The real-life toll exacted from the actions that led to an unwanted and unanticipated Celtics coaching change stands paramount. But for a team with aspirations of redecorating the TD Garden rafters there’s real basketball fallout too from the suspension of coach Ime Udoka for improper conduct.
This situation has shattered the Celtics organization. The only person capable of picking up the on-court pieces is Brad Stevens. That’s why the president of basketball operations should have taken the reins as interim coach. A return to the Boston bench for Stevens would’ve provided stability and reliability during a tumultuous time. It would give a championship-or-bust team its best shot of reaching its potential.
Going Full Auerbach is how Stevens can best serve the Celtics right now. Instead, he passed the job to unproven assistant Joe Mazzulla.
Before he bumped upstairs following Danny Ainge’s murky departure, Stevens was viewed as one of the NBA’s brightest coaches. He received plaudits from legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. LeBron James praised his coaching prowess. His peers copped to copying his plays. He led the Celtics to three Eastern Conference finals.
However, his last three seasons were the Kyrie Irving Experience, the pandemic playoff bubble in Orlando, and a sour 36-36 slog of underachievement.
My view is Stevens left coaching more due to burnout than being tuned out. Remember the Celtics displayed many of the same frustrating flaws and shortcomings under Udoka until they pulled an Awaken 180.
Given the way the season ended — two wins short of the NBA title — it’s easy to forget that the Green were a team hovering around .500 for 61 percent of the regular season. They lost to the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 28 for a 25-25 mark. They posted a 26-6 record the rest of the regular season.
They lost to Golden State in the NBA Finals because Udoka still couldn’t get them to kick some of their old habits of overconfidence and flickering focus.
Now, the Celtics are going to turn this bull-headed bunch over to the 34-year-old Mazzulla. Good luck. New Mazz’s big move this season was supposed to be getting a big boy seat as a front-row assistant, not being the boss.
It’s like handing the keys to a Bugatti to a kid who just got his driver’s license. The Rhode Island native is set up to get none of the credit if a loaded team succeeds but a lot of blame if it falls short.
Stevens projected full confidence in Mazzulla but acknowledged the organization is putting him in a challenging spot.
“I believe in Joe’s leadership,” Stevens said. “This will be an unbelievable challenge, but I’m also really confident in the team and the coaching staff that is going to take the court on Tuesday. It’s not what we expected to have happen, but I’m very confident.”
Maybe Stevens is right, and Mazzulla is a wunderkind. Ainge thought enough of him to make him a finalist for the Utah Jazz job that went to another Celtics assistant, Will Hardy.
Mazzulla could be the second coming of Erik Spoelstra, dissed and doubted when Pat Riley tapped him to lead the Miami Heat’s Holy Trinity of James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.
Now, Spoelstra is a coaching household name.
But nothing Mazzulla saw in two seasons as head coach at Division 2 Fairmont State, or running the Celtics’ summer league team in 2021, prepared him for the pressure or scrutiny of leading this banner edition of the Celtics.
He’s going from being the coaching confidant to the guy the players will complain about if they don’t like their role or their playing time, a distinct possibility on a team with a passel of point guards and a need to pacify Marcus Smart.
This isn’t a vote of coaching no confidence in Mazzulla, Rhode Island basketball royalty. But there’s a reason that Celtics ownership admittedly discussed Stevens returning to the bench as a temporary tourniquet.
He’s the best man for the job.
Detractors might argue Stevens’s message waned last time, so why would players listen now? Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have matured and improved. They now see that team success is the pathway to individual acclaim.
But most importantly, Stevens wields a hammer he didn’t before. You tune him out, he can ship you out.
Plus, the front office is well-equipped to help him balance the basketball ops load if he coached. The Celtics have experienced front office lieutenants in vice president of basketball operations Mike Zarren and assistant GM Austin Ainge.
Let’s face it, though, being an NBA executive offers far better work-life balance and far less travel than being a head coach. It’s hard to go back.
“There are a lot of factors in play of why I wouldn’t necessarily even want to do that,” Stevens said of coaching. “But I do think that — and I’ve told Joe this — I’m going to be there for him without stepping on his toes as much as he needs.
“But he doesn’t need much. I believe in that strongly.”
NBA players don’t always get to play the role on a team they want to or that’s best for them. It’s the same for Stevens.
He might not want to coach again, but it would’ve been best for Boston. It would’ve allowed Mazzulla to be properly groomed to be the next coach since Udoka’s return feels about as likely as Rick Pitino’s.
Embroiled in a messy situation, the Celtics need a clean start and a spotless, question-free coach.
Mazzulla comes with his own behavior baggage — arrests during his college basketball days at West Virginia for aggravated assault on a police officer at a Pittsburgh Pirates game (he pleaded down to misdemeanor charges) and for an incident at a bar where he allegedly grabbed a woman’s neck.
Stevens is Mr. Clean. He projects a Midwestern milquetoast public persona that belies his fierce competitive core.
Stevens stated Mazzulla was the best choice “by a long shot.” That’s not true.
That guy was staring back at Stevens in the mirror.