It’s easy to forget that last year, the kitchen sink was thrown at Joe Mazzulla in a day’s time just before training camp started. In a matter of hours, he was elevated from assistant to interim head coach for the Boston Celtics, inherited a team that would lose its starting center indefinitely before the season started, and their prized addition, Danilo Gallinari, was expected to miss the season due to an ACL tear.
If that wasn’t enough, the Celtics went into the 2022-23 season planning to rest Al Horford on back-to-backs in the hopes of keeping him fresh. Out of the gate, they were relying on the likes of Luke Kornet, whose NBA career was hanging by a thread beforehand, Noah Vonleh, who had been out of the league for a year, and Blake Griffin, who seemed like a cooked product with the Nets, to fill the void.
It didn’t help that Mazzulla also had a coaching staff that lost Ime Udoka’s go-to guy in Will Hardy, another one of his right-hand men Damon Stoudamire who left mid-season, and multiple assistants who were going to amscray the moment Udoka got his next job. Mazzulla had some support on the sidelines, for sure, but less than he should have.
Still, the Celtics managed to grab a 2-seed and came within a Game 7 Jayson Tatum injury from potentially making their second consecutive NBA Finals. Among the growing pains he went through, Mazzulla fared pretty well for a rookie head coach who was not expected to become a head coach. Quin Snyder, Doc Rivers, and Erik Spoelstra all gave him “Welcome to the playoffs, rookie!” moments, but even still, Mazzulla showed it wasn’t too much for him. In short, Mazzulla definitely bent at times, but he did not break.
Sadly though, anytime Mazzulla’s name was mentioned regarding his job performance, more often than not, the diatribe of “he inherited a contender” came up. Even so, it’s fair to say that he had to learn on the fly, which is definitely not easy when coaching the reigning Eastern Conference champions. There were some bumps and bruises along the way, but Mazzulla deserved more credit than he got for how he weathered the storm.
This season, expectations will be different for Joe Mazzulla and the Boston Celtics
But last season was last season. Mazzulla previously deserved the benefit of the doubt because he was thrown to the wolves when he wasn’t supposed to, and at the very last second, no less. Now, he’ll enter training camp with familiarity on his Boston Celtics roster. Now he has assistants who are not only among the most experienced in the league but don’t have loyalty to another coach with Sam Cassell and Charles Lee. He now knows the ropes of being an NBA head coach. Or, at least, he should.
However, because there is no longer a learning curve, one could argue that more pressure is coming Mazzulla’s way. The Celtics just traded their longest-tenured player and starting point guard Marcus Smart, who many saw as the heart and soul of the Celtics. They replaced him with an all-star caliber player in Kristaps Porzingis with an injury rap sheet longer than he is. By extension, they also lost Grant Williams, who was widely liked in the Celtics’ locker room.
The Boston Celtics also have tax implications to think about. With Jaylen Brown’s next contract set to kick in circa 2024, they may have to cut salary to make room for his new deal without consequences. Dodging the second tax apron could mean that Malcolm Brogdon will be playing his last season with the Celtics. While Brogdon may not be among the C’s very best players, what he brings to the table can’t be easily replaced.
Speaking of closing windows, Al Horford will be 37 at the season’s start, and while he’s a miraculously still excellent player at and for his age, the Celtics were cautious with him last year, and the Porzingis trade signified that they’ll be even more cautious this year. Horford still being a productive player on the wrong side of 30 is impressive, but the Celtics have made it clear that they know the clock is ticking with him.
Between the Boston Celtics having to sturdy themselves without Smart, the prospect of Brogdon getting traded next year, and Horford’s playing days winding down, the pressure will be on Mazzulla to orchestrate a championship run. He’s proven that he can run a club with the lofty expectations the Celtics did. He now has to prove he can get them over that hump while they still have what they have.