Severe weather can be an unexplained phenomenon. Sometimes storms come from out of nowhere to change plans and potentially devastate landscapes. In the aftermath, a steady presence to calm things down and stabilize matters is desirable if not necessary. In light of the Ime Udoka scandal and suspension last week, perhaps new interim head coach Joe Mazzulla is just what the franchise needs.
Mazzulla, a Rhode Island native, is young by NBA coaching standards, one of the youngest coaches ever to take over a team that just went to the NBA Finals (bested only by Lawrence Frank on the Nets in 2004). He’s younger than some of his players! Or at least veteran Al Horford, who has his new coach by a couple of years. That’s unusual in most NBA circles, though younger coaches are in vogue of late. But most everything about Mazzulla taking over the reins of the Celtics is unusual. At this time last week, he was getting prepared to be the top assistant to then-coach Ime Udoka for a season, following the departure of Will Hardy to Utah. Cut to: one week later, and Mazzulla is at the focal point of a team predicted to win the most games this coming season. With that should come a lot of pressure. Yet Mazzulla, who played Final Four college basketball at West Virginia before moving to the coaching ranks, seems to have a pretty even keel about the shocking path that led him to his spot.
“The message is first to give people space and time. Not just for the players but for everybody.” Mazzulla, who has a pronounced calm about him, added, “You have to give people the time and space to feel, and the time and space to heal.” It’s not as if he’s coming in from out of town or another organization. He was hired in June of 2019 by then coach Brad Stevens to work with the Celtics staff, though there was familiarity with him from his time with the Maine Red Claws in 2016-17. Stevens made a point of personally vetting Mazzulla, who had a few legal incidents at college, including domestic battery at a bar and fighting with authorities at a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game. ”I believe strongly in Joe’s substantiveness as a person.” said Stevens last week (when seated alongside Celtics majority owner Wyc Grousbeck. Stevens added that he believes Mazzulla’s legal troubles helped shape him as a person and that Mazzulla is “110% accountable for that.” Transparency will be key for success on and off the court for this team, a feather in Mazzulla’s new coaching cap.
Obviously, the Celtics can not afford to have any character-based missteps with any coaches or personnel, and Mazzulla must take quiet confidence in the support and guidance Stevens and company have shown in him. Else how could he quip that Stevens “had a concussion that day, I think” when he offered his endorsement of the new Celtics coach? Joe’s got jokes! One can’t imagine he’d feel comfortable enough to do that if he didn’t have the team behind him.
Whether he’s prepared or not, Mazzulla seems philosophically aligned with learning as he goes, working hand-in-hand with his players. “I worked for a lot of great head coaches and played for great head coaches. I think it’s about taking a formula of what worked for those guys...and how I can make these players better.” He did also note, when asked if he was prepared for this massive opportunity, “You’re never really ready.” Nice to see honesty is also going to be part of his coaching equation.
It’s great he seems game and has ownership and managerial support, but you’re doomed in the NBA if the players don’t believe in. Luckily it seems Mazzulla has the support of his players in abundance.
“I’m optimistic. I believe in Joe. Joe believes in me.” said Jaylen Brown, who himself had a bit of a rocky offseason with the Kevin Garnett trade rumor winds swirling. Added team leader Marcus Smart, “We love Joe. We’re excited to be able to work with him.” Veteran Al Horford, who’s seen his share of functional and dysfunctional Celtics teams, is on board, relaying that “It was great watching him, being around him, and rallying around him is gonna be good for us.”And we already know what a fan Jayson Tatum is.
Tatum added today at Celtics Media Day (via NBC Sports Boston), “I know how passionate he is about helping others. He’s been a great help to myself, to the other guys, to the team as a whole the last few years he’s been here.”
He’s got the basketball experience, both personally and familially; his father Dan was a college coach and played internationally, while his brother, Justin played in college at George Washington and Vermont. He’s got the steady demeanor. He’s a family man, married, with a son and stepson. He’s a local guy. He’s all about basketball. And he’s got the players, especially Tatum, behind him. Together this all seems like the person who can help an organization with the shock of scandal and the weight of expectations on them move forward. Said Grant Williams, “I think he’s prepared. I think he has a great relationship with the guys. And I can speak that he’s the most capable person in the organization to take on this role.”
Ime Udoka was very popular in town, and had quite a successful first year with the Celtics. But his personal issues blew turmoil into town suddenly last week for the team, it’s fans and everyone, leaving a squad that’s a title contender temporarily without a leader. Perhaps the promotion of Joe Mazzulla to captain will help the C’s get the championship back on course.