The Sports Illustrated basketball preview issue is available in stores now, and it has two different cover stories depending on region. Last week, AA spoke to the authors of both those stories, Chris Mannix (who wrote on the Boston Celtics after their six-game Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors, and amidst their suspension of head coach Ime Udoka) and Howard Beck (who wrote on New Orleans Pelicans‘ star Zion Williamson‘s return after not playing since May 5, 2021 due to injury).
Our interview with Beck on his Williamson story (“Zion Williamson 2.0: Inside the ‘Dark Days’ That Sparked the NBA Star’s Stunning Transformation“) is here. Here’s what Mannix had to say on his “We’re Still Here’: These Celtics Remain on a Mission to Win It All” piece, which he said started as an idea months ago based on how the tone of the conversation around the Celtics seemed unusual for a Finals runner-up with a lot of young stars.
“Usually Finals teams, when they’re young and developing and coming off an appearance, there’s a lot of positivity, for lack of a better word, or momentum coming into the next season,” Mannix said. “What the Celtics experienced was kind of the polar opposite. You had questions immediately about Marcus Smart‘s ability to be an elite playmaker, despite the fact that he helped engineer that Finals trip and won Defensive Player of the Year. It felt like as soon as the Celtics got back from vacation, we were on the ‘Trade Jaylen Brown‘ bandwagon once again. And then, to top it all off, the Ime Udoka situation put them in a position to have to go into the year with a new coach. They didn’t have the traditional kind of Finals bump where you actually saw them going into the next year as one of the obvious favorites.”
A short SI video promoting their Celtics cover. pic.twitter.com/RGsApPoQiU
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The team’s season-long suspension of head coach Udoka for violating organization rules with a relationship with a subordinate added some unprecedented challenges for Mannix with this piece. News of a pending suspension for Udoka broke on Sept. 21, with the team announcing it would be a season-long-suspension the next day and that assistant coach Joe Mazzulla would be elevated to interim head coach. That news came after this story was already finalized and was being prepared for print, and Mannix said they had to pull it back so he could do some quick rewrites to reflect the news through Sept. 22.
“This was one of the wilder kind of experiences. Because we’re monthly, you file at least a month, I think it was actually a month and a half before we came to print. I filed it, I think, early to mid-September, that was before everything kind of unfolded. I had spent weeks on the phone speaking to Ime Udoka for this story, speaking to Brad Stevens for this story, talking to every member of the starting five. And the way it kind of shook out, we had finalized the story, it was done, and it was off to whatever the digital version of the printing press is. It was gone.”
“So when this all broke in mid-September, we quite literally had to stop the presses to go back into the story and rewrite parts of it. Now, there’s only so much you can do in a very short period of time. And the deadline we had to really, really finalize this thing, putting it to the point of no return, was only a day or so, so I only got really the press conference that was held announcing the suspension to work with there, and a few phone calls kind of in between. So all I was really able to do was go back and do the broad strokes, try and weave that in in a way that didn’t seem disjointed.”
“But that was crazy, because it absolutely changed the story. Ime was, frankly, all over the story; we talked a lot about the tweaks he’d make to the offense, some of the changes he wanted to make defensively, the addition of Malcolm Brogdon, the offseason conversation he had with Jaylen Brown, so he was a key piece of the story. So you kind of had to go in and rip a lot of that stuff out and insert the nuts and bolts on what happened with him this offseason.”
Mannix said pulling a story back for rewrites at that point in the process was a new experience for him.
“I’m sure that I’ve done something where I’ve had to change it close to the last minute, but this was the first time that I’ve had it finalized and sent out and we’ve had to go back. When that happens, you can’t just talk to your NBA editor, you’ve got to talk to [SI co-editor in chief] Stephen Canella, our boss and say ‘We’ve got to open this thing back up again, or it’s going to look weird when it comes out.'”
He said before he knew he was able to update the piece, he was reminded of what happened with People celebrating Betty White’s 100th birthday on a cover when she actually died before that.
“It sort of reminds me, when it happened, before I knew what we could do, I flashed back to that People magazine cover with Betty White still alive, her 100th birthday, and I’m thinking like that. You can’t have a Celtics story of ‘They’re coming for you this season’ without having at least something weaved in.”
But Mannix said while the timing here meant he didn’t have enough time to go as deep into the Udoka news as he would have liked, the decision to pull the story back meant he was able to at least get it to a point where it wasn’t thoroughly outdated.
“You couldn’t be as specific as you’d like to be; if I’d had another week or 10 days, I could have done more. But at least it was worked in there so when people pick up the magazine, there’ll be an acknowledgement that this is one of the variables of the offseason.”
And he said he’s grateful that it didn’t happen a day or two later.
“I’m certainly glad, not that the Ime Udoka thing happened, but at least that it happened in time to open it up and change the subhead and two paragraphs.”
Mannix’s interview with AA came early last week before the Celtics actually tipped off this regular season. They’re now 3-0, with their fourth game Monday night against the Chicago Bulls (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Boston/NBC Sports Chicago/NBA League Pass), so his comments on expecting a hot start despite the coaching turmoil certainly have worked out so far.
“I think they’re going to hit the ground running. I think they’ve figured out their identity, and they did it over two hard months at the start of last season. You look at all the numbers from January 1st [on], they’re the best defensive team in basketball by a country mile, with one of the best records in the NBA over the last five months of the season. They’re not going to lose that identity because the coach is gone.”
Mannix said he thinks Mazzulla is a qualified candidate to replace Udoka for this season, but the real impact of that move won’t really be known until the postseason.
“I’ve known him for a few years now, being based in Boston, and he’s a really smart guy. He was a finalist for the Jazz job, he was going to get a head coaching job sooner rather than later anyway. So he’s qualified. But we won’t know the impact of the coach, I don’t think, until the playoffs, because that’s where coaching really comes into play, where it’s minute adjustments and different rotations that you go to. We see it in all sports, but I think in basketball it’s as significant as any. And I think that’s where we’re going to learn if Joe is the guy who can match Ime Udoka or maybe even exceed him, or if the Celtics will look back on this and wonder if they made the right call.”
This Celtics story stands out as one with a whole lot of off-court focus, from the initial trade discussions around a variety of players (including Smart and Brown) to the eventual Udoka turmoil. Mannix said that level of off-court discussion is more interesting to him than a story just about on-court Xs and Os would be, and part of that’s about the wider off-court interest in the NBA these days.
“I think it’s a little more [interesting]. The NBA, of the four major [North American] sports, it’s the biggest soap opera. Its offseasons are so compelling, its trade deadlines are the most compelling. And I was certainly perplexed at the [offseason] criticism of Marcus Smart. I do a lot of TV in Boston, and I was one of the chief Marcus Smart critics for the first two months of the year, I practically went on set at NBC Sports Boston wearing like a Lonzo Ball jersey and wishing he was the guy. But Marcus, to his credit, he succeeded; he was the right guy for that team, he was a far better playmaker than people thought he was going to be, and his ability to be a starting point guard made that defense what it was, where you could switch all five positions because Marcus Smart and not Kemba Walker or not Kyrie Irving was your point guard. So I was a little befuddled by so much criticism of him after he helped power that team to the Finals.”
“And Jaylen Brown is fascinating too, because it seems like Jaylen, since he’s gotten to Boston, there’s been some faction, whether internal or external of people trying to get rid of him. I remember his draft night, he was booed on draft night by fans who either wanted the pick traded for Jimmy Butler or fans that wanted to see the Celtics draft Kris Dunn, who played at Providence. So Jaylen, from that to [rumors about a trade for] Kawhi [Leonard] to Anthony Davis, there was how he responds to another year of trade rumors, this time after going to the Finals.”
And Mannix said all of those offseason discussions were a big part of what interested him in doing this story.
“I was curious to see how this team kind of felt mentally after that offseason. This should have been the offseason where they came into the year with boundless confidence, ‘This is our year, we learned some things against the best team of this generation, or at least one of them, this is our year to put it all together.’ But they had to deal with some mental hurdles there, a lot of mental hurdles, and I was curious to see how they got past them.”
The full SI Basketball Preview issue is in stores now. The cover stories from Mannix (“We’re Still Here’: These Celtics Remain on a Mission to Win It All“) and Beck (“Zion Williamson 2.0: Inside the ‘Dark Days’ That Sparked the NBA Star’s Stunning Transformation“) can be found on SI.com as well.
[Image combines the cover in the middle, featuring Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, and Jaylen Brown, with behind-the-scenes shots from SI’s short video promoting it, including one with Smart and Al Horford at right]