The Celtics won’t have a chance for an NBA Finals rematch with the Warriors because Golden State’s tumultuous season ended with a loss to the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals.
The Warriors never fully recovered from Draymond Green punching Jordan Poole in the face during training camp. Green acknowledged this past week that he had to tone down his leadership this season because he lost the respect of some of his teammates, including Poole.
Green showed signs of aging. James Wiseman, a former top prospect, was abruptly traded to the Pistons. Klay Thompson showed flashes of past form but was ghastly in the playoffs. Meanwhile, general manager Bob Myers’s contract expires next month and there is no indication he will return.
The only constants are Stephen Curry, who enjoyed an MVP-caliber season, and Steve Kerr, a four-time champion coach who has to determine whether the Warriors are capable of reaching championship heights again with this roster.
Kerr even acknowledged that team chemistry was hurt by Green’s assault on Poole
“I think there was some of that [chemistry] that was lost this year, for sure,” Kerr said. “There’s no hiding from it, the incident with Draymond and Jordan at the beginning of the year played a role in that. It’s hard for that not to impact a team. We feel like we have a great group of people on the roster, on the coaching staff, in the front office. We have a way of doing things that we’re very proud of, but those things were definitely challenged this year.
“Any time some trust is lost, then it makes the process much more difficult, and there was some trust lost. That’s as blunt as I can be.”
Poole, who signed a four-year, $140 million contract extension before this season, was abysmal during the playoffs, going 16 for 63 from the 3-point line and making several questionable decisions on defense, costing him playing time. He acknowledged he never fully reconciled with Green.
“The only way to try to correct course is to continue to communicate with players and coaches, and those relationships have to be built,” Kerr said. “The bonds have to be built. I think that’s a focus for us this offseason is we have to get back to what has made us really successful, which is a really trusting environment and a group that relies on one another and makes each other better.
“I don’t think that was all gone, vanished, this year. I think there was a lot of that that we relied on to get as far as we did. I think down the stretch and into the playoffs, I thought a lot of who we truly are came out, and that’s what gave us a chance. Obviously, the talent, but the way the guys competed and came together in the playoffs for me was very inspiring and hopeful because I know it’s in us.”
The Warriors were 11-30 on the road during the regular season, an example of their maddening inconsistency despite their experience. They were able to figure out their issues in enough time to upset the third-seeded Kings in the first round but imploded late in the Lakers series.
“But [chemistry] was threatened during the year, and the regular season matters,” Kerr said. “It really does matter. I know in this day and age of the players resting and all that stuff, sometimes people say, just throw that out. It all matters. We won the championship last year after getting off to an 18-2 start, and these vibes were incredible. That carried us forward.
“This year that was really challenged, and we have to fix that. Every coach says he’s not a lifer and then he turns into a lifer. That’s what I’ve found. Our organization has a lot to sort through this summer. My contract situation is not, nor should it be, at the top of the list. Right now Bob’s contract situation is No. 1 because that influences a lot of the player decisions that have to be made, contracts, draft, free agency.”
Kerr said he wants to continue to coach the Warriors, but he also realizes that every coach has a shelf life. Doc Rivers, Monty Williams, Nick Nurse, and Mike Budenholzer have all been fired in the last two weeks. Three of those coaches have won at least one championship, and the other took his team to the Finals two years ago.
“I love coaching. I love coaching these players. I love coaching the Warriors, love living in the Bay,” Kerr said. “But I’m also in the NBA, and all you have to do is look at your phone every day and see the next Hall of Fame coach that’s fired. It’s insane. I’ve never seen the league like this. I’m under no illusions that I have a lifetime job here or something like that, but I love what I do, and I hope to be coaching here for a long time. But you never know how things work out, so we’ll see.”
Green has a player option for the 2023-24 season and has yet to make a decision. Kerr made it clear he wants Green to return.
“If Draymond is not back, we’re not a championship contender,” Kerr said. “We know that. He’s that important to winning and to who we are. I absolutely want him back. He’s a competitor. He’s an incredible defensive player. We can check all those boxes. He and I have built a really special relationship that has run the gamut over the years. We’ve had our share of run-ins, but we’ve been through so much, we really care about each other and work together well.
“He knows that he had a great season this year, from a basketball perspective, but he knows that he also compromised things by what happened back in October. So part of him coming back next year has to be about rebuilding some of that trust and respect that he’s earned here for a long period of time. One thing I love about Draymond is he’s always brutally honest, and he can take that sort of critique because he knows it’s the truth. I want him back. I think we all want him back. Hopefully, that’s exactly what happens and we get ready to make another run next year.”
One of the primary criticisms of Kerr has been the Warriors’ lack of developing a younger core. Poole regressed and former lottery picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody were expected to be major contributors, but their playing time was inconsistent. Kerr even gave two-way-contract players Ty Jerome and Anthony Lamb considerable playing time, perhaps costing Moody and Kuminga opportunities.
The perception is the Warriors will need considerably more production from their younger players to return to championship contention.
“You’re trying to raise young guys and teach them good habits and teach them how to win, and you’re hoping your veteran players can help mentor those guys, and you put all that stuff in place,” Kerr said. “Last year we won the championship, this year we lost in the second round, so you can fit the narrative however you want, but every year is going to present different challenges, and you just have to meet those and do everything you can to help the team.”
WNBA picks have to earn it
Without three-year guaranteed contracts for first-round picks, WNBA teams are more apt to part ways with high picks who don’t pan out. Such was the case this past week during final cuts when 2021 first overall pick Charli Collier was waived by the Dallas Wings, a testament to the unpredictability of the draft and depth of the league.
Collier scored just 130 points in 45 games in her first two seasons and wasn’t the only notable cut as teams had to finalize rosters. Taylor Mikesell, Kayana Traylor, and Brea Beal, second-round picks this year, were released. Second-year guard Destanni Henderson, who played in all 36 games as a rookie for Indiana, was waived along with former second-round pick DiDi Richards, 2023 11th overall pick Abby Meyers, former LSU star LaDazhia Williams, and 2022 fourth overall pick Emily Engstler.
So much talent on the waiver wire cries out for WNBA expansion, but that appears to be years away. Many of the players in the 2023 draft bypassed the option of returning to school for one more year, a year lost to COVID-19. But with no two-way contracts or minor league in the United States, the options for these waived players are limited. They can play overseas with an WNBA option, or remain in the US and stay in shape, waiting for another opportunity.
If anything, these cuts have proven that not even first-round picks are guaranteed to make rosters, which may discourage players from entering the draft. The WNBA is eagerly anticipating the arrivals of Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese, but each has the option to remain in school for another two seasons, and with NIL opportunities the incentive to join the WNBA isn’t as lucrative as it was.
Some defense for Mazzulla
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla heard his share of criticism for how he handled the Game 1 loss to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, especially the third quarter, when Miami scored 46 points and Mazzulla did not call a timeout.
TNT analysts Kenny Smith and Reggie Miller came to the defense of Mazzulla, who has the unenviable task of taking on the Heat’s Erik Spoelstra in this series.
“Locally, [there is] Joe Mazzulla criticism or whatever it might be, but he’s in the Eastern Conference finals, and there are only four teams left in basketball,” Smith said. “Maybe if he was more experienced, this is only his first year, maybe the seven-game series might have been done in six. But he’s in the Eastern Conference finals, so for me to question whether he should have called a timeout at this particular juncture would be a disservice. The object is to move on. Reggie was on a team that beat the New York Knicks and he scored 9 points in 11 seconds. Those kind of things that happens in the playoffs.”
Smith stressed not to overreact to one game, especially with the unpredictability of the playoffs. The Lakers appeared to have the Nuggets beat in Game 2 Thursday night, before Jamal Murray responded with 23 points in the fourth quarter to seal Denver’s victory.
“You’re playing against four teams that are the best four teams in basketball,” Smith said. “You’re going to get manhandled some days. You’re going to do that manhandling some days. You have to not microwave each game, I’ve learned. You have to let it bake and see what the result is after seven. He’s going to make mistakes as a coach. The players are going to make mistakes, but the best team will win a seven-game series.”
“I’m going to temper my comments because sometimes it’s laughable,” Miller added. “I’ll tell you what Joe Mazzulla is up against, and this is a problem in today’s age. The success and access and outrage and everyone is an armchair quarterback. In [TD Garden Wednesday], they showed Bill Belichick in one of the suites. Huge applause, but you heard a few boos as well. I’m shaking my head. This is a guy who has won six Super Bowls and there was a few boo-birds.
“Whether you believe that or not, that’s what Joe Mazzulla is up against. If he takes a timeout or doesn’t take a timeout, people are oversensitive to what they believe is the correct call or non-call. Everyone has an opinion.”
Miller said the Celtics’ lackadaisical play in Game 1 was not on Mazzulla. The players deserved the blame.
“The Celtics during these playoffs have shown lapses in their judgment, more so in their mental fortitude in certain games,” Miller said. “That’s on the coach? The coach is out there playing? These players have got to look in the mirror.
“We showed a clip of Coach Mazzulla throwing his clipboard. What more do you want him to do? How do you want him to motivate grown men, some of whom are making $25 million-$30 million a year and you are one of four teams left. The conference finals are the hardest series to win because you are one step away from the ultimate goal. Once you get to the NBA Finals, it’s 50-50, anyone could win. It’s these series are the most difficult.
“Every loose ball, every long rebound, every missed free throw, every mixed box-out, it gets highlighted. Unfortunately and sometimes fortunately, come playoff time this is when coaches make their money. They don’t make their money during the regular season. It’s getting highlighted or magnified what Joe Mazzulla is doing. Sometimes that comes with coaching. And you are coaching an iconic franchise like the Celtics.”
The Celtics are participating in this coming week’s NBA Draft Combine, but because of the Malcolm Brogdon trade, they don’t pick until No. 35, a second-rounder acquired from the Hawks in the Tristan Thompson trade. The pick originally belonged to the Trail Blazers … Speaking of Portland, it has a difficult decision to make after moving up to third in the lottery, meaning the Blazers could select promising point guard Scoot Henderson to pair with Damian Lillard. But the 33-year-old Lillard wants to win immediately and the Blazers are not a player such as Henderson away from competing for a championship. Portland has compiled a group of young, talented players but are still years away unless they acquire another All-Star-caliber veteran. Lillard has intimated he does not want to experience another rebuild. Would the Blazers package the third pick and another contract for a standout player to help Lillard? Or would they move Lillard and go completely young? The Pistons were hoping to win the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes after tying for the league’s worst record, but misfortune continues to follow them as they dropped to fifth in the lottery. Detroit would get a talented player, but don’t be surprised if the Pistons package the pick and an expiring contract for an impact veteran … On the coaching front, former Celtics and Pistons assistant Jerome Allen could be a dark-horse candidate for the 76ers’ job. Allen, who has been on the rise in recent years, is a Philadelphia native and former head coach at Penn. Allen showed interest in the Pistons’ job but management appears to be choosing between former UConn coach Kevin Ollie or longtime NBA assistant Jarron Collins. The hope for the Pistons is a dramatic bounce-back after a disappointing season. Former coach Dwane Casey has been moved to the front office … Clippers coach Tyronn Lue is due for a contract extension, but he will also emerge as a serious candidate for the jobs in Phoenix and Milwaukee. Lue was not pleased with the Clippers’ philosophy of load management, being told just hours before certain games that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George would not play because of rest. Team president Lawrence Frank said the Clippers will take a more serious approach to the regular season, but Lue may consider leaving for a lucrative offer and winning situation.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.