Through Rick Bucher, Melissa Rohlin and Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA writers
Just three months after leading the Boston Celtics In his first season as head coach to the NBA Finals, Ime Udoka finds himself at the center of drama and uncertainty that is turning the organization on its head.
Udoka was suspended from the team for the entire 2022-23 season on Thursday, just a day after ESPN and The Athletic reported he had a consensual intimate relationship with a member of the team’s staff that violated organization guidelines.
Udoka released a statement after the Celtics’ decision:
The repercussions of an unprecedented punishment are sure to be felt across the organization and league in the coming days. Our NBA reporters – Ric Bucher, Melissa Rohlin and Yaron Weitzman – spoke to sources around the NBA to detail what’s coming next.
Where the Celtics go from here
The Celtics are turning to assistant coach Joe Mazzulla in place of Udoka, according to a report from ESPN.
Mazzulla is only 34 years old and takes on a team that has had one final run and is expecting another. This would be a tall order for any coach, let alone one with no experience as the main voice of an NBA team. The good news for Celtics fans is that Mazzulla appears to be popular across the organization.
“The players like him and respect him,” said a Celtics source. When asked about Mazzulla during last year’s playoff run, 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 helped lead West Virginia to the NCAA Final Four as a point guard in 2010, first joined the Celtics organization in 2016 as an assistant on the Maine Red Claws G-League team. The next season, he transitioned to become the head coach of Division II Fairmont State, where he stayed for three years before being called to the Celtics’ coaching staff by Brad Stevens in 2019. This job was a dream come true for the Rhode Island native who friends say had roots with the Celtics growing up.
Player development was his initial focus. He worked closely with Kemba Walker, among others.
“The players liked him,” said Scott Morrison, then a Celtics assistant and Mazzulla’s head coach during his time with the Red Claws. “He tells them what it is without being aggressive and in my experience players like that. They like to be coached.”
He bonded with the players because he was just as competitive as they were. For example, during the bubble, he and Morrison took up swimming as a hobby; Within days, Morrison said Mazzulla spent hours watching YouTube researching the right techniques and strategies so he would never lose a race.
In June 2021, Stevens stepped down as head coach and became general manager of the Celtics. Soon after, he hired Udoka. Mazzulla was one of only two Stevens assistants to be retained.
“I spoke to everyone in the organization when I was hired, including players, and they got rave reviews,” Udoka said of Mazzulla in June. “I didn’t know much about how he was going to go about it but I really value the players’ opinion and he was a guy who was consensus, yeah.”
Udoka promoted Mazzulla to a front of the bench job. He gave him more responsibility for X and O. Mazzulla worked with former principal assistant Will Hardy on game planning. The players noticed a difference.
“He’s become so much more knowledgeable and detailed and has more voice and is more comfortable in his role as a coach,” Tatum said last spring. “You’ve seen the growth since his first year and he’s helped me tremendously as a player and as a person.”
Tatum wasn’t the only one feeling this way. Mazzula was interviewed for the jazz head coaching vacancy this summer. Utah, led by former Celtics GM Danny Ainge, hired Hardy instead – but then tried to hire Mazzulla as his executive assistant, according to sources familiar with the situation. The Celtics had already planned to put Mazzulla in the role of Hardy, but also gave him a raise after Utah’s pursuit.
The Celtics know Mazzulla has a learning curve to contend with – don’t be surprised if they add a former head coach or veteran assistant to his team – and they know that Udoka’s success in establishing a culture of accountability and selflessness has helped them to change their situation season last year and reach the finals.
But they also have a full roster and believe they still have a head coach in Mazzulla who knows the strengths and weaknesses of the group and how best to move the pieces.
You never know how someone will react to being the boss with the last word and being able to be blamed when things go wrong. But Mazzulla’s colleagues, friends and – most importantly – bosses are confident he can pick up where Udoka left off.
How others in the league are reacting
The question remains: will the team pick up where it left off? And if not, does Mazulla have the presence and personality to get it on track?
The Celtics struggled through mid-season last year when Udoka publicly demanded more from his stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, particularly on defense.
“[Udoka’s] such a great presence,” said an Eastern Conference GM. “He challenged these guys early on. He wasn’t 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 make them defend and bounce.”
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 head coaches for their first straight year who can bounce back from a slow start.
“You have to believe that the entire Boston Celtics organization is sick right now,” the Eastern Conference GM said. “Absolutely sick. They were a legitimate title contender. That puts them on a really slippery slope. Let’s say they got off to a good start, I think they could go with that. But if they get off a shaky start it gets a finger on it shown it, the leadership will be questioned, it will be written and talked about and maybe it will get into everyone’s heads.
There is no record of a previous NBA head coach being suspended for having an affair with anyone in the organization, although league sources said over the years the discovery of extramarital affairs was a factor in the firings of several head coaches and executives, even if they weren’t quoted publicly at the time.
At university level, there have been similar incidents with different effects. Arkansas soccer coach Bobby Petrino was fired in 2012 for an affair with a former volleyball player who was hired as his assistant. Pokey Chatman, now an assistant coach at the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, resigned as the LSU women’s basketball coach in 2007 after reports that she had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a former player while that player was on the team. And former Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino violated the morals clause of his contract by having sex with a woman at an Italian restaurant — the woman later married the team’s equipment manager — but the Cardinals chose not to fire Pitino .
Whether there will be resistance within the league because of Udoka’s punishment remains to be seen. Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, did not respond to a text message asking for comment, and the NBCA has not issued a statement regarding Udoka.
How this could affect Udoka and the Celtics in the long term
Just three months ago, Udoka and the Celtics were so close to the top of the NBA. Now the Celtics, still considered Eastern Conference favorites after the return of their core of Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, must figure out how to play without their leader.
It’s a tough break for a team that Udoka credited with turning a stuttering 23-24 start last season into a second-seeded seed with a record of 51-31.
The question now is: how much will this affect the future success of the Celtics?
“As the season progressed, Boston has had some dynamic players and [they] have established a culture of toughness and competition on the court, talent will help carry it,” said one NBA scout. “But make no mistake, losing Udoka will be a huge blow because he’s in the did a great job last season.”
Udoka skillfully walked the tightrope of harshly challenging his players while making them believe in themselves, establishing himself as a breakout coach in his first year at the gig. He led the Celtics to a record 26-6 in their last 32 games and helped them beat Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Miami in the playoffs.
During the NBA Finals, the Celtics praised their quiet leader, who was known for his brutal honesty and quickly earned the trust and respect of everyone around him.
“It’s plain and simple. I think his energy infected us all,” Smart said after the Celtics opened the Finals with an unexpected win 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 league’s top assists after nine seasons with San Antonio, Philadelphia and Brooklyn.
He showed the world he belonged in his first season as head coach by coming fourth in the NBA Coach of the Year poll.
“He holds everyone accountable from top to bottom, you know, open door policy,” Tatum said in May. “…I think it’s just great for the group and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”
Now one may wonder if this suspension could slow his rise. According to a TNT report, Udoka will not step down from his post but his future beyond the 2022/23 season remains unclear.
Regardless, a significant suspension in a league where there are only 30 head coaching jobs, many of which are revolving doors, is a definite blow to a budding career.
“Depending on the facts, he may have to step into the shadows for a while and then take a few steps back to get forward again,” an NBA scout told FOX Sports.
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