The Boston Celtics started the season with a few key questions after coming up just short of adding “Banner 18” to the rafters at TD Garden last season. Head coach Ime Udoka had seemed to rudder the Celtics in the right direction after former coach Brad Stevens was moved-up to replace Danny Ainge as president of basketball ops. In his first season, Udoka guided a young Celtics roster to a surprising NBA Finals appearance and came up just short of delivering another championship to Boston.
Just prior to beginning the 2022-2023 season however, Ima Udoka was given a season-long suspension by the team for violations of team policy. While more questions than answers remain as to what Udoka actually did to deserve such a suspension, many questioned if the Celtics could build on their success after losing Udoka behind the bench. Early on, it looks as if the lack of Udoka isn’t affecting Boston as they have steamrolled their way to a 17-4 start under new head coach Joe Mazzulla.
Player-driven league, or coaching?
In the last few decades, the NBA has infamously become a “superstar league”. The meaning behind this sentiment is that NBA rosters are small, and a star-player can affect the outcome of a game nearly single-handedly. Add to that the well-known aspect of superstars getting “calls”, and you can raise the question about how NBA games are actually played and officiated. The Celtics, with Brad Stevens as a coach were successful, though not championship good, despite his reputation as being one of the top coaches in the NBA.
Many assumed that no matter how good strategically Stevens was, he lacked the buy-in of the younger stars that make up the top-half of the roster. Stevens ran an old-school, defense-first style that hamstrung Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s offensive prowess. NBA stars want to be known as flashy scorers, as that is what sells shoes and gets them max contracts.
Very few players see defense as a key to their game and are rewarded for it. Marcus Smart, for example, is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Smart was rightfully criticized prior to his winning the award for his penchant for throwing-up 3-point shots, usually missing them, and trying to play hero ball. This was calmed to a degree by Udoka, and instead led Smart to accept his point-guard role as a facilitator and defensive stopper. The buy-in for Udoka’s coaching is what led the Celtics to play to their strengths and make a Finals appearance last season. It came down to letting the stars do their scoring, and accentuating the skills of the role-players.
Joe Mazzulla’s role as “good-cop” is paying dividends early
While many assumed that losing Udoka would be a large loss for a team that seemed to awake under his watch, the more interesting revelation came with the hiring of 34-year-old Joe Mazzulla as the team’s interim coach. Mazzulla wasn’t even a front-bench assistant under Udoka. Many analysts scoffed at the decision to promote Mazzulla, as there were other, longer-tenured members of the staff that had more experience. During his introductory press conference, Brad Stevens sang the praises of Mazzulla. It wasn’t only Stevens.
Jayson Tatum was effusive in his praise of Mazzulla saying, “I love Joe. You can tell how passionate he is about the guys and his craft. He’s gotten so much more knowledgeable, detailed, and just vocal. More comfortable in his role as a coach. You’ve seen growth from his first year.” Mazzulla seems to be comfortable in his role as a player’s coach, and letting the stars score at will. In these days of 140-point NBA games, star players seem to gravitate to offense much more than hard-nosed defensive play.
In a league that is very much dependent on the “stars” of a team buying in to being coached, instead of some players who decide that they run everything, a budding top-5 future star of the NBA having your back is a very good sign. I believe that the Celtics, only growing more experienced and showing a desire to win championships, will be a force to be reckoned with not only this season, but for quite a few in the future.
For many NBA fans that have grown tired of the league being a friendly scrimmage, where players often plot and scheme where they can group together to attempt to win a title, it has to be a relief to see a team mostly drafted and built, instead of bought. Hopefully, this becomes a template for other teams to follow, and shows that a “team” as a cohesive unit is more impactful than a couple of buddies wanting to decide where they want to play general manager.
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