CANTON, Mass. – Jaylen Brown can’t help.
“I wish we had more details,” Brown said.
Jayson Tatum had nothing, either.
“I just don’t know,” Tatum said.
Marcus Smart had a blunt assessment of what the last few days have been like.
“It’s been hell for us,” Smart said.
Days removed from the announcement of head coach Ime Udoka’s season-long suspension, the Celtics appeared at the team’s annual media day searching for answers. They know Udoka has been exiled for team violations, which sources said Sports Illustrated was connected to an intimate relationship with a female staff member.
Beyond that, the Celtics insist, they don’t know much.
“From what we know, it’s hard to make a decision based on whether it’s consensual or not in the workplace,” Brown said. “We know that’s happened before in the workplace. But I guess there’s more to it than that [that] possibly, which I don’t know. I don’t have all the details. It’s not being shared with me.”
Added Tatum, “You read the statement, you watch the press conference; apparently there are a lot of things they can’t speak about. I’m kind of in the same boat. I do not know. It’s hard for me to answer if things were handled in the right way or they weren’t. … I just don’t know.”
Boston will begin the season with a championship-ready roster. The core of the team is back. Tatum tweaked his diet last summer. Brown says he is in the best shape of his life.
Added to the mix is Malcolm Brogdon, the former Pacer acquired in the offseason. Brogdon said Indiana allowed him to pick from several potential teams. He chose Boston because: “I want to win.”
“It doesn’t matter if I’m the sixth man, whatever role I’m playing,” Brogdon said. “I’m going to accept it and I’m going to go out there and embrace it.”
On paper, not even Robert Williams III’s potential three-month absence from knee surgery should slow this team down.
Udoka’s absence, though, has created questions.
On Monday, Joe Mazzulla made his first appearance as Boston’s interim head coach. He’s a rising star in the coaching ranks. What he lacks in experience (three years on an NBA bench), he makes up for with a keen basketball IQ. Team officials will tell you Mazzulla played a key role in developing the Celtics’ top-rated defense last season. Brogdon called Mazzulla “impressive,” citing his reputation for providing detailed scouting reports. He says in his early morning encounters with Mazzulla in Boston’s weight room Mazzulla has shown a real appetite to learn. Danny Ainge, the former Celtics GM, thought enough of Mazzulla to make him a finalist for the Jazz coaching job last summer.
Mazzulla looked poised during his first public comments. He said he did not overwhelm his players in his first days on the job. “You can’t rush healing,” Mazzulla said. He joked that Brad Stevens probably had a concussion the day he named him to the job. He said the team’s ability to focus on what made it successful last season will be key to hitting the ground running in this one.
“I think we have to do this together,” Mazzulla said. “I don’t think we need to speed up decisions or speed up identity. I think we have to be patient. We have to rely on the foundations that we built as far as relationships. And the foundations and habits that we built on the basketball court, because they’re successful.”
Booth Mazzulla, 34, is young. His head coaching experience amounts to two seasons at Fairmont State. Udoka’s credibility was backed by a seven-year playing career and successful assistant coaching stints in San Antonio and Brooklyn. It gave Udoka an air of gravitas in the Celtics’ locker room. Mazzulla will have to find a way to duplicate that.
He will also lead a team that may still be wondering why Mazzulla is coaching them in the first place. It’s clear players understand Udoka did something to warrant a team punishment. It’s less clear if they believe Udoka deserved such a stiff one. And with Boston’s brass being as tight-lipped with them as they were with the media last week, it’s created confusion.
I asked Smart whether he believed players were owed more information.
“Yes,” Smart said. “[But] we don’t know what the organization knows. So it’s kind of hard to say that. We don’t know what they know. We don’t know what they are supposed to tell us. Or what we are supposed to know. That’s why this is where it’s at. Literally no one knows anything. We’re still waiting just like everyone else.
“As a player you would like it to be known. But at the same time, that’s none of our business. It’s their lives. It’s the people who are involved. That’s between them. We should respect their privacy. Just like we’d want our privacy respected. As a player you would like to know. [But] it’s not an obligation.”
Mazzulla will have three weeks to work with the team before the start of the regular season. He isn’t expected to change much. The hope is that the Celtics, with the NBA’s best net rating (+12.7) since Jan. 1, with the league’s top scoring margin (+12.2) after Jan. 1, with by far and away the NBA’s top defensive rating (105.2) since Jan. 1, will pick up where they left off.
If they do, questions about Udoka will fade. If they don’t, well, those questions will be hard to escape.
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