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It’s not business as usual

On organizational leadership, managing hardship, and the challenges ahead for Brad Stevens and Joe Mazzulla

NBA: Boston Celtics at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Now what?

A strange and disheartening week in Boston Celtics history is closing, and the news cycle doesn’t seem to be taking its eye off Beantown anytime soon. While coverage and discussions this week have centered around organizational handling of a serious situation and the bizarre reporting around it, that noise will die down eventually. And when it does, these Celtics will still need to show up for work every day.

What is left behind by the reality of Ime Udoka’s exit is a team incredibly vulnerable following the exit of their on-court leader. A team that is left to grapple with the very sudden loss of an impactful voice within the organization. A team that has championship aspirations. Whoever steps into the leadership void left behind has to balance all of those realities.

From the outset, speculation was rampant that Brad Stevens, the President of Basketball Operations and former head coach, would consider coming back to the sidelines to bridge a gap in the interim. During Friday’s press conference, Stevens was quick to dispel those rumors.

For what it’s worth, that’s the right decision. While Udoka violated the core principles of the organization and clearly voided the trust many have in him, the last fifteen months have proven that a voice different from Brad’s was the one to best reach the players. Stevens has a massive role to play in the future direction of the club, as well as their response to this saga. For the players, who now understand what type of voice allows them to maximize their talents, Brad wouldn’t be the right man for the job.

Udoka’s leadership style in Boston was based on his blunt, honest style of communication. He called players out privately and directly, preached individual accountability, and quickly turned the page. It clearly resonated with the players in Boston.

And that’s the last I’ll speak about Udoka, likely for the year. The important people are the ones still here, the ones aiming to pick up the pieces that have been broken, to keep the collective energy of this group channeled towards winning a championship. For those people, for the leaders in the organization, this will be anything but a typical year.

Stevens and Joe Mazzulla have a lot to do to refocus this team on basketball and move forward. Training camp is here, games are right around the corner, and the Celtics are missing two key frontcourt pieces due to injury. Mazzulla will need to establish his own voice as the head coach; luckily for him, he has the relationships and rapport with the players on the team built already to do so.

The nerves of jumping into that position so suddenly can be overwhelming, though. I recall a night during my first season as a college assistant coach when my boss called me on Friday night at 9 pm, explaining that he fell incredibly ill in the last few hours and wanted me to prepare to be the head coach for our 1 pm game the next day. I believe I got about an hour of sleep that night, trying to speed myself through some decisions I’d have to make in terms of ATO plays against the most unorthodox defensive scheme on our scout, how I’d manage personnel decisions and substitution patterns, timeout usage and more.

What Mazzulla is stepping into isn’t just for one day, it’s for the entire season. He’s been a head coach before and will rely heavily on his experiences. But what he’s also dealing with is a general mood or energy level within the organization that he’ll be partially responsible for raising. Mazzulla may strike every right chord in terms of basketball decisions, X’s and O’s, and help the guys get better on a daily basis. It will be his management style that helps the Celtics get through this year successfully, though.

Many years ago, Bill Simmons wrote “The Book of Basketball” and shared a secret he learned from former Detroit Pistons legend Isiah Thomas:

“The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball.”

No, winning championships isn’t just about the best collection of talent and schematics. Success is about all the other moments: the games of Go Fish on a team plane and competitive Connect Four showdowns, the late-night dinners on a road trip, the times that bring people together. Bonding, staying together, and weathering the storm as one unit all bought into achieving the same goal help teams get to the finish line.

What’s so disappointing about this saga from a timing perspective is that the stakes and optimism surrounding this Celtics team following a remarkable 2021-22 season are so high. The summer injuries, the off-court turmoil, and rampant rumors about the organization’s members lately are all storms that can feel insurmountable.

This season figures to feature plenty of quotes from Stevens and Mazzulla, among others, talking about “business as usual.” We all know that simply will not be the case.

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