When Joe Mazzulla was announced as the Boston Celtics interim head coach in September, many had no idea who the 34-year-old was. But, I did. Back in 2008, his 13 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists performance in 31 minutes off the bench sent my Duke Blue Devils home in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. People are aware of who Mazzulla is now, as he’ll coach Team Giannis on Sunday at the 2023 NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City — making him the third first-year coach since 2000 to participate in the weekend’s big game.
And to make things even better, on Thursday, the Celtics stripped the interim tag from him and officially made him their 19th head coach in franchise history. “As he has shown, Joe is a very talented coach and leader,” said Brad Stevens, president of basketball operations. “He has a unique ability to galvanize a room around a mission. We are thankful for the work he has done to help get us to this point, and excited that he has agreed to lead us into the future.”
Beast of the East
The Celtics entered the All-Star break in first place in the Eastern Conference with a 42-17 record. At this point last season, under former head coach Ime Udoka, Boston was in sixth place at 34-26. They eventually caught fire as they blazed their way to the NBA Finals before blowing a 2-1 lead to the Golden State Warriors who eventually won it all in six games.
To fully understand why it’s so surprising that Mazzulla is doing so well in his first season, you have to go back to what was going on when it was announced that he was taking over — pandemonium. When ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that “Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka is facing possible disciplinary action – including a significant suspension – for an unspecified violation of organizational guidelines. Discussions are ongoing within the Celtics on a final determination” in September, nobody knew what that was as we had more questions than answers. What happened next was a public relations disaster by the Celtics that will be taught in colleges for years, as rumors ran rampant about who Udoka could have been involved with while the blowback on his family turned a sports story into a pop culture soap opera.
“It’s a lot going on,” Jaylen Brown said at the time.
“Literally no one knows anything right now,” added Marcus Smart.
Udoka was eventually suspended for the entire 2022-23 season for violating team policy in an alleged “consensual relationship” with a team staffer. No one knew what the Celtics were going to do with him after this season until Thursday’s announcement meant that Udoka was officially done in Boston.
Things are going well now in Boston under Mazzulla, as they have a shot to return to the NBA Finals and enter the weekend with two All-Stars on their roster, compared to one last season, in Jayson Tatum and Brown.
“It’s one of the best locker rooms I’ve been around,” said Blake Griffin, who joined the team this season and is less than a year younger than Mazzulla. “We had some really close teams in L.A., but this team is right there if not more. Everybody comes in with a purpose every day, everybody works really, really hard. Everybody genuinely cares and enjoys seeing another person succeed. We’ve managed to keep that throughout this season, throughout highs and lows.”
A few months ago, no one knew what the Celtics would look like as we found out that the leader of the locker room was doing inappropriate things behind closed doors. A few months later, Joe Mazzulla is hoping to leave Utah with a win on Sunday and a return trip to the NBA Finals in June.