The NBA’s two finalists from last June enter this season with issues that could impact whether they return to the biggest stage.
The Celtics are trying to move past the suspension of coach Ime Udoka and have kept it to basketball over the past few weeks. The Warriors were trying to remain under the radar as defending champions, hoping to duplicate last year’s run with a healthier squad and bigger contributions from their younger core.
Part of that younger core is shooting guard Jordan Poole, entering his fourth season and on Saturday reportedly agreeing to a contract extension that will make him a cornerstone to possibly succeed Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Poole was the victim in the Warriors’ unfortunate incident on Oct. 5, when he was punched in the face by veteran teammate Draymond Green after a practice dispute. The Athletic first reported the fight and the Warriors acted quickly to suppress the significance by telling reporters Green would not be suspended but would be disciplined in-house.
It was considered a normal practice scuffle until TMZ released the video, apparently leaked by a Warriors employee, on the morning of Oct. 7. The video showed Green approaching Poole, while neither were in the scrimmage, and Poole pushing back Green, who was nose-to-nose with him. Green withstood the shove and responded with a shivering right hand to Poole’s face, buckling his body to the floor. Teammates separated the two, but Green, long a controversial player known for emotional outbursts, was viewed as the villain, decking his teammate and instigating the incident.
After the video was released, the Warriors reconvened and decided not to suspend Green. Rather, the mercurial forward would take a few days away from the team after he apologized to his teammates.
Green said he was totally in the wrong, but he played in the Warriors’ preseason finale and will participate in the ring ceremony on Opening Night. But before he took his sabbatical, Green addressed the media for more than 30 minutes, trying to offer reasons why he snapped during what was a routine practice.
“I apologize to his family and what they had to deal with over the course of the last 24, 48 hours, and I will do what I have to do to make that right,” Green said. “My wife is getting comments [on social media] like, ‘He’ll beat you at home.’ And I apologize to my family as well for what they had to go through.”
Green will need time to repair his image, if that’s even possible. He came to the NBA as a second-round pick, a chunky, undersized power forward who was considered a fringe professional player. He turned himself into one of the great defenders of this generation, the glue of a Warriors franchise that ascended from a laughingstock to four championships in eight years.
Now Green has to work feverishly to ensure that foundation does not crack because of his actions.
“I will pull everything back together as it needs to be pulled back together to compete and defend a championship, although that’s the least of my worries right now,” he said. “It has to stay at the forefront because most importantly everybody put the work in to compete for a common goal, and I can’t allow myself to be the reason that doesn’t happen. It is very important that I start the process of rebuilding trust. I don’t think the brotherhood is gone, but it’s sometimes splintered. It’s important that I do the work to pull that back together.”
What’s bizarre about the incident is Green claims he has been close with Poole, a late-first-round pick in 2019, over the last few years. Poole was a key component last season with Thompson returning after two years of injuries. Poole was due for his rookie extension and his status with the club is rising.
Green, meanwhile, is still a staunch defender but not the offensive presence of years past. He was putrid during the Finals against the Celtics, until he responded with solid performances in Games 5 and 6. But he is considered a player in decline. Green has one year left on his contract with a player option for 2023-24. The Warriors may not be inclined to sign Green to a long-term extension at his preferred salary, especially after this incident.
“We have a very good personal relationship,” Green said of Poole. “He’s a guy that I’ve tried to take under my wing, a guy that I’ve advocated for, and a guy I have encouraged to have a voice. That’s for me to do the work, but on his time. If he wants that. I have to accept that.”
Green said he was in a difficult place emotionally when he threw the punch. He said personal issues were gnawing at him and he finally exploded. He realizes that’s not a good excuse.
“I am a very flawed human being and I personally know those flaws better than anyone,” he said. “The work I have done to correct those flaws has been tremendous and yet there’s still a very long way to go. I am a constant work in progress. The day that that took place I was in a very bad place mentally dealing with some things in my personal life.
“As a leader of this team I needed to have a better feel to know and understand where my wits ends were. Quite frankly, I didn’t handle that well and I failed as a leader. I failed as a man and in turn it’s come to this. Rebuild the trust and relationships in this locker room and make sure that this team can come together and compete at the absolute highest level.”
The question is whether his teammates will forgive and embrace him or just tolerate him. Green said he hasn’t spoken to Poole since the incident, other than during the group apology. Poole hasn’t spoken with the media since the incident, although he played in the next preseason game.
“I stand on my mistakes and I stand on this one,” Green said. “I will do everything that I can to make this right or to right the ship. This is a big deal. There is no right or wrong time [to make amends].”
The Warriors have promised to conduct an internal investigation to determine how the video was leaked. Practices are generally recorded to review during film sessions, but the question is why a team employee would leak the video, other than the financial benefit from a website such as TMZ.
“The video serves the purpose that it’s supposed to serve,” Green said. “It is terrible. What I did was wrong. I’m not looking for sympathy nor I am a person who needs sympathy. This is no anger-management issue. I was in a very bad place. I hurt someone because I was in a place of hurt.”
Curry said that Green addressing his teammates and attempting to calm matters needed to be done.
“The personal dynamics will work themselves out,” Curry said. “There’s nothing that warranted the situation. JP’s been great. [Green] respects my opinion and he respects how I feel. Be honest with him. That’s all you can do right now, you rely on the history, you rely on the confidence of who I know him to be. It is possible to get through stuff like this. I don’t want to be too somber. My job is not to let this break us at all.”
Van Gundy still a fan of Udoka
ESPN/ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy bonded with Ime Udoka during their time with USA Basketball during the World Cup and Olympics, and he offered empathy for Udoka’s situation and penalty.
Van Gundy expressed his thoughts when asked about the Celtics moving on without Udoka, who was suspended for the season for violating the team’s personal conduct policy stemming from a relationship with a Celtics employee.
“I think it’s important to state right up front I am biased,” Van Gundy said. “I am not here to condone or condemn Ime. I sat across from him and was on the same staff with him at the last World Cup and the Olympics, and we just happened to sit right across from each other at most meals. And I feel very, very strongly about him. I only judge people by how they treat me and he has been just a great friend to me, and I feel for him and his family.
“I believe in him both as a coach and a person, again from what my experiences have been with him, and I hope that whether it’s in Boston or another spot that he’s able to regain his coaching career very soon because he did an incredibly good job with that Boston team.”
Udoka remains under contract with the Celtics and cannot coach again unless he returns to the club next season or reaches a contract settlement and can pursue another job.
“You think back, they were a game under .500 in January, and to take them to the doorstep of a championship, to persevere through some up and down times, primarily due to injury, just showed what a fine, fine coach he is,” Van Gundy said. “I think what Joe Mazzulla has to do is to keep as much as he can the same but coach to his personality and is beliefs and not be afraid to change those things he thinks need to change for them to take the next step.”
The Celtics remain favorites to return to the Finals with the acquisition of Malcolm Brogdon and their core returning and healthy, other than center Robert Williams, who will miss several weeks following knee surgery.
“I think they’ve added a good piece in Brogdon and I think the Robert Williams injury is troublesome, and to me that’s the No. 1 issue that they face right now,” Van Gundy said. “It’s not [Danilo] Gallinari being out for the year. Can Robert Williams get back, be healthy, and play big minutes in the playoffs? If they do that, they can have the best defense in the NBA. And if you have the best defense in the NBA, with talents like [Jayson] Tatum and [Jaylen] Brown, you’ve got a real chance.”
Van Gundy shares a unique perspective and connection with Mazzulla. Like the Celtics interim coach, Van Gundy never played in the NBA and was a college assistant before joining the Knicks staff in 1989. It was a conversation with head coach Pat Riley in 1992, when Van Gundy was just 30, that he said changed his career.
“Respect in professional sports is misunderstood,” he said. “Respect occurs not because a person demands it or is worthy of us. Are the players respectful of the position the coach is in? When I took over the Knicks, I had players that respected the position of the coach. That doesn’t mean they always agreed with my decision, but they were respectful by nature.
“[Riley] brought me in for an assistant coach’s evaluation, and it’s the single biggest conversation I ever had in my coaching career. It had nothing to do with X’s and O’s, motivation, but it got me to start developing a confidence and belief system that I could be a head coach. He asked me if I had thoughts of wanting to be a head coach in the NBA.
“I said no, I hadn’t thought of it. He said players do not care if you played or didn’t play, if you’re tall or short, or if you’re Black or white. What they do care about is: Are you competent? Do you know your stuff? Are you sincere? Are you reliable? And are you trustworthy? And if you are those things, you could lead a group of professional athletes. And from that talk, I started to believe that one day I could ultimately coach an NBA team.”
Van Gundy said he believes Mazzulla is capable of coaching an NBA team.
“He doesn’t have to try to be Ime Udoka or try to win a championship in his first game,” said Van Gundy. “All he’s got to do is be competent, sincere, reliable, and trustworthy, and that will allow the players if they have innate respect to achieve all they can achieve because this game will always be decided by the players. It’s your job as the coach to put them in the best position they can and it’s their job to bring it home.”
Mark Jackson, who teams with Van Gundy and Mike Breen on telecasts and is also a former NBA coach, believes Udoka will be missed.
“We don’t know the story as it is,” Jackson said. “Ime Udoka did an outstanding job last year coaching that team, giving them a chance to win the championship. You don’t replace that easily, the leadership, the voice, how prepared and organized they were, put them in the position to win the championship.
“I thought a key acquisition was Brogdon, an underrated guy that’s incredibly efficient, shooting the basketball, taking care of the basketball, and competing. He has size and can play on both ends of the floor. They’re a team that has a legitimate chance, with the growth of losing in the Finals last year, coming back better, but they will miss what their head coach brought to the table and the position he put them in. That doesn’t mean they can’t win a championship. They very well could, but it’s going to be new ground and new territory because it’s a new voice.”
The Celtics have gotten two long looks at the Hornets over the past two weeks and the look is rather ghastly. The Celtics were able to win both matchups easily and their second unit beat Charlotte’s first-team players by double digits after falling behind in the first quarter. New coach Steve Clifford, who returned to Charlotte after a stint in Orlando and as an assistant, will field a team that has major holes. Miles Bridges, expected to be a cornerstone after a strong fourth season, remains out as he faces assault charges in a domestic dispute, and his status this season is undetermined. The Hornets also will miss All-Star guard LaMelo Ball for the first week-plus of the season because of a sprained ankle. The Hornets made just one move in the offseason, adding much-traveled guard Dennis Smith Jr. as a backup. But the hope is players such as Jalen McDaniels, Nick Richards, P.J. Washington, and James Bouknight can take steps forward. They’d like to be able to rely on veteran Gordon Hayward, but he’s missed most of the preseason with a bruised knee and has yet to play a full season with the Hornets … The next day or so will be interesting as there are expected to be several intriguing players who will be waived and available as rosters are finalized for Tuesday’s Opening Night. A couple of veterans already on the market are former Piston Frank Jackson and journeyman Maurice Harkless. The Rockets released former Thunder second-round pick Theo Maledon, who was considered a prospect during his early years in Oklahoma City. Maledon eventually signed a two-way contract with the Hornets … The Kings waived ex-Duke guard Quinn Cook and former Hawk, Laker, and Warrior Kent Bazemore. Teams have to determine whether to keep veterans with a defined ceiling, or prospects with more of an upside. The Celtics quickly waived former first-round pick Denzel Valentine to make room for Blake Griffin, and Valentine is headed for G League Maine. Expect a flurry of moves over the next 48 hours as teams cement their rosters and pluck waived players.