When it comes to getting a promotion, Joe Mazzulla got his in the worst possible circumstances. He didn't ask for it. He didn’t plan for it. But alas, he was given the keys to a basketball version of a Rolls Royce, with the only instruction to not crash it.
For the first few months of the season, everything seemed to be going perfectly. The Rolls Royce was in cruise control. Granted, Mazzulla had made some adjustments to the team that went to the NBA Finals last season, most notably switching their primary focus away from defense and onto becoming a free-flowing offensive team, implementing new actions and a new approach in how he wanted the Boston Celtics to go about getting buckets.
But for the most part, Mazzulla was just tweaking the blueprint left behind by Ime Udoka and, to a lesser extent, Brad Stevens. There’s a problem with dream starts, though, especially when you’re still wet behind the ears, and that’s the force with which adversity hits you when things inevitably enter choppier waters.
The Celtics are in the eye of a 1-5 storm right now, and the deep waters they find themselves in are the choppiest they’ve encountered for 12 months.
It’s kind of poetic in a twisted way. Last season, the Celtics endured a nightmare west coast road trip that became symbolic due to it being the turning point in their season, with things taking a sharp upward turn shortly after they returned home. This season, a nightmare west coast road trip threatens to become symbolic for all the wrong reasons.
Ok, I know some of this could be seen as hyperbolic and being a prisoner of the moment, and I’m aware that Mazzulla is just 32 games into his career as a head coach, but stick with me here.
Mazzulla is not Udoka. He is not ‘the can man’; instead, Mazzulla likes to talk of building sandcastles and taking principles from the game of soccer as tools to help inject some unpredictability into Boston’s style of play. But most importantly, Mazzulla is a player's coach. He governs via trust; he oversees a team of men by being as hands-off as possible. Or at least, that’s how it looks to the outside world.
The problem is Brad Stevens had a similar way of dealing with the team, leading to multiple players telling the media that they wanted to be coached hard.
Can we really say Mazzulla is coaching the Celtics hard?
Is allowing them to play through some mind-boggling slumps a form of tough love? Or is it the kindest message you can send a player, a message that you trust they can figure things out on their own, without your intervention? I’m sorry, but a refusal to call timeouts barely flew when the team was winning, so it most certainly doesn’t hold weight amidst a regression of sizeable proportions.
What the Celtics need right now is a genuine butt-whooping in a film session or a brutally honest meeting where everybody can pinpoint just what went wrong after their humbling by the Golden State Warriors on December 11.
“I’ll never forget. Damon (Stoudamire) told me, ‘every first-time head coach is going to have their oh s*** moment. And that moment, it has to come on your own time, not when somebody tells you,’” Ime Udoka told The Athletic’s Jayson Quick.
Mazzulla needs his oh s*** moment right now. No more Mr. Nice Guy.
By all means, protect your players in front of the media. Not much good can come by throwing guys under the proverbial bus. Yet, there’s no harm in holding the entire roster accountable when asked questions regarding the team’s shot selection or lack of effort.
Because, if we’re being honest right now, there have been multiple games over the last two weeks where the biggest thing missing was effort. No hustle, no desire, and most worryingly, no purpose.
“They played harder. They made shots. We did not make shots that we usually make tonight. But overall, I thought they gave more effort, and I think that’s the issue. It’s not the non-shot-making; it’s the effort. We’ll pick it up on Sunday, for sure…There are no excuses…We’re a veteran team, we’re trying to win a championship here, so there are no excuses. They outplayed us tonight,” Malcolm Brogdon said following the Celtics' December 16 loss to the Orlando Magic.
Purpose. Isn’t that what was driving Boston’s almost historic offense to begin the season? Weren’t they out there to send a message that they’d arrived? That the Celtics were the team to beat. That Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown had evolved to a level that no team in the league could even dream of containing them?
Brogdon said it best: the Celtics are trying to win a championship. Or at least, they were until Golden State neutered them. Since then, it seems like the Celtics are trying to avoid the big bully of the playground, and the best way of doing that is by not putting yourself in their path. That’s the only explanation I can come up with that offers a logical reason for being down 30 points to a rebuilding Indiana Pacers team halfway through a game.
Luckily, the Celtics came out in the second half and looked to be motivated and eager to redeem themselves. So, maybe Mazzulla finally began to lose his cool. Perhaps Damon Stoudamire or Ben Sullivan stepped forward and let the locker room have it.
We will never know.
What we do know is that the Celtics have one more game before they face the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas Day — a game everyone has had circled on their calendars since the turn of the season. Failure to at least turn up and leave it all on the line would be catastrophic for the Celtics' self-belief and confidence.
Joe Mazzulla didn’t ask for this job, but he got it. He didn’t ask for the pressures of leading a championship favorite, but they rest on his shoulders. And now, he might not want to show a sterner side of himself, but he has to. The Celtics wanted to be coached hard, and this is the perfect opportunity to stamp your mark, ruffle some feathers, and get the season back on track.
Make no mistake, Mazzulla is a good coach. He might even be a great coach. And while he didn’t ask to be the leading the Celtics this season, he did feel ready to lead an NBA team; otherwise, why would he have applied for the Utah Jazz position that ultimately ended up going to Will Hardy?
However, part of the job is setting the tone and holding your team accountable, whether you like it or not, and that’s a lesson Mazzulla is learning right now.