It’s been a tumultuous offseason for the Boston Celtics. After a strong start, things quickly turned sour as it was revealed that Ime Udoka would be suspended for the entirety of the 2022-23 campaign.
In turn, Joe Mazzulla was appointed as the interim head coach of the Celtics. Mazzulla first joined the organization in 2016, when he became an assistant coach for the Maine Red Claws (now known as the Maine Celtics), and then re-joined the team as an assistant with the big club in 2019.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances of his change in role, the players all seem confident in his ability to lead. At Celtics Media Day, there was nothing but respect shown for Mazzulla. Superstar forward Jayson Tatum said that the players are prepared to help him just as much as he’s going to help them.
“I know how passionate he is about helping others,” Tatum said. “That’s really what he’s been, he’s been a great help to myself, to the other guys, to the team as a whole for the past few years that he’s been here. And he’s motivated. And I think, with the right intentions, and if you’re motivated, you’re going to be successful. We’re going to have to help him and he’s going to have to help us. We’re all in this together. And it’s not like he’s somebody new. It’s just the same guy we know in a different kind of position. Just kind of looking forward to playing basketball.”
"We're all in this together... it's the same guy we know, just in a different position."— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) September 26, 2022
Jayson Tatum talks about Joe Mazzulla stepping in as interim head coach pic.twitter.com/D1A0GJ0KpU
Tatum’s co-star, Jaylen Brown, shared a similar sentiment when it comes to Mazzulla. He said that Mazzulla is confident in him and doesn’t see a limit in regard to how good he can be as a player.
“I’m optimistic,” Brown revealed. “I believe in Joe. Joe believes in me. I don’t think he sees a limit on my game. He’s coming in excited.”
Mazzulla was promoted to Udoka’s lead assistant this offseason after Will Hardy accepted a job as the head coach of the Utah Jazz - a job Mazulla finished as a runner-up for. He was one of the only coaches retained from brad Stevens’ staff when Udoka took over, and now, he’ll be Boston’s third head coach in as many years.
Some of the team’s veterans had some high praise for Mazzulla as well. When asked about how much it helps to have someone the team is familiar with step in as the interim head coach, Marcus Smart showed an outpouring of appreciation.
“Helps tremendously,” Smart explained. “It would’ve been different if we had somebody new that we didn’t know that we had to build that connection with. Joe’s been here. He knows the scheme, he knows the players, so it makes it a bit easier.”
Smart said that the Udoka situation has “been hell” for the Celtics, as they “don’t really know anything” about the situation. But having someone like Mazzulla, who most players already have a connection with, will be a big help.
The team’s other headlining veteran, Al Horford, had a similar viewpoint when it came to Mazzulla. He said that the team is ready to rally behind him and that Mazzulla is someone that everyone respects immensely.
“As far as Joe goes, excited for him, excited for this opportunity,” Horford said. “He’s somebody that we all respect, and we’re going to be rallying behind him. We’re going to really put in the time and the work to get this done.”
Boston’s younger players are also looking forward to having Mazzulla as their head coach. Grant Williams, who enjoyed a breakout season with Boston last year, said that he’s a special person who is the most “capable person in the organization” for the job.
“We have a ship that is prepared to step up when things go down,” said Williams. “Joe is very, very important and special. He’s a man that I spent time with this summer, that I can just speak on how intense, and how charismatic he is, and how passionate he is. And that was as an assistant, so I’m even more excited of what he’s able to do as a head coach. I think he’s prepared, I think he has a great leadership of the guys, and I can speak that he’s the most capable person in the organization to take on that role. To fill that void or gap, so to say… I don’t think that anyone in this organization doesn’t respect Joe. He’s had that presence since he’s been a coach here.”
Payton Pritchard, another young player on the squad, added to Williams’ sentiments, noting that Mazzulla provides the team with a great mix of encouragement and understanding.
“I think he’s the right amount of pushing players but also understanding. I think he’s going to be great,” Pritchard said during his Media Day press conference.
At 34 years old, Mazzulla is one of the youngest coaches in the league, and he’ll have the unique opportunity of taking over a championship-caliber team fresh off of a run to the NBA Finals. But he’ll have the same group of guys as last year and then some (once the team gets fully healthy).
Seeing Mazzulla standing on the sidelines leading the team will take some getting used to, though. Even big man Robert Williams slipped up during his press conference, forgetting to refer to Mazzulla as “coach.”
“Us as a staff, as players, and organization, we trust Joe. Oh, my bad. Coach. We trust coach,” said Williams, laughing at his mistake. “I got a personal relationship with him for a while. We all in, man. We locked in. We’ve got a job to do, we’re trying to hoop.”
It’s clear that the players respect Mazzulla. Having their support will be crucial as he attempts to navigate the difficult road of being a first-time head coach under the current circumstances, especially in a city as unforgiving as Boston.