The Boston Celtics were two wins away from claiming the 2021-22 NBA championship, which should’ve been the main storyline heading into training camp this season.
But that all changed Sept 22. That was when the team announced head coach Ime Udoka was suspended for the 2022-23 season for “violations of team policy,” without disclosing much more detail. Players say they are in the dark just as much as everyone else about the scandal.
“It’s been hell for us,” Marcus Smart told reporters during media day in Canton, Massachussets. “Just caught by surprise. Nobody really knows anything. We’ve been in the wind like everyone else.”
Although Udoka was suspended following a months-long investigation from an outside law firm, Smart said “everything seemed so normal” during the offseason until it wasn’t.
“The initial reaction was just a state of shock,” Smart said. “We couldn’t believe what we were hearing, especially at the time we were hearing it … right before media day. It’s hitting us from all angles, and we are just trying to figure it out just like everyone else.”
Jayson Tatum said he found out about the allegations “on Twitter.”
In his first season as head coach, Udoka led the Celtics to an Eastern Conference title and NBA Finals appearance. The goal heading into this season is clear – win it all. Although they came up short against the Golden State Warriors, the Celtics are a favorite to rise to the top of the East with the returning core of Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Smart.
Offseason highlighted by additions, injuries
The Celtics’ offseason appeared business as usual. Boston made several key moves to strengthen its roster, adding guard Malcolm Brogdon from the Indiana Pacers and signing free agent forward Danilo Gallinari.
“I want to win. It doesn’t matter if I’m sixth man or whatever role I’m playing, I’m going to accept and I’m going to thrive and embrace it,” said Brogdon, who appeared in 36 games last year due to injury. “I want to add on to what this team has. This team has a great unit, great chemistry. … They are on the verge of winning a championship and they need a little bit more.”
Some turbulence followed. Gallinari suffered a torn ACL in his left knee while playing for Italy during a FIBA World Cup qualifier in August and will be out the entire season. Robert Williams will be out 8-12 weeks after he had surgery on his left knee, the same knee that sidelined him at times during the postseason run.
There were also the rumors of Brown being involved in a trade for Kevin Durant.
“All I can say now is that I’m here,” Brown said. Smart added, “KD is great, don’t get me wrong, anybody would love to have KD. But everybody would love to have Jaylen Brown as well.
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Jayson Tatum: ‘Nobody expected this’
That was the extent of the Celtics summer until the bombshell announcement about Udoka.
“Coming into this season, you feel a certain way coming off last year and you are excited,” Tatum said. “It’s just an unfortunate situation, all things considered. Nobody expected this coming into the season. We were all caught off guard by everything.”
Tatum explained that after allegations against Udoka surfaced on social media, the Celtics met as a team the next day. But he said no new information was given to the players.
“We met the next day as a team, but it was kind of like the statement that came out,” Tatum said, referring to the brief statement the Celtics released on Sept. 22. “There wasn’t any more information we found out beside the things that you guys heard.”
Many players said that they are still processing Udoka’s suspension heading into a new season.
“It’s frustrating from all ends of not knowing, not understanding because you don’t know,” Smart said. “You just try to focus on the things you can control.”
Celtics ready to ‘move on’
Despite the uncertainty surrounding Udoka, the team expressed its confidence in new interim head coach Joe Mazzulla and their desire to move forward. Tatum highlighted the team’s familiarity with Mazzulla, who has served as an assistant for the Celtics since 2019.
“He’s somebody we are comfortable with,” Tatum said. “He’s been here the past three or four years. Same person, just in a different position now. Somebody that we are familiar with and have a lot of respect for.”
Mazzulla said he’s prepared for his new role, and although it’s important to look ahead at building on top of last season’s success, he said it’s equally important to fully process what’s happened.
“The message first is to give people space and time, not just the players but everybody,” Mazzulla said. “It’s an unfortunate situation for everyone involved, so you have to give people the time and space to feel and the time and space to heal. That’s key, you can’t rush anything.”
Mazzulla says his priority is to “make sure that the players and myself are on the same page.” He said the team will lean on their strong foundation and defensive identity through adversity to meet expectations. The Celtics finished with the No. 1 ranked defense in the regular season last year.
“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,” Mazzulla said. “It was our defense, our buy-in from a defensive standpoint, sharing the ball and moving quickly on the offensive end. We can stick to the things we were great at last year and find small areas to improve along the way is the right way to go.”
When asked if he believes they can still win it all, Tatum said, “Absolutely.”