CANTON, Mass. — In the wake of the suspension of Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka for the entire 2022-23 NBA season for violations of team rules, interim coach Joe Mazzulla said Monday that his goal is to simply continue building upon what allowed the Celtics to reach the NBA Finals last season for the first time in 12 years.
“It’s not about carrying on from one person,” Mazzulla said during the team’s media day here in the Boston suburbs. “It’s about carrying on the identity of our players. We had our struggles early last season, but at our best, we knew what our identity was. It was our defense, it was our buy-in from a defensive standpoint, and then it was sharing the ball and moving quickly on the offensive end.
“So as much as we can stick to the things we were great at last year, and then find areas to improve along the way, I think is the right way to go.”
The overwhelming message emanating from everyone who stepped to the podium Monday, from Mazzulla to the players, was that all of them are still coming to grips with the events of the past several days. After Udoka oversaw a dramatic in-season turnaround in his first year as head coach to lead Boston from being under .500 in late January to in the NBA Finals in June, the expectation was that it was the beginning of a long run with him in charge of the franchise.
For the players, that was the case until the middle of last week, as each of them said they had no idea anything was coming before ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news that the team was considering suspending Udoka last Wednesday for violations of team rules. And, even after meeting with the front office and ownership last week, the players admitted they still didn’t have much information over what took place. Sources previously told Wojnarowski that Udoka had an intimate relationship with a female member of the franchise’s staff.
“It’s a lot going on,” said Jaylen Brown, who, like Tatum, said he hadn’t spoken to Udoka since last week’s events took place. “Some we could control, some we couldn’t. The best we can say is to move on.
“Initial reaction, like you said, I was a little confused. No one really has any of the information, so it’s difficult to make a comment on how things were supposed to go and how the process went or anything. The best thing we can do is put our best foot forward.”
And while the players were open about being in the dark over what took place, and where things were headed, they also said they understood how the organization was in a difficult situation, and that the privacy of everyone involved made for a very complicated situation for the Celtics to navigate moving forward.
“Literally no one knows anything right now,” said Marcus Smart, the team’s longest-tenured player and the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year. “We’re still waiting just like everybody else. So as a player, you’d like to know [more information], but that’s none of our business. It’s their lives, the people that are involved. It’s between them, and we should respect that privacy and we understand, just like we want our privacy respected. Although as a player, yeah, you’d like to know, but like I said, it’s not an obligation.
“Like I said, they handled it the best way they could with how they can do it and from what they know, and we’ve got to just go from there.”
The process of going forward now lies in the hands of Mazzulla, who has skyrocketed from being the head coach at Division II Fairmont State in West Virginia from 2017 to ’19 to now manning the sidelines for the Boston Celtics, the defending Eastern Conference champions and a group that is among the favorites to win it again this season.
But while most of the rest of Udoka’s staff last season was new to the franchise after he took over for Brad Stevens — who himself moved upstairs to serve as the team’s president of basketball operations, replacing Danny Ainge — Mazzulla has been with Boston since 2019, when he was hired by Stevens to be an assistant coach on his staff.
Smart, in particular, highlighted that additional time as a significant help to a team that’s trying to process quite a bit at the moment.
“It helps tremendously,” Smart said. “Like I said, it would’ve been different if we had somebody new that we didn’t know and were trying to build that connection with.
“Joe has been here. He knows the scheme, he knows the players, so it makes it a little bit more easier to adjust to a guy that’s been here and knows you.”
Mazzulla also addressed the two arrests he had back in college while playing for West Virginia University — once, in 2008, for underage drinking and aggravated assault, a case in which he pled guilty and paid a fine, and then in 2009 for domestic battery after an incident at a bar, a case that was settled out of court.
Last week, Stevens said he thoroughly vetted those situations before hiring Mazzulla as part of his staff in 2019, adding that he believed in Mazzulla’s “substantiveness” as a person. For his part, Mazzulla said he has used what he’s learned from those incidents to become a better person since then.
“Listen, I’ve made mistakes. I’m not perfect. I’ve hurt people, and I’ve had to use the situations I put myself in as a younger man, I’ve had to use to learn from and to become a better person. That’s what I’ve tried to focus on.
“How can I recreate my identity on a person? How I can rely on my faith? And how can I have a positive impact on the people around me? And I’ve always had good people around me.”
He declined to get into any specifics about what happened but said, “I’m not the same person that I was.”
“I think as you grow as a person, you’re constantly having to build an identity, and I didn’t have an identity at a certain point in my life, for whatever reason,” Mazzulla said. “I think it’s, ‘How can I develop an identity? How can I find a foundation, which for me is my faith and then how can I impact people positively around me.’ That’s something I really learned throughout my life.”
The Celtics will now attempt to shift their focus to the start of training camp here Tuesday, when they will not only be without Udoka, but both their starting center, Robert Williams III, who is out for another eight to 12 weeks before resuming basketball activities following knee surgery, and top free agent signing Danilo Gallinari, who suffered a torn ACL late last month.
But despite all that’s happened in the past few weeks, it hasn’t diminished the group’s confidence that it can go a step further than it did last season and claim the franchise’s first NBA championship since 2008.
“Can we [win a championship]? Do I believe that? Absolutely,” Tatum said in response to being asked if the team still believes it has what it takes to win a title.
“Absolutely I believe that, and I think everybody else does in that locker room as well.”