Just three months after leading the Boston Celtics to the NBA Finals in his first season as head coach, Ime Udoka is at the center of drama and uncertainty upending the organization.
Udoka was suspended by the team for the entirety of the 2022-23 season on Thursday, just a day after ESPN and The Athletic reported that he had had a consensual intimate relationship with a member of the team staff that violated organizational policy.
Udoka released a statement following the Celtics’ decision:
The ripple effects of an unprecedented punishment are sure to be felt throughout the organization and the league in the coming days. Our NBA reporters — Ric Bucher, Melissa Rohlin and Yaron Weitzman — spoke to sources around the NBA to detail what comes next.
Where the Celtics go from here
In Udoka’s stead, the Celtics will turn to assistant coach Joe Mazzulla, according to a report from ESPN.
Just 34 years old, Mazzulla takes over a team coming off a Finals run and expecting another. This would be a tall task 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 appears to be beloved throughout the organization.
“The players like him and respect him,” one Celtics source said. When asked about Mazzulla during last year’s playoff run, Celtics star Jayson Tatum said, “I love Joe… [I] can’t say enough good things about Joe, and everybody appreciates what he brings to this team, and I’m glad that 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 for Division II Fairmont State, where he remained for three years before being brought on to Brad Stevens’ coaching staff with the Celtics in 2019. The job was a dream come true for the Rhode Island native who, according to friends, rooted for the Celtics when growing up.
Player development was his initial focus. He worked closely with Kemba Walker, among others.
“The players took to him,” said Scott Morrison, a Celtics assistant 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 players because he was just as competitive as them. An example: During the bubble, he and Morrison picked up swimming as a hobby; within a few days, Morrison said, Mazzulla had watched hours of YouTube researching proper techniques and strategies so that he’d never lose a race.
In June 2021, Stevens stepped down as head coach and became the Celtics’ general manager. Soon after, he hired Udoka. Mazzulla was one of just two Stevens assistants retained.
“I talked to everybody in the organization when I got hired, players included, and he got glowing reviews,” Udoka said of Mazzulla in June. “I didn’t know much about him going into it, but I take the players’ opinions at a high value, and he was a guy that was a consensus yes.”
Udoka promoted Mazzulla to a “front of the bench” job. He handed him more X’s and O’s responsibility. Mazzulla worked with former lead assistant Will Hardy on game-planning. The players noticed a difference.
“He’s gotten so much more knowledgeable, and more detailed, and more vocal and more comfortable in his role as a coach,” Tatum said last spring. “You’ve seen the growth from his first year, and he’s helped me out tremendously as a player and a person.”
Tatum wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Mazzula interviewed for the Jazz’s head coach vacancy this summer. Utah, led by former Celtics GM Danny Ainge, instead hired Hardy — but then tried hiring Mazzulla as his lead assistant, according to sources familiar with the situation. The Celtics had already planned on elevating Mazzulla to Hardy’s role, but, in the wake of Utah’s pursuit, also handed 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 his staff — and they know Udoka’s success in establishing a culture of accountability and selflessness helped them turn around their season last year and reach the Finals.
But they also have a loaded roster and believe that, in Mazzulla, they still have a head coach that knows the group’s strengths, weaknesses and how to best move the pieces around.
You never know how someone will react to being the boss, the one with the final say and in position to get blamed when things go wrong. But Mazzulla’s colleagues, friends and — most importantly — bosses are confident in his ability to pick up where Udoka left off.
How others around the league are reacting
The lingering question is: Will the team pick up where it left off? And if it doesn’t, does Mazulla have the presence and personality to get it on track?
The Celtics were struggling until midseason last year when Udoka publicly demanded more of his stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, particularly on defense.
“[Udoka’s] got such a great presence,” one Eastern Conference GM said. “He challenged those guys early. He wasn’t afraid. They snapped back at him, and he didn’t flinch. It’s the Larry Brown rule: We can find ways to score, but can we get the players to defend and rebound? That’s the hard part. Ime got ‘em to 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 that the Celtics can find two first-year head coaches in a row with the ability to recover from a slow start.
“You’ve got to believe the entire Boston Celtics’ organization is sick right now,” the Eastern Conference GM 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 it. But if they get off to any kind of shaky start, fingers are going to be pointed, the leadership is going to be questioned. It’s going to be written and talked about and potentially it’s going to 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 have been a factor in the dismissal of several head coaches and executives, even if they were not publicly cited at the time.
There have been similar incidents at the collegiate level with varying 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 with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, resigned as the LSU women’s basketball coach in 2007 after it was reported 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 in an Italian restaurant — the woman later married the team equipment manager — but the Cardinals opted not to dismiss Pitino.
Whether there will be pushback within the league about 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 put out a statement regarding Udoka.
How this could affect Udoka and the Celtics longer term
Just three months ago, Udoka and the Celtics were so close to the pinnacle of the NBA. Now, the Celtics, who are 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 with turning a sputtering 23-24 start last season into a second-seed finish with a record of 51-31.
The question now becomes: How much will this affect the Celtics’ success going forward?
“Over the course of the season, Boston has some dynamic players and [they] have established an on-court culture of toughness and competing, the talent will help carry them,” an NBA scout said. “But make no mistake, losing Udoka will be a big blow because he did a great job last season.”
Udoka expertly walked the tightrope of harshly calling out his players while simultaneously making them believe in themselves, establishing himself as a breakout coach in his first year on the gig. He led the Celtics to a record of 26-6 in their final 32 games, and, in the playoffs, helped them beat Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Miami.
During the NBA Finals, the Celtics were heaping praise on their soft-spoken leader who was known for his brutal honesty and had quickly gained the trust and respect of everyone around him.
“It’s plain and simple. I think his energy has been contagious to 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 he had established himself as one of the premier assistants in the league following nine seasons with San Antonio, Philadelphia and Brooklyn.
He showed the world that in his first season as head coach that he belonged, finishing fourth in the NBA’s coach of the year balloting.
“He holds everybody accountable from the top to the bottom, you know, open door policy,” Tatum said in May. “…I think that it’s just great for the group and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Now, it’s fair to wonder if this suspension could stunt his ascension. According to a TNT report, Udoka will not resign from his position, but his future remains beyond the 2022-23 season remains unclear.
Regardless, in a league where there are only 30 head coaching jobs, many of which are revolving doors, a significant suspension is a definite blow to a budding career.
“Depending on the facts, he may need to step into the shadows for a little while and then take a few steps backwards in order to move forward again,” an NBA scout told FOX Sports.
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