The Boston Celtics have an interim head coach on the sidelines for the upcoming NBA season, and anyone outside of the Northeast might be asking:
Who is Joe Mazzulla?
After Celtics coach Ime Udoka was suspended for the entire 2022-23 season for having an intimate relationship with a female member of the franchise’s staff, Mazzulla was promoted from assistant to interim head coach of the defending Eastern Conference champion.
The move continues Mazzulla’s meteoric rise in basketball coaching circles. In three years, he has gone from coaching a Division II coach to leading the team with 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 last season since Lawrence Frank in 2003-04, according to an ESPN Stats & Information survey. (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’s also the youngest to start a season at the position since late Celtics legend Bill Russell, who became the franchise’s player-coach at age 32 in 1966-67.
Mazzulla and Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy, who was Udoka’s top assistant last season before former Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge hired him over the summer to replace Quin Snyder, is now tied for the title of youngest head coach. in the NBA.
However, the two seasons couldn’t have more different expectations. Shortly after hiring Hardy, Ainge traded Rudy Gobert and then Donovan Mitchell, resulting in a complete rebuild of the Jazz.
Mazzulla, meanwhile, takes over a championship contender on a magical path to the Finals — and does so with just two years of head coaching experience (at a small college).
Here is an overview of the young coach’s previous experience and the task that awaits him this season:
Mazzulla’s Road to the NBA
Mazzulla played 145 games for West Virginia from 2006 to 2011, first under John Beilein and then under Bob Huggins.
After graduating, Mazzulla spent five years as an assistant coach at Division II, from 2011-2013 at Glenville State and from 2013-2016 at Fairmont State, located about 20 miles southwest of Morgantown, West Virginia.
The Celtics had been on Mazzulla, from Warwick, Rhode Island, for some time. They originally brought him into the NBA orbit in 2016 when they hired him as an assistant with the Maine Red Claws of the G League. Two years later, then-Celtics head coach Brad Stevens hired Mazzulla.
After one season in the G League, Mazzulla returned as the head coach at Fairmont State in 2017, going 43-17 over two seasons before coming to the Celtics in 2019.
When Udoka came on board in June 2021, Mazzulla remained with the Celtics.
“He was a consensus guy, yes,” Udoka said the day before Game 6 of the NBA Finals in June. “Someone that [the players] everyone worked closely together, believed and understood his positive side.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Mazzulla was a finalist for the Jazz’s head coaching job this summer, a position that ultimately 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 say how passionate [he is] about guys and his craft. He has become much more aware, more detailed, just more vocal. More comfortable in his role as a coach. You’ve seen the growth since his first year.”
During his college years, Mazzulla was arrested twice — once in 2008 for underage drinking and aggravated assault, to which he pleaded guilty and paid a fine, and then in 2009 for domestic battery after an incident at a bar. a case that was settled out of court.
When asked at Friday’s news conference about the incidents and how they factored into the decision to make Mazzulla the team’s interim coach, Stevens said he looked into them thoroughly when he hired Mazzulla as a Celtics assistant in 2019.
“I’m a strong believer in the substance of Joe as a person,” Stevens said. “He’s been very open with me about how those moments affected him in every way, and it shows in the way he carries himself. It’s been there for a long time. We’ve had years to get to know him. . .
“He’ll be the first to tell you, he’s 110 percent responsible for it, and I’ll be the first to tell you, I believe in him.”
What’s next for Mazzulla and the Celtics?
It’s impossible to know how Mazzulla approaches this work. But if people are immediately wondering what Udoka’s suspension means from an in-game perspective, it’s behind the scenes and in the locker room where his absence has been most felt.
From the moment Udoka arrived in Boston last summer, he challenged the team’s best players, All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, to improve. Udoka pushed the duo to be better playmakers and creators for others, and he wasn’t afraid to publicly say how he felt about the team’s play.
“There’s no mental toughness to fight through these adverse times,” Udoka said after Boston blew a 25-point lead over the New York Knicks in January. “A calming presence to slow it down and get what we want is what you need in that moment. And sometimes we all get stuck in that.”
Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens talk about the decision to suspend Ime Udoka for the upcoming NBA season.
During the Celtics’ slow start, criticism of Udoka was seen as a detriment at times. But Boston made a dramatic turnaround in the second half of the 2021-22 season, finishing the season 51-31, the best record ever for a team that was under .500 at the halfway point. According to ESPN Stats & Information, they became the first sub-.500 team to reach the Finals halfway through a season since the 1981 Houston Rockets.
The combination of Udoka’s suspension and Hardy’s departure has left an experience void on Boston’s bench. Stevens spent several very successful years in that role, but has his hands full running the team’s front office. Boston may also want to add a veteran assistant coach to provide insight.
But regardless of what the Celtics decide to do, many NBA coaches, scouts and executives decided Boston was the winner of the offseason just a few weeks ago.
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 saw their top free agent, Danilo Gallinari, tear his ACL while playing for Italy last month during FIBA World Cup qualifying. Meanwhile, starting center Robert Williams III underwent surgery this week on the same knee that has plagued him throughout the 2022 playoffs.
As a result, a team that just a few weeks ago was considered one of the clear favorites to reach the NBA Finals, the season has fallen into complete chaos just days before the start of training camp.