A crisis can sink an organization.
And strong leadership can guide a business through difficult times.
Three NBA teams (Boston, Golden State and Phoenix) started the season with a crisis, and another (Brooklyn) was enveloped in one shortly after the season began.
The Celtics suspended coach Ime Udoka for the entire 2022-23 season just before training camp began for a “violation of team rules.” Warriors mainstay Draymond Green punched teammate Jordan Poole in the preseason. The investigation into Robert Sarver revealed enough ownership dysfunction that Sarver announced he planned to sell the Suns. And Kyrie Irving’s promotion of an antisemitic film resulted in an eight-game suspension.
This was not the way the NBA wanted to start its season.
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How have those teams fared on the court? The results have been mixed.
The Celtics have thrived with first-time NBA head coach Joe Mazzulla, who replaced Udoka. They are an NBA-best 14-4, have the top offense in the NBA and perhaps the best player early in Jayson Tatum.
It appears the Celtics have navigated the situation nicely despite some initial bumps due to potential legal proceedings. On the court, the Celtics have played like a team determined to win the East again and get back to the Finals.
Their offensive rating of 118.8 points per 100 possessions is a tad higher than No. 2 Sacramento’s (116.8), their plus-6.9 net rating is No. 3 and Tatum is one of seven NBA players averaging at least 30 points (30.6). He’s also averaging 7.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.2 blocks and shooting 47.2% from the field and 35.3% on 3-pointers.
While losing a coach just before the season begins never makes for a seamless transition, the Celtics’ players and Mazzulla deserve credit for their professionalism and focus. This was not an easy situation given how much time a coach and players spend together. It helps to have strong ownership, front-office stability and a new coach who was ready for the moment.
The Warriors have strong leadership in ownership, front office and coaching staff. Weathering the Green-Poole storm was problematic and residual effects probably linger, but that’s not the biggest problem for Golden State.
The Warriors are just 9-10 and struggling to find their identity following last season’s title and the loss of key players as they try to develop younger players on a team that still has championship aspirations with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Green and Poole.
The Warriors are 12th offensively, 24th defensively and they have the worst bench net rating in the NBA at minus-7.6 points per 100 possessions. Thompson struggled early and James Wiseman, the no. 2 pick in the 2020 draft, is unable to provide the production the Warriors need from a back-up center.
In Wiseman’s 147 minutes this season, the Warriors were outscored by 73 points. He fell out of the rotation and is on a G League assignment. In the six games Wiseman did not play in the past two weeks, the Warriors are 4-3.
In Thompson’s first 12 games, he averaged 15.1 points and shot just 35.1% from the field and 33% on 3-pointers. Players had a team meeting, and in Thompson’s past three games, he scored 20, 41 and 18 points and was 27-for-49 from the field and 17-for-30 on 3s.
Still, it doesn’t fall on one or two players. The Warriors are 28th in turnovers per game, making it difficult, even with their offensive firepower, to overcome defensive problems.
Golden State has been through several NBA fires and managed to walk out better for it. There’s a lot of season left for the Warriors to get it right.
The fallout from the Sarver saga with the Suns has had little impact on the team. Not that there wasn’t franchise turmoil with Sarver’s workplace shortcomings as owner, but this was something the front office, coaching staff and players could compartmentalize.
The Suns are atop the West at 11-6, have the No. 3 offense, No. 6 defense and No. 2 net rating (plus-7.3 points per 100 possessions). Coach Monty Williams is a stabilizing force and this is an experienced team led by Chris Paul and Devin Booker, who is off to an All-NBA start at 27.4 points, 5.8 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 47.7% from the field and 38% on 3s .
The Nets have had it the worst. Their problems started before the season began when Kevin Durant asked for a trade. It got worse with a 2-5 start, the firing of coach Steve Nash and the pursuit of Udoka as Nash’s replacement until the Nets realized that it would be a mistake at this time.
Then, the Irving incident, in which the star guard trafficked in antisemitic stereotypes, imploded. He initially refused to back down or apologize for promoting a link on social media to a film filled with fabrications and falsehoods. It resulted in rebukes from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Nets owner Joe Tsai, Jewish leaders and anti-hate groups.
Irving was suspended for eight games and returned only after he completed a series of steps that included meetings with anti-hate groups and Tsai, an authentic apology and sensitivity and antisemitic training.
It was a three-week debacle, but Irving is back on the court, Durant has been stellar and the Nets are 7-5 since Jacques Vaughn took over for Nash.
The ramifications for the four teams are not over. But for the most part, the actual basketball can become the focus.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt