Joe Mazzulla is the guy now, right? Right, guys? Guys?
I’ve been on the record defending Mazzulla’s status as The Guy™ since the moment the Celtics were eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals for the millionth time in the last decade. And what is the crux of that super-sophisticated defense?
It feels right.
I know, I know. This is the kind of high level basketball analysis you come here for. But I truly believe the feel of a coach is more important than objective basketball numbers. Let me explain.
Here are the general phases of Joe Mazzulla-analysis this summer:
1. Emotionally potent oversimplification: “Joe doesn’t have it! He’s a deer in the headlights, and Spoelstra is the car! Panic panic panic pan…”
2. Rational return to earth: “Look, the guy had like a week to prepare with no staff whatsoever. The team was shell shocked from the Udoka thing, and the Miami team ate that weakness for breakfast. Give him a break.”
3. Anxiety-fueled reignition of anger: “What if Joe was the third assistant for a reason?! Surely we could have hired a first assistant… or at least a second assistant! What if he doesn’t have it?! What if we never win? Then Tatum is going to want out and the Smart trade will be for nothing and my life will be meaningless and I’ll have to watch the Patriots and Red So—(passes out from shock)”
4. Wait-and-see mode: “Joe’s the coach. No time to turn back now. This roster is juiced, and now it’s time to put up or shut up.”
So, here we are.
Trying to evaluate Mazzulla objectively is a fool’s errand. On paper, his rookie season somehow looks amazing, terrible, and makes total sense all at the same time. What?
Objectively, the Celtics did very well last season. But also objectively, they did not live up to expectations and were defeated by an inferior opponent. And also objectively, the circumstances of his ascent were hardly pleasant, so it all kind of makes sense.
With Ime Udoka’s suspension unilaterally screwing over all involved parties, Mazzulla — the next man up on a staff that had lost both top assistants Will Hardy and Damon Stoudamire — was thrust into a role many spend an entire career preparing for.
So left completely unsatisfied by objectivity, I’m forced to switch to vibes-based analysis mode. (Cracks knuckles)
This offseason, Mazzulla experienced something I like to call the Jaylen Brown Phenomenon. It’s a rare basketball condition in which someone is incredibly good at their job by all available metrics. However, despite their success, their value is nevertheless questioned.
Jaylen had an incredible 2022-2023 season, earning his first All-NBA selection while adding even more to his already dynamic game. Even so, real people with real platforms questioned if it was a good idea to pay him the most money in NBA history. To some people, the vibes were just off.
The same general narrative befell Mazzulla this offseason. With just over a week to prepare, he brought a Celtics team to a 57-win season and finished third in Coach of the Year voting. But none of that mattered, and after the Celtics fell down 3-0 to the Heat, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that Mazzulla would “pay the price” for the failure.
It was a public relations disaster. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor was saying that the team was “tired of fake-liking each other,” and everything pointed to an all-time bloodbath Game 4. Other reports said Mazzulla had lost the locker room, and it looked like the season would end even worse than it started.
But then they fought back. If the team wanted Mazzulla gone, the easiest thing ever would have been to mail-in Game 4 and point directly to their chosen scapegoat. But something clicked, and the team started to believe.
Mazzulla detractors would argue that the Celtics are too complete a team to be messing around with an inexperienced head coach. I would ask one follow-up question: what does this team need?
Let’s ask Joe himself.
Do we need…schematic innovation? Sure, and if nothing else, he’s shown an understanding that the Celtics will have to change to survive.
“You can’t just have a fastball,” Mazzulla said at Media Day. “Some of the lineups that we throw out there at certain times will give us curveballs that we need.”
But that’s not the missing piece. What about good substitution patterns? Surely we need that, and Mazzulla appears committed to a flexible and dynamic lineup.
“We have eight, nine starters,” Mazzulla said of the lineup flexibility he sees. “I almost thought about starting someone [on Sunday] way off the bat just to throw you guys off,” Mazzulla said. Coach has a dry sense of humor, too.
But even that isn’t the missing piece. That’s all the bare minimum of NBA coaching, and it seems Mazzulla is all over that. But what can he provide that will push this team over the top and I mean the tippy-top?
The greatest service a coach could give to his team is fostering a culture of certainty. It’s the perfect state of basketball-consciousness above normal confidence but just below self-destructive arrogance. Once a team achieves certainty, they become almost unstoppable.
The offense clicks and guys cover each other’s weaknesses. Miami was certain of who they were, and managed to produce one of the most statistically outlandish performances in NBA history to sink the C’s. But how can Mazzulla get the Celtics there?
By all accounts, Mazzulla is an incredibly introspective guy, sometimes manifesting in unusual ways. He once said he watches “The Town” four times a week (which is a great movie but like, come on) and reportedly sleeps with his mouth taped shut. He’s also a spiritual guy, devoted to relentless self-improvement.
Mazzulla has also been trumpeting the theory of “tribal leadership,” bringing a uniquely collaborative and personal approach to staff and team organization. If you’ve heard that term before, it’s because Phil Jackson brought the same ideas to his teams, and he has a three-peat of three-peats.
All of this makes Mazzulla a culture unto himself, and I truly believe it’s a culture the Celtics want to have. Maybe Udoka made the team play defense, and gave the guys stronger jaws, but Mazzulla can bring the culture that can elevate them above what we can all imagine.
Maybe you still see Joe Mazzulla as the Celtics’ biggest question mark, but I think he’s the answer. Thanks for attending my TED Talk.
(Guy in the back): Ahem, the “answer” to what, smart guy? You can’t just make a proper noun the “answer” to no secondary subject, idiot. Unless you’re merely using “answer” as a rhetorical device to modify an implied imaginary question, a bit like how Allen Iverson was the answer to the 76ers’ years of questions, though the latter portion was omitted for poetic effect. Did you even GO to high school English class, huh smart guy?
Thanks, guy in the back. Thanks a bunch.