Coaching in the NBA is a fickle thing, especially when it comes to assistant coaches. They are simultaneously very important, but also a bit overblown by the media. You can have the best assistant coach bench ever seen, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the players to execute.
However, when your team has title expectations and you’re employing a second year head coach, the right staff can go a long, long way. Coming off last season, the Celtics front office had the same thought: get the right coaches in and this team could go up another level. So, the Celtics went out and hired two of the best, Charles Lee and Sam Cassell. Not only are they two of the best assistant coaches in basketball, but both are right on the brink of head coaching jobs themselves.
What exactly do they bring to the table? Assistant coaching isn’t well-described in the media, so let’s try and do our best to break down what exactly Lee and Cassell are doing here.
Charles Lee | Hawks 2014-2018, Bucks 2018-2023
“His responsibility is to babysit me,” said Joe Mazzulla. “He’s worked for one of the best coaches in the last 20 years of the NBA. He’s been an NBA champion. He’s had NBA (head coaching) interviews. And just his humility and his approach to the game is a no-brainer to have on this staff.”
Charles Lee has become a big name in the NBA coaching world over the past 3-4 years. His career has extended much further than that, but ever since Milwaukee won the title, Lee’s stature around the league has taken off as the right-hand man to Mike Budenholzer in his two major stops as an NBA head coach. His best skills are his optimism and his ability to raise the level of perimeter scorers.
““He’s always positive,” said Blaine Mueller, who worked alongside Lee on the Bucks coaching staff from 2018 to 2023 and is now head coach with the Celtics G League team in Maine. “Always optimistic. Like, he’s completely undeterred by anything going on. It doesn’t matter the stage of the season, won fifteen in a row, lost five in a row. He’s going to come in with a positive spirit attitude and approach. It’s just contagious, his enthusiasm for life in general but also the game and working.”
This kind of attitude can be huge for any team, but for Boston, it could be a game changer. That role of motivator was taken by Damon Stoudamire over the last two years and his absence towards the end of last season clearly left an impact on the team.
But, that’s off-the-court stuff, what does Lee do on the court that makes him so special? It comes down to two main things: in-game tactician work and perimeter player development.
Starting with the latter, Lee deserves a ton of credit for helping develop multiple perimeter players in Milwaukee. He has publicly received credit from both Khris Middleton and Grayson Allen for his work with them and is well-known around the NBA for his engaging and creative workouts. This could go a long way toward helping guys like Payton Pritchard, Sam Hauser, and Jordan Walsh take the next step as wing and perimeter players. In-game, his tactician work is what has started getting him interviews for major head coaching jobs, including the Celtics back in 2021. He’ll bring an experienced eye to Mazzulla’s bench and might have a few tricks up his sleeve to help Boston get over the hump.
Sam Cassell | Wizards 2009-2014, Clippers 2014-2020, 76ers 2020-2023
“He talks more than anybody I ever met in my life,” said Jayson Tatum. “But Sam is a great guy. Full of energy every day, and he also has a ton of stories.”
There’s no need to explain who Sam Cassell is to Celtics fans. We knew him very well as a player and a person during his brief time in Boston, and in many ways, that is who he is as a coach. Loud, passionate, intelligent, self-aware, all the things that made him a great player have made him an elite assistant coach in the NBA.
Much of his work for the past decade has come under another Boston legend, Doc Rivers. Whether it was trying to get CP3, Blake Griffin, and Deandre Jordan over the hump or helping Joel Embiid and James Harden gel on the 76ers, Cassell has been in the middle of some very high-profile teams over the years. However, he’s still missing that title as a coach. That’s why he came back to Boston, he didn’t mince many words when speaking to Steve Bulpett of Heavy Sports.
“We’ve got a chance,” Cassell said of Boston’s title hopes this season. “You’ve got the talent here. You’ve got to have health and chemistry. They are ready. … You know, I saw how it looked when the Celtics won their last championship. I was a part of that team. And once we get that thing accomplished, it’s a beautiful thing to win a championship in Boston. It’s awesome to be back in The Bean, especially when you’ve won there before.”
What exactly does Cassell bring to the table as a coach? In many ways, he brings a lot of what Ime Udoka did: playing experience and relationship building. As a former starting NBA point guard, Cassell has seen it all. He knows what it takes to get the job done at the highest level and his ability to communicate that message to players has seen him have a coaching career spanning almost 15 years. Players such as John Wall, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and plenty of others have mentioned how Cassell's humor and personality help establish a culture in a locker room.
“I’m just very truthful with players, man,” Cassell said. “Sometimes they don’t like it, but I speak the truth. I speak to the game plan of the head coach, and I tell them what the head coach expects. Sometimes players try to be reluctant to take that, but I think I have a way that I can be 100% honest with a player without them taking it personally. And that’s a trait that I know I have.”
Cassell and Lee are two great additions to the Celtics bench, mostly because they bring different things to the table that will help Mazzulla. Cassell will help him build a culture in the locker room and keep the players focused on the game plan at hand. We know Mazzulla can come up with some brilliant ideas, but implementation and adjustments were an issue down the stretch for Boston and Cassell should help clean that up. Lee will bring a level of positivity and humbleness that will benefit everyone on the team off the court. Something players talked about missing last year, it could go a long way to this team winning a title. He’ll also be massive for Boston in constructing their defense and adjusting to teams throughout the season. He’s also been named Associate Head Coach, so his voice will ring loudly in the locker room this season.