’s] A GM of the Eastern Conference said so. “He challenged those guys early on. He wasn’t afraid. They came back to him, and he didn’t flinch. That’s Larry Brown’s rule: We can find any way to score. goals, but can we get the players to defend and counter? That’s the hard part. I have them to protect and recover.”

Coaches willing and able to challenge their stars and get them to respond is a rare breed, even in the NBA. Rival executives and scouts doubt that 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 the entire Boston Celtics organization is sick right now,” GM said. “Absolutely sick. They’re a legitimate championship contender. It put them down a really slippery slope. Let’s just say they’re off to a good start, I think they can get on with it. But if they have an unstable start, the finger will be pointed, leadership will be questioned. It will be written down and talked about and potentially it will go into people’s heads.”

There is no record of a former NBA head coach being suspended for being romantically involved with someone in the organization, although federation sources said over the years the discovery of the Extramarital relationships were a factor in the firing of several head coaches and executives, even if they weren’t publicly cited at the time.

There have been similar incidents at the university level with different consequences. Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino was fired in 2012 for having an affair with a former female volleyball player hired as his assistant. Pokey Chatman, now an assistant coach with 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. when the player is a member of the team. And former Louisville men’s basketball coach, Rick Pitino, violated the ethics clause of his contract by having sex with a woman in an Italian restaurant – the woman was later married. with the team’s equipment manager – but Cardinals decided not to fire Pitino.

Whether there will be any outcry in the tournament over Udoka’s punishment is still being worked out. Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, did not respond to messages seeking comment and the NBCA has not released a statement regarding Udoka.

How could this affect Udoka and the Celtics longer term

Just three months ago, Udoka and the Celtics were very close to the top of the NBA. Now, the Celtics, who are still considered the favorites in the Eastern Conference after bringing in their core Jayson Tatum, Smart Marcus and Jaylen Brownwill have to figure out how to play without their leader.

It’s been a tough break for a team credited with Udoka turning last season’s 23-24 start to the second seed with a 51-31 record.

The question now becomes: How much will this affect the Celtics’ success going forward?

“During the season, Boston had a number of dynamic players and [they] Having established a culture of tough competition and playing on the court, talent will help carry them,” said an NBA scout.

Udoka was adept at naming his players expertly, while at the same time making them believe in themselves, establishing himself as a breakthrough coach in his first year on the gig. He led the Celtics to a 26-6 record in their last 32 games, and in the knockout stages, helped them beat Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Miami.

During the NBA Finals, the Celtics heaped praise on their soft-spoken leader, who is known for his brutal honesty and has quickly earned the trust and respect of everyone around him. around.

“It was simple and straightforward. I think his energy went to all of us,” Smart said after the Celtics opened the Finals with a surprise win over the Golden State Warriors in game one in San Francisco. .

As for Udoka, his stardom has finally emerged after he has established himself as one of the league’s top assistants after nine seasons with San Antonio, Philadelphia and Brooklyn.

He showed the world that in his first season as head coach he belonged to him, placing 4th in the NBA’s best coach poll.

Tatum said in May: “He held everyone accountable from top to bottom, you know, the open door policy.” “…I think that’s great for the team and what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Now, it’s fair to wonder if this suspension could have hindered his advancement. As reported by TNT, Udoka will not step down but his future after the 2022-23 season remains unclear.

Despite that, in a league with only 30 head coach jobs, many of which are trending around in circles, the substantial suspension is a sure blow to a budding career. bloom.

“Depending on the reality, he may need to step into the dark for a bit and then take a few steps back to keep moving forward,” an NBA scout told FOX Sports.

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