Celtics Playing a Dangerous ‘Interim’ Game With Joe Mazzulla: Sources

Joe Mazzulla, Celtics

Getty Joe Mazzulla, Celtics

The Celtics appear to be in no rush to remove the “interim” tag from coach Joe Mazzulla’s title, and that fact has nothing to do with his job performance.

According to NBA sources, there are procedural elements in play regarding the position and how to deal with the currently suspended Ime Udoka.

“The cleanest way out of this for Boston is for Ime to get a job somewhere else,” one executive told Heavy Sports. “And I’m sure they want to give him every opportunity to do that. I still don’t see any way he’s back with Boston. I’ve thought that from the start.”

Udoka is on a one-year suspension from the Celtics for multiple violations of team policy based on an inappropriate relationship with a woman in a subordinate position in the organization. While nothing more specific has been released, there are reports that crude language was involved prior to the beginning of the liaison. Udoka, who coached the club to the NBA Finals in his first year as head coach, accepted the team’s decision.

According to the terms, the penalty lasts until the end of the league year, June 30, 2023.

Legal Issues Keeping Mazzulla in Interim Limbo

A key reason the club will not seek to solidify Mazzulla’s position sooner is that, absent Udoka leaving on his own, it would require negotiating some type of settlement that satisfies each party and precludes any further claims or actions.

“Why get involved in something like that before you have to?” said the exec.

The only potential flaw in that strategy could involve Mazzulla’s future. The 34-year-old (coincidentally, his birthday is June 30) took over the Celts from his role as assistant coach under difficult circumstances. Udoka’s suspension was handed down just prior to the season. Mazzulla was and has continued to be a steady hand through some early rough waters, steering the very strong Celtics roster to the best record in the league.

If, somehow, his future is not in Boston, he will certainly be among the prime candidates for job openings after the season. (Mazzulla wasn’t even a front bench assistant when he was interviewed by Utah for its head coach opening last offseason.) As such, if nothing is worked out with the Celtics prior, he could be open to and swayed by offers elsewhere.

“He’s got a great team and he’s a local guy (Mazzulla grew up in Johnston, Rhode Island). It’s a perfect spot,” said one NBA source. “It’d be hard to see him willingly leaving if Boston doesn’t come through sooner … but that’s the risk you run.”

As for the possibility the track gets cleared by Udoka finding employment with another club, one league general manager did not sound encouraging — even when it was suggested Udoka might be able to ease back into the game as an assistant coach. Udoka was close to being a successor to Steve Nash as the head coach in Brooklyn in the fall, but backlash led the Nets to drop their pursuit of him.

“I think even that would be hard with the environment we’re living in today,” the GM said. “There’s still a lot of question about all that went on with him, but even just the fact that he didn’t fight the suspension says something. From a team standpoint, it’s hard to bring him in right now. You’ve got women on your staff that could have a problem with it, and there’s the public. … Just the social media climate would bring a lot of criticism. Not to make any judgment with (Udoka) and what he did, but everyone knows how the ‘gotcha’ reactions go.

“You have to decide how big the benefit would be and whether that outweighs what you know is going to be the fallout. And that’s assuming you know the extent of what happened and that you’re OK with things. But look what happened with Brooklyn when they wanted to hire him. No team wants to have to deal with that kind of thing, so I can easily see them just deciding it’s easier to go in another direction.”


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