The Boston Celtics will have an interim head coach this upcoming NBA season, and everyone outside of the Northeast might be wondering:
Who is Joe Mazzulla?
Mazzulla was elevated from assistant to interim head coach of the reigning Eastern Conference champions after Celtics coach Ime Udoka was suspended for the entire 2022-23 season for having an intimate relationship with a member of the franchise’s staff.
The move continues Mazzulla’s meteoric rise within basketball coaching circles. In three years, he has gone from being a Division II coach to leading a team projected to have 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 and Information Research. (That year, when the New Jersey Nets — who had made the Finals the previous two seasons — fired head coach Byron Scott, Frank took over in the interim.)
He became the franchise’s player-coach at age 32 in 1966-67, the youngest since the late Celtics legend Bill Russell to start a season.
Mazzulla and Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy — who was Udoka’s top assistant last season and was hired over the summer by former Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to replace Quin Snyder — are now the youngest head coaches. In the NBA.
However, the two of them couldn’t have had different expectations going into the season. Shortly after hiring Hardy, Ainge traded Rudy Gobert and then Donovan Mitchell, sending the Jazz into a complete rebuild as a result.
Mazzulla, meanwhile, magically takes a championship contender to the finals — and does so with two years of head coaching experience (at a small college) under his belt.
Here’s a look at the young coach’s past experience, along with the task ahead of him this season:
Mazzulla’s Path to the NBA
Mazzulla made his name by playing in 145 games for West Virginia from 2006 to 2011, first with John Beilein and then Bob Huggins.
He was arrested twice in West Virginia. Once, in 2008, he pleaded guilty and paid fines to underage drinking and aggravated assault, and then in 2009 to domestic battery after an incident at a bar, which was settled out of court.
After college, Mazzulla spent five years as an assistant coach at Division II ranked Glenville State from 2011 to 2013 and from 2013 to 2016 at Fairmont State, located about 20 miles southwest of Morgantown, West Virginia.
Massoullah, from Warwick, Rhode Island, had the Celtics high on him for quite some time. They initially 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.
Following his one season in the G League, Mazzulla returned to Fairmont State as its head coach in 2017, going 43-17 over two seasons before coming to the Celtics in 2019.
Mazzulla was on the Celtics staff when Udoka came aboard in June 2021.
“He’s a consensus guy, yes,” Udoka said the day before Game 6 of the NBA Finals in June. “It’s somebody [the players] Everyone worked closely with, trusted and understood his signature.”
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Mazzulla was a finalist for the Jazz coaching job this summer — a position that last went to Udoka’s best assistant, Hardy, 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 emotional it was [he is] About guys and his craft. He is very knowledgeable, detailed, and just plain vocal. Very comfortable in his role as coach. You’ve seen his growth since his first year.
What lies ahead for Mazzulla and the Celtics?
It’s unclear how Mazzulla will approach the job. But while people will immediately think about what Udoka’s suspension means from a game perspective, it’s behind the scenes, and in the locker room, his absence will be sorely felt.
Since Udoka arrived in Boston last summer, he has challenged the team’s best players, All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, to improve. Udoka made both great playmakers and creators for others, and he wasn’t afraid to publicly say how he felt about the team’s play.
“It’s a lack of mental strength to struggle through those adverse times,” Udoka said after Boston blew a 25-point lead to the New York Knicks in January. “A calm presence to slow it down and get to what we want is really what you need in those moments. Sometimes we all get caught up in that.”
Celtics co-owner Wik Kruisbeck and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens addressed the decision to suspend Ime Udoka for the upcoming NBA season.
During the Celtics’ slow start, Udoka’s criticism was sometimes seen as a detriment. But Boston turned its season around dramatically in the second half of 2021-22, finishing the season 51-31, the best record for a team that was under .500 at the half. According to ESPN Stats and Information, they became the first team under .500 to reach the Finals since the Houston Rockets in 1981.
The combination of Udoka’s suspension and Hardy’s departure left Boston with a void of experience on the bench. Stevens has spent several successful years in this role, but he also runs the team’s front office as a whole. Perhaps Boston would like to add a veteran assistant coach to provide some insight.
But regardless of what the Celtics choose to do, Boston was considered the winner of the offseason by many NBA coaches, scouts and executives just a few weeks ago.
Now, the Celtics find themselves starting before training camp. Not only were they reeling from the sudden loss of Udoka, but they also saw high-profile free agent signing Danilo Gallinari play for Italy during last month’s FIBA World Cup qualifiers. Meanwhile, starting center Robert Williams III underwent surgery this week on the same knee that will keep him in trouble throughout the 2022 playoffs.
As a result, a team that was considered one of the clear favorites to advance to the NBA Finals a few weeks ago has found itself thrown into complete disarray just days before training camp begins.