Joe Mazzulla praised his assistant coaches all year for navigating the most difficult start to a season imaginable.
Damon Stoudamire and Ben Sullivan, among others, already stepped into larger roles in the offseason before an investigation began into head coach Ime Udoka led to his suspension days before training camp. Mazzulla assumed head coaching responsibilities and the team eventually fired Udoka. Nobody knew why outside of a brief statement and reports. The Celtics hired the assistant that remained from the Brad Stevens era.
“The staff deserves a ton of credit,” Mazzulla told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog in April. “At the beginning of the year when all this went down, they had a decision to make, were they going to buy in? Were they going to trust, blind trust? Were they going to be empowered and step up? I think everybody, including Damon at that time, just did a great job of understanding the circumstances and moving on.”
The suspension that ominously opened the season capped it on Monday, when multiple Celtics players mentioned the suspension and Mazzulla’s transition setting the tone for a difficult year. Players agreed not winning the championship will go down as a failure, but losing Udoka forced everyone to rally together in ways they finished the season proud of.
The fallout didn’t end that night though — as The Boston Globe reported Sullivan, assistant coach Aaron Miles and development coach Mike Moser will join Udoka’s Rockets staff.
Their departures will almost entirely empty Mazzulla’s bench and prepare him to make his first hires as Celtics head coach. Shams Charania reported Mazzulla would likely remain head coach after forcing Game 7 in the east finals, with the franchise focused on solidifying the spots Will Hardy and Stoudamire’s departures left on the bench. Mazzulla is signed for three-years, $14-million and the Celtics loved him throughout the regular season.
Players complaining about losing their defensive identity during the playoffs underscored some disconnect that Mazzulla admitted after Boston fell behind 0-3 to the Heat. That needs solving before Mazzulla, who legitimately innovated the team’s offense, can evolve.
“I give Joe my respect,” Brown said. “Tough situation to be in and took it head-on and ran with it. We had two rookie head coaches in the last two years, and Joe picking up for Ime as an interim interim starting off and progressing to being the head coach just fully took that challenge on and led us to this point, and that’s a tough position for a guy to be in and a tough position for a team to be in coming off of a Finals run, but we didn’t make any excuses and I’m not making any excuses now. We came up short, but I still give my respect to our coaching staff and that group we had on the floor.
Stephen Silas and Phil Pressey seem likely to land in that mix given their appearances at Boston’s facility and conversations with Celtics officials and players. Tony Dobbins, a Stevens hire in 2020, and D.J. MacLeay, a developmental coach that Udoka’s staff hired remain for now. Stevens will give his end-of-season press conference on Thursday.
Sullivan told Boston Sports Journal he stood 100% committed to the Celtics in our conversation in April, which followed Stoudamire’s departure to become Georgia Tech’s head coach. Houston then hired Udoka, who prepared to assess a combination of internal and external hires to round out his staff.
For Sullivan, who Udoka advocated for the Spurs to hire, the pull to remain loyal to his basketball mentor had to be strong. Derrick White and Grant Williams, who becomes a restricted free agent this summer, both benefited immensely from their work with Sullivan, a respected shooting coach.
“I love being here, I love the organization, love the team,” Sullivan said in April. “That doesn’t change. Who I worked for changed, but my goal and my outlook has stayed the same.”
Miles, who played with Udoka in the G-League, provided NBA and overseas playing experiences to the team. Miles, like Sullivan, hailed from Portland and spent previous seasons in player development roles with the Warriors.
Moser, who played and coached at Oregon, joined Udoka’s staff last summer before his suspension and spent most of the year working individually with Jayson Tatum. The total transformation of the Boston bench one year after Udoka, Hardy and Stoudamire led the Celtics into Game 1 of the NBA Finals sets up a critical summer for Mazzulla, who finished third in coach of the year voting before receiving plenty of playoff scrutiny.
Many coaches currently sit jobless around the NBA and Boston ultimately provides an opportunity to contribute to a team that likely begins next year as the east favorite. Reporting long linked Frank Vogel to the Celtics, and while he may prefer a head coaching position, he’s expected to lose the Phoenix race with Monty Williams and Charles Lee emerging as the favorites in Detroit.
That leaves the Raptors as the lone opening. Boston could allow Vogel to become a needed defensive coordinator and Mazzulla mentor while providing showcase for Vogel to land his next opportunity. He did not coach last year after the Lakers dismissed him and paid him through the end of the 2023 season. Vogel led LA to the 2020 NBA championship.
It seems impossible Doc Rivers would assume an assistant role at this point in his career despite his options similarly narrowing. The same goes for Mike Budenholzer, though their former assistants like Sam Cassell and Lee could could join the Celtics’ staff in powerful positions that could improve their status in the next cycle. J.J. Redick previously revealed that Mazzulla tried to hire him to Boston’s staff in December, Redick emerging as a surprising candidate for Toronto’s top job.
“(Mazzulla) was going to be pretty good, that’s been obvious for a long time,” Stevens told CelticsBlog/CLNS Media in April. “But he’s been consistent in his own approach, win or lose, he comes back and works the next day. He wants to grow, he wants to improve, he demands that of the team. He does a good job of picking what the emphasis needs to be in the big picture and also in those snippets of games where something is waning a little, he does a good job of figuring that out and making it a priority to improve ... (Mazzulla’s) been very consistent regardless of whether we’ve lost three in a row or won five in a row.”