The Boston Celtics will have an interim head coach on the sidelines this upcoming NBA season, and everyone outside of the Northeast may be wondering:
Who exactly is Joe Mazzulla?
Following the suspension of Celtics coach Ime Udoka for the entire 2022-23 season for having an intimate relationship with a female franchise staff member, Mazzulla moved from assistant to head coach through interim defending Eastern Conference champions.
The move continues a meteoric rise for Mazzulla in basketball coaching circles. In three years, he’s gone from coaching in Division II to leading a team that’s expected to earn the most wins in the NBA this season, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
Mazzulla, 34, is the youngest head coach to take over a team that reached the NBA Finals the previous season since Lawrence Frank in 2003-04, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. (That year, Frank took over midseason when the New Jersey Nets — who had made the Finals the previous two seasons — fired head coach Byron Scott.)
He is also the youngest in the role to start a season since the late Celtics legend Bill Russell, who became the franchise’s player-coach in 1966-67 at age 32.
Mazzulla and Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy – who was Udoka’s main assistant last season, before being hired this summer by former Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, to replace Quin Snyder – are now tied for the distinction of being the youngest head coach. in the NBA.
The two, however, couldn’t have different expectations heading into the season. Shortly after hiring Hardy, Ainge traded Rudy Gobert and then Donovan Mitchell, sending the Jazz into a full rebuild as a result.
Mazzulla, meanwhile, takes charge of a championship contender emerging from a magical run to the final – and does so with just two years of head coaching experience (at a small college) under his belt.
Here’s a look at the young manager’s past experience, as well as the task ahead of him this season:
Mazzulla’s road to the NBA
Mazzulla made his name playing 145 games for West Virginia from 2006 to 2011, first for John Beilein and then Bob Huggins.
He was arrested twice while in West Virginia. Once, in 2008, for underage alcoholism and aggravated assault, a case in which he pleaded guilty and paid a fine, then in 2009 for domestic assault after an incident in a bar, a case settled out of court .
After college, Mazzulla spent five years as an assistant coach in the Division II ranks — with Glenville State from 2011 to 2013, and Fairmont State, located about 20 miles southwest of Morgantown, Va. Western, from 2013 to 2016.
The Celtics had been high on Mazzulla – who is from Warwick, Rhode Island – for some time. They first brought him into the NBA’s orbit in 2016, when they hired him as an assistant for the Maine Red Claws of the G League. Two years later, then-Celtics head coach Brad Stevens hired Mazzulla.
After his lone season in the G League, Mazzulla returned to Fairmont State as head coach in 2017, going 43-17 over two seasons before joining the Celtics in 2019.
When Udoka came on board in June 2021, Mazzulla remained on the Celtics squad.
“He was a guy there was consensus on, yeah,” Udoka said the day before Game 6 of the NBA Finals in June. “Someone who [the players] all worked closely together, believed and understood its benefits.”
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Mazzulla was a finalist for the Jazz head coach job this summer – a job that eventually went to Hardy, Udoka’s top assistant last season. (The Jazz wanted Mazzulla to join Hardy as an assistant, but the Celtics kept him in Boston.)
“I love Joe,” Jayson Tatum said of Mazzulla before Game 6 of the Finals. “You could tell how passionate [he is] about the guys and his job. He’s gotten so much more competent, more detailed, just vocal. More comfortable in his coaching role. You saw the growth in his first year.”
What does Mazzulla and the Celtics have in store for us?
It’s impossible to know how Mazzulla will approach the job. But while people will immediately think about what Udoka’s suspension will mean from a game perspective, it’s behind the scenes and in the locker room where his absence could be felt the most.
From the moment Udoka arrived in Boston last summer, he made it a point to challenge the team’s best players, All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, to improve. Udoka pushed the duo to become better playmakers and creators for others, and he wasn’t afraid to publicly say what he thought of the team’s play.
“It’s a lack of mental toughness to fight through these tough times,” Udoka said after Boston lost a 25-point lead to the New York Knicks in January. “A calming presence to slow it down and get us what we want is really what you need at this point. And sometimes we all get caught up in that.”
Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens address the decision to suspend Ime Udoka for the upcoming NBA season.
During the Celtics’ slow start, Udoka’s criticism was sometimes seen as prejudice. But Boston drastically changed its season in the second half of 2021-22, finishing the season 51-31, the best all-time record for a team that was under .500 halfway through. They became the first sub-.500 team midway through the season to reach the Finals since the Houston Rockets in 1981, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The combination of Udoka’s suspension and Hardy’s departure has left a void of experience on the Boston bench. Stevens has spent several very successful years in this role, but he has his hands full leading the team’s front office. Perhaps Boston will look to add a veteran assistant coach to provide insight as well.
But no matter what the Celtics choose to do, just weeks ago Boston was considered the winner of the offseason by a plurality of NBA coaches, scouts and executives.
Now the Celtics find themselves starting over on the eve of training camp. Not only are they reeling from the sudden loss of Udoka, but they also watched their best free agent signing, Danilo Gallinari, tear an ACL while playing for Italy in a qualifying game for the FIBA World Cup last month. Meanwhile, starting center Robert Williams III underwent surgery this week on the same knee that caused him problems throughout the 2022 playoffs.
As a result, a team that was considered one of the favorites to make the NBA Finals just weeks ago saw its offseason thrown into utter chaos just days before camp began. coaching.