It’s becoming clearer to those outside the organization why the Celtics chose Joe Mazzulla to succeed Ime Udoka.
Not only is Mazzulla a rising coach and mastering in-game adjustments, he approaches the job with the kind of humility and respect it deserves. He treasures being the Celtics coach, being thrust into this opportunity suddenly and without warning.
He has taken advantage of the Celtics’ faith by leading the club to a 10-3 record, second-best in the NBA as it rides a six-game winning streak. The Celtics were down two starters and a key reserve and still found enough guile to pull away from the Pistons on Saturday in Detroit.
What’s beginning to become more of an issue is the “interim” tag on Mazzulla’s title, as if he is still holding a place for Udoka. It’s apparent Udoka is not going to return; the Celtics brass were fully comfortable allowing him to coach the Brooklyn Nets with no compensation.
The Udoka suspension makes matters complicated in terms of naming Mazzulla the permanent coach. It essentially closes the door on any return and contractually may be difficult for the Celtics to execute unless they negotiate a buyout with Udoka.
Mazzulla is making the decision easier and more difficult simultaneously. His success is ushering in a new Celtics era, one with a bright young coach who is only going to improve. It also makes it more difficult to even envision Udoka returning next season.
Eventually the Celtics and Udoka are going to need to break ties. Udoka’s potential transition to Brooklyn eased the process. The Celtics did not want to hinder Udoka’s opportunity to work despite the Nets being a division rival. And if they were so cooperative in the Nets’ quest to hire Udoka — until Brooklyn changed its mind — then the Celtics could take the same energy to work out a settlement in the coming weeks to ensure Mazzulla is permanently their coach.
“They’re really good players and good people,” Mazzulla said when asked if he was surprised about the 10-3 start. “I’m not surprised. The guys have done a good job of trusting each other, making the right plays. The cool thing about offense and basketball with me is you have to be able to make each other better.”
Mazzulla is learning from his early miscues. He’s learning how to call timeouts to preserve his players’ energy and stop opponents’ runs. He trusts his bench players to perform, such as Saturday in Detroit when the Celtics suited up 10 players because of injuries to Al Horford, Malcolm Brogdon and Jaylen Brown. Nine played extensive minutes in the 117-108 win.
There is trust established in the organization after an embarrassing incident with Udoka. Although there remains confusion amongst the players about what exactly led to Udoka’s suspension, the players have moved forward, off to the strong start they desired with Jayson Tatum playing like an MVP, Brown being a potent No. 2 scorer and the supporting cast all comfortable in their roles.
Mazzulla also moved Derrick White back to the bench after giving him a starting nod early. The switch allowed White to help boost the bench scoring as well and play in a complementary role, in which he is more comfortable. Sam Hauser has turned into the reliable 3-point shooter off the bench and can also rebound and make other plays.
The Celtics are meshing into a cohesive unit, taking the experience from last season’s slow start and then run to the NBA Finals to emerge as a contender for another deep playoff run. Mazzulla has been one of the main reasons for their success.
There are only two overtime losses to Cleveland and a poor performance in Chicago as glitches on the record. In an NBA where even the best teams register occasional clunkers, the Celtics have played really just one bad half this season, the second 24 minutes on the road against the Bulls.
The organization wanted to give Mazzulla the opportunity to coach without expectations. They have never publicly set guidelines for the 34-year-old to become the permanent head coach. But it was apparent from the moment management viewed the report from the law firm that investigated Udoka they no longer wanted him back.
So for the sake of both sides, it’s time for the Celtics to completely break ties with Udoka, allow him to seek another NBA job. There will eventually be interest in Udoka as a head coach, assistant coach, or even a scout until he can resuscitate his reputation.
And the Celtics can completely distance themselves from the Udoka era, allow Mazzulla the confidence and peace of mind of knowing this is his job indefinitely, and allow the team to ascend to one that can win title No. 18.
“I appreciate that relationship from a head coach,” Brown said of Mazzulla. “We all believe in Joe. I believe in Joe. I’m excited about the journey. There’s going to be challenges. We got a lot more to go. So we just gotta keep grinding, take care of the ball, play the right way, playing some defense and keep winning some games.”