The Boston Celtics should be flying high heading into the 2022-23 season. After finishing two wins shy of last year’s championship, they’ve been regarded as the odds-on favorite to win the 2023 title all summer. Now, just as training camp is about to start, they’ve become a team in disarray.
Ime Udoka’s yearlong suspension for having what has been reported to be an improper intimate, consensual relationship with a female Celtics staff member — Celtics majority owner Wyc Grousbeck called it on Friday “a volume of violations” — has pulled the rug out from beneath the entire organization.
There’s been a slow drip of bad news for the Celtics over the past three weeks. Newly acquired Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL. Earlier this week it was announced that Robert Williams III will undergo a second surgery on his left knee that will now reportedly sideline him for eight to 12 weeks, which means he could be out past Christmas.
Williams tore the meniscus in this same knee at the end of last season then battled through the pain in the playoffs, though he still missed seven postseason games. Is it possible that he did more damage playing on a knee that wasn’t fully healed? Will this latest “cleanup” procedure be the end of it, or will this keep popping up for Williams, who has a pretty lengthy injury history over his short career.
Boston certainly hopes not. Williams is a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate and a major rim-rolling weapon. He pounds the offensive glass. He has prime DeAndre Jordan chops, and don’t let yourself forget how truly awesome Jordan was with the Clippers.
Hanging in the background, does Jaylen Brown hold any ill-will toward the Celtics for throwing his name into the trade-rumor pot this summer? Brad Stevens has noted his open dialogue with Brown, who is certainly no stranger to trade talk. But you have to think that Brown would believe he’d reached a level with the organization where he could feel more secure in his standing.
It’s not a huge deal. It’s just another of a bunch of potential paper cuts that have led up to the gaping wound that is Udoka’s conduct and subsequent suspension. On Friday, Stevens, sitting alongside Grousbeck for a press conference neither wanted to be at, made it official that Celtics assistant coach Joe Mazzulla will take over for Udoka on an interim basis.
Mazzulla’s appointment comes with its own level of controversy. In 2009, Mazzulla was arrested and charged with domestic battery after allegedly grabbing a woman by the neck and choking her at a bar while he was a West Virginia student and basketball player.
Stevens addressed those charges on Friday, saying that Mazzulla is “110 percent accountable” for his past actions but also that he, meaning Stevens, “believe[s] strongly that probably shaped [Mazzulla] into who he is today in a really good way.”
I’m not here to be the moral police. Mazzulla settled those situations legally. People can make mistakes and learn from them. But this is obviously, and rightfully, going to be a major talking point moving forward. Optics matter. A team that is suspending one coach for improper conduct with a woman is replacing him with another coach who allegedly choked a woman.
You’ll always hear teams and players talking about being distraction-free, and the Celtics, already mired in a PR mess, just added yet another one to their plate. They obviously believe Mazzulla is worth the headache. Stevens spoke pretty glowingly about his ability to “galvanize a room.”
If Mazzulla is good, the questions about whether he’s actually in line to replace Udoka for good will only get louder throughout the season. Perhaps the plan is to ultimately part ways with Udoka for good anyway. Either way, none of this is going away. The Celtics are in crisis mode. This is an unprecedented situation. They’re still a really good team who expects to compete for a title, but there’s no way to say they haven’t been affected by all this. Whether they can overcome it, well, that’s the challenge.