There’s no doubt the rest of the NBA is watching the Ime Udoka situation in Boston.
Udoka, a successful coach entering his second season, was suspended for a year after multiple violations of the team’s conduct policy resulting from a consensual but inappropriate relationship with a team employee.
Workplace romance is nothing new in corporate America, as well as professional sports. There are countless examples of coaches, team executives, and players being linked to members of the organization.
But it’s something organizations would obviously prefer not occur, and that includes the Celtics. The Udoka episode will almost certainly convince teams to conduct more thorough background checks and personal evaluations on coaching candidates.
President of basketball operations Brad Stevens said the Celtics vetted Udoka’s past and found no concerns about his personal conduct. But his situation may encourage teams to place particular conduct policies in contracts.
The Celtics felt they had found their coach for the next decade, a no-nonsense defensive wizard whose stringent style eventually grew on his players. Udoka is single, and the organization didn’t feel the need to monitor his dating habits until it was revealed he engaged in a relationship with someone on the staff, a subordinate.
NBA teams, like those in other professional sports, want to avoid embarrassing incidents or negative publicity, especially by management and coaches. When ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted at nearly 11 p.m. on Wednesday that Udoka was facing a significant suspension, it was the culmination of a two-month investigation into Udoka’s relationship, and his off-court behavior overall.
The last time Udoka addressed the media was during summer league in Las Vegas in July. It was after that, according to an NBA source, that Udoka was informed of the investigation. He did make an appearance two weeks ago in Springfield at former teammate Manu Ginobili’s Hall of Fame induction but left quickly after the ceremony. It was his last public appearance before the suspension.
What was unusual about the suspension is it came from the team, not the league. The Celtics consulted the NBA during the process, but because he was under contract to the Celtics and he violated team rules, it was their decision.
Commissioner Adam Silver will be asked during his next media session about the Udoka situation and whether the NBA could institute guidelines for coaching conduct. The NBA can suspend owners for conduct, including the Suns’ Robert Sarver, who was recently banned for one season and fined $10 million for years of racial, sexist, and misogynistic actions and comments. He has decided to sell the Suns and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.
Warriors minority owner Mark Stevens was suspended for the 2019-20 season — 65 games — for making physical contact with Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, who was chasing a ball out of bounds near Stevens.
There have been dozens of players suspended for off-court conduct, violating the league’s anti-drug policy, and on-court fighting. But the Udoka situation is unique because he will be paid and the penalty was levied by the team.
But this will cause reverberations around the league. Owners will most certainly increase their background checks and vetting processes on coaching candidates, and there could be added stipulations in contracts.
The Celtics were surprised and disappointed by Udoka’s actions, especially since they invested a four-year contract in the coach and hired his desired assistants, all of whom will remain on the staff.
The organization will move on. Those assistants Udoka brought on were all at the team’s practice facility Friday working with players just days before training camp begins. The Celtics may also add a veteran former NBA coach to add stability for interim coach Joe Mazzulla.
If he never again coaches the Celtics, there is no question Udoka will be a candidate for another NBA head position in the coming years. He will have to keep a low profile, improve his off-court conduct, and adequately explain himself.
Udoka has proven capable of being an elite NBA coach, and that hasn’t changed. But this will change the process of how coaches are evaluated during the interview process. Other teams don’t want to make the same mistake of hiring the right coach with questionable ethics.
Clippers plan to be cautious
Watch out for the Clippers in the Western Conference. Los Angeles will enter this season healthy with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and John Wall leading the way and a new arena coming in two years.
The top priority is the health of Leonard, who hasn’t played since the 2021 playoffs. He missed all of last season recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament but recent video shows that he appears nearly back to normal, and he was cleared for full five-on-five drills.
“I think, one, he feels great,” Clippers president Lawrence Frank said. “Two, his plan is he wants to participate in everything. And I think, three, organizationally, we’re going to be cautious. So it will be a step-by-step approach.
“He comes in at 7 a.m. And just from the time he steps into the building to the time he leaves, many times four or five hours later, it’s all purposeful work, whether it’s in the performance room, whether it’s on the court, whether it’s film study.”
Leonard signed with the Clippers with the goal to bring the franchise its first championship, but the past three seasons have been difficult. Los Angeles, with Doc Rivers coaching, was ousted from the bubble, blowing a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets in the conference semifinals. Leonard tore his ACL in the second round in 2021 against the Jazz, and the Clippers were eliminated by the Suns in the conference finals.
Without Leonard, the Clippers were bounced by the Pelicans in the play-in tournament last season.
“Kawhi is all about one thing, and so, a lot of encouraging news,” Frank said. “And also, again, organization, we know what the big picture is. We know what our goal is, and we will be very cautious and take a methodical approach.”
Leonard has never played 82 games in a season and has limited his workload considerably since a quadriceps injury caused him to miss the end of the Spurs’ 2017 playoff run and all but nine games in 2017-18.
“I think when you’re dealing with a major injury, you can’t predict; I know with him, he wants to do everything, but we’ll just kind of let’s see how he feels each day,” Frank said. “We have an outstanding medical team, and we’re playing the long game with it. We’re not going to get into predictions, what he will do or he won’t do.
“I know he wants to do everything. We’ll figure out, is that best for his body? One day it may be. The next day, we’ll have to reassess. We’ll rely on the feedback we get from Kawhi, obviously from the medical team. It’s too early to predict.”
Wall is coming off three mostly lost seasons because of injury and looking to prove he’s still one of the more athletic and dynamic point guards at age 32. He signed with the Clippers, who felt they could use an upgrade after a few seasons with former Boston College standout Reggie Jackson.
“I think the first thing that stands out about John is just his daily approach,” Frank said. “His work ethic and love of the game is off the charts. The energy we get from both John and Reggie daily, it’s uplifting. He’s a hooper. He’s a baller. He loves it.
“He’s obviously played 40 games in three years, or whatever it’s been. So, there’s an unknown. Based on what we’ve seen, we’re encouraged. With John, you see a guy who can change the pace of the game, a guy who can put pressure on the rim, high-level passer who can deliver the ball to different people, different places, and someone who we feel can be a switchable defender.”
Despite showing he’s healthy and ready to return to high-level play, Wall still has to prove he can play with the elite point guards after dealing with leg injuries that may have robbed him of a step.
“I think we’ll continue to learn more and more about John.” Frank said. “We want John to be really good in the regular season and exceptional in the postseason. So, we’ll just kind of prioritize his health along the way.”
The defending champion Warriors will enter the season as favorites in the West. But the Grizzles, Mavericks, Suns, Timberwolves, and Clippers will challenge. Expectations are high because the Clippers loaded their roster with talent, invested in Leonard and George, and provided coach Tyronn Lue with options.
“Any time you have a talented team, there should be expectations,” Frank said. “You embrace them, and you always have to shoot for the highest goal. Our goal is not just to try to compete and win a championship this year, but be in the same position the following year and the following year after that.
“It’s an era we’re trying to produce because we all know how extremely hard it is to win a championship. We all embrace the challenge but realize how fragile it is. All we have to do is go back two years ago to Kawhi’s injury against Utah. Kawhi was playing the best basketball of any player in the world. Our team was playing at a high level. Unfortunately for Kawhi and for the group, he got injured.
“This league changes quickly. People forget quickly. And that kind of hunger and urgency we’ve seen from the group the entire offseason is how we’ve approached it. You also might have to give credit to your competitors. The landscape is extremely challenging this year. I think you can make an argument that potentially a third of the league is a contender for a championship.”
What may be the Clippers’ best asset is depth. They brought back Nicolas Batum along with Ivica Zubac, while Robert Covington, Norman Powell, and Marcus Morris return healthy. Lowell native Terance Mann and sharpshooter Luke Kennard give the Clippers an imposing bench. The only thing that would keep the Clippers from success would be injuries.
“The other kind of moment we had is once Kawhi got injured and we knew he was out for the year, internally our goal is we want the team to be better by the time he returns,” Frank said. “Now, does that guarantee us anything? No, nothing. But we do feel the group is better.”
Warriors again have what it takes
The Warriors have made little news in the offseason. They added Donte DiVincenzo to the bench and lost Otto Porter to the Raptors. Klay Thompson returns healthy and played his best ball during the NBA Finals, while Stephen Curry will enter his 14th NBA season as once again an MVP candidate.
“I think last year we were hoping to be in the mix but we weren’t sure,” coach Steve Kerr said. “Obviously winning the title and returning our top six guys, we feel really good about being in the mix now. We’re back in it.
“But there’s a lot of teams that are right in it, and the league is super competitive. I think the West has gotten even stronger. There’s a lot of competition out there. So we are one of the teams that’s in the mix, and that’s exciting. We have to start over. It doesn’t just automatically happen from one year to the next, so we’ve got a lot of work.”
Curry was masterful during the Finals, taking home MVP honors after proving unstoppable against the Celtics. Kerr may have to lessen Curry’s workload considering his star will turn 35 in March. But Curry has done nothing but defy odds his entire career.
“With Steph, you have to factor in a lot more besides just the age,” Kerr said. “You can’t just look at his age and go, well, he’s only got a year left or two years left because that’s traditionally when players start to fade or whatever.
“I think of Steve Nash a lot when I think of Steph. I watched Steve in Phoenix play at a really high level until … John Stockton did the same thing in Utah. You’re talking about athletes who are ferociously committed to their craft, to their body, to their conditioning.”
Curry is in better shape with a more chiseled physical than early in his career. He is showing no signs of slowing down.
”Every single aspect of Steph’s day, he’s devoted to being at the top of his game for as long as he can,” Kerr said. “And you’re talking about one of the best athletes in the world. Maybe not by, you know, how high you jump or how fast you are, traditional athletic standpoint. But when you talk about hand-eye and balance and core strength, Steph is one of the greatest athletes on earth. His ability to keep himself at such a high level, it’s not an accident. I fully expect him to have a lot more great years.”
The signing of Dennis Smith Jr. likely means the end of the road for former Celtic Isaiah Thomas with the Hornets. Thomas was hoping for a reunion after spending the second half of last season with the club. The Hornets appeared interested, but with the return of coach Steve Clifford, they went in another direction. Thomas is one of many veterans looking for work who likely will have to wait for an injury or a need to arise in training camp … The Pistons filled out their coaching staff by adding former Supersonic Rashard Lewis, as well as Keith Bogans, whose playing career ended with a brief stint with the Celtics. Both were on Detroit’s summer league staff and Lewis said he enjoyed his first coaching experience and was eager to work with a young team. The Pistons also added Jazz sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic in a trade for former Celtic Kelly Olynyk and Saben Lee. The Jazz continue their fire sale of veterans as they begin a rebuild. Point guard Mike Conley and swingman Jordan Clarkson are still available with Utah having little need for them … The NBA has resumed locker room access for reporters after a two-year ban because of COVID-19 concerns. Reporters will be allowed to conduct interviews with individual players in the locker room. In previous years, reporters were only allowed to interview the head coach prior to games and were limited to selected players postgame. The NFL and Major League Baseball allowed reporters into locker rooms over the past year. The move should allow for more complete coverage of the league … The Grand Rapids Gold named 17-year NBA veteran Andre Miller coach. Many aspiring coaches, especially former players, are pursuing opportunities in the G League. Miller was considered one of the game’s craftiest point guards … The Rockets invited 7-foot-4-inch Boban Marjanovic to camp, giving the veteran perhaps one final shot to stay in the NBA. Marjanovic spent some of his best seasons with the Mavericks before being waived last season … The Celtics will be the third team to take a look Luka Samanic, a 2019 first-round pick of the Spurs who has not been able to stay in the league. He was waived by San Antonio prior to last season and then later by the Knicks after signing with their G League team.