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June 1, 2023 | 10:36 am EDT Update
Payton Pritchard has made it clear he hopes to be traded this offseason
With the new onerous CBA rules looming after next season, the front office will likely have to decide in the next 12 months whether it can afford its expensive veteran depth. Payton Pritchard has made it clear he hopes to be traded this summer, according to multiple team sources, so will the Celtics move him if they trade one of their core guards? Then there is the coaching staff, which is widely expected to add a veteran with head coaching experience at the very least. Some of Udoka’s hires, such as Ben Sullivan and Miles, will likely be recruited by Udoka and the Houston Rockets, but sources told The Athletic it’s too early in the process to know what will happen.
After the All-Star Game, one Celtics source believed some of the team’s best players “just lost focus.” While going 7-6 coming out of the break, Tatum, Marcus Smart and Horford all had negative net ratings, meaning the team was outscored when each of them were on the court. The Celtics’ defense was ripped apart with the starters in the lineup, a revealing development for a team so capable of shutting down opponents.
With the season on the line following a 128-102 Game 3 loss to the eighth-seed Heat, Grousbeck came in hot. After Grant Williams asked everyone to clear the room so the players could have some space, Grousbeck went off. His message to the effect that he has been building this franchise for over 20 years and the players need to play with some balls left the locker room stunned, several team sources who were in the room told The Athletic. The sources were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record. “(Grousbeck) was right, but we shouldn’t need that,” Blake Griffin told The Athletic. “As soon as we got to the locker room, we were just so frustrated.”
In addition to the players who credited Udoka for their drastic turnaround and Finals berth one season ago, several Celtics assistants considered Udoka a close friend and joined the staff specifically to work for him. When Boston elevated Mazzulla, not even a front-row assistant last season, sources around the team said it could have created a divide between him and the other coaches with more experience and loyalty to Udoka. There was initially an “awkwardness” according to several members of the coaching staff, but Mazzulla worked to establish a culture of open communication and trust.
Beyond Udoka, the Celtics staff faced a depletion of talent that raised the difficulty of Mazzulla’s job. Will Hardy took over as Utah Jazz head coach in June and turned them into one of the NBA’s biggest surprises. Multiple team sources both on the roster and the staff said Stoudamire’s departure to lead Georgia Tech in March left a significant void in the team’s leadership structure. He was known for having a good feel for when and how to talk to players, understand their motivations, and pull from his own experiences when making recommendations for how the team should operate.
“It’s not like Damon had a certain power, but players really respected him,” said one team source. “Joe used Damon to have a guy that’s been here that’s played that can speak to them. Damon could speak their language and no one else on the staff can do (it).”
As the coaching staff and players prepared for Mazzulla to take over, the looming question was whether this was his team or whether Udoka would still be involved, multiple team sources told The Athletic. Eventually, it was clear Mazzulla was in charge.
It became clear early on that Mazzulla would take a different approach than Udoka. Where Udoka lit up players through the media, Mazzulla regularly showed support. But behind closed doors, he was still willing to hold everyone accountable. “His leadership is second to none. From speakers to events, he hit all the buttons to galvanize the group,” said a team source. “Throughout the season, the things he did to call out (Jayson Tatum) and (Jaylen Brown) all the time, he was super hard on all of them. When they needed to be called out, he was the first to call them out. When the role players needed to be called out, he called them out too. He shot it straight how he saw it and didn’t care about how it should be done. I thought he developed great relationships with guys because of that.”