There are four NBA coaches in their 30s and none face as much pressure and scrutiny as Joe Mazzulla, who has been expected to continue the Celtics’ quest to return to the NBA Finals after surprisingly taking over for the suspended and eventually dismissed Ime Udoka.
Mazzulla catapulted the Celtics to the NBA’s top record for most of the season, but has been presented with his first significant adversity as a head coach of late. The Celtics are 1-4 in the past five games with three consecutive losses in games they led by at least 14 points.
The criticism of Mazzulla is increasing.
Is he truly prepared to lead the Celtics to their first championship in 15 years? Is his inexperience, especially against veteran coaches, being exposed during these late-season matchups?
Is Mazzulla really the right man for this job?
He hears those questions. He withstands the criticism. He admits his faults, such as not playing Derrick White down the stretch in Sunday’s double-overtime loss to the New York Knicks. He calls timeouts more consistently. But he is also extremely confident in his abilities and philosophy, and is stubborn, perhaps to a fault.
But Mazzulla knows he has a special opportunity this season, one that if he fails to execute will mean increased scrutiny about the organization’s decision to name him full-time coach.
What’s complicated about the situation is Mazzulla is just 34 and a first-time coach. First-time anythings make mistakes, they learn with experience, they are given grace. Mazzulla is not presented with such grace because the stakes are so high.
“No. 1, whether I coach for one year or 20 years, I’m still going to make mistakes in Year 20, so it’s not really whether I’m a first-time head coach,” Mazzulla said. “People have been coaching a long time, they get a pass for the mistakes that they make. And young guys don’t.
“I have to be a continuous learner, no matter how long I coach in this game, and like I said before, no one will put more pressure and expectations than I put on myself and our team and the guys put on themselves.”
But this is no ordinary NBA job. Mazzulla’s friend and colleague Will Hardy beat him out for the Utah job and while Hardy is doing a sparkling job leading the rebuilding Jazz into playoff contention, there is considerably less pressure. Hardy has time to build the Jazz. He is coaching a roster that will constantly be reshaped by boss Danny Ainge. Hardy’s job is to develop the young talent and compete on a nightly basis.
Mazzulla’s job is to win a championship.
“The coach for the Celtics, the No. 1 goal is to win and if you don’t do it, then that’s my fault,” Mazzulla said. “And that’s how you have to approach every day.”
So excuse Mazzulla if he approaches this job with seriousness and vigor, if he isn’t as chatty or amicable with the media as he could be. Mazzulla may deflect the pressure of being the Boston Celtics head coach, but he definitely feels it.
The Celtics are 45-21 and in second place in the East, and there are fans that want management to offer a reprieve and forgiveness to Udoka and bring him back. With every loss, every blown lead, the uncertainty builds and questions arise. Did the Celtics make the right decision? Is Mazzulla capable of coaching against some of the game’s elite in the postseason?
It’s not that the organization doubts its decision, but a couple of wins would ease tensions on the outside.
“I’m making some of the same mistakes and I’m not making some of them,” Mazzulla said when asked to assess his growth since October. “And I think you’re constantly going to grow. All coaches make two or three mistakes every game that you can go back and say, I wish we could do this and trying to learn through those and trying to control those.
“I feel like my identity is there. I feel like us and the team are connected as to what’s the most important thing, the mind-set that we need to have, and it’s just a matter of continuing to build those habits and that continuity in that.”
Cleveland Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who is 43 years old and on his third head coaching job, said being a 30-something head coach is difficult and the internal pressure is the biggest challenge. At age 36, Bickerstaff took over for the fired Kevin McHale 11 games into the 2015-16 season and pushed the James Harden-led Houston Rockets to a 37-34 record before being replaced after the season by Mike D’Antoni.
“It was miserable, to be honest with you,” Bickerstaff said of his first coaching job. “Because you put so much pressure on yourself to try to figure out whatever’s gone wrong. There’s a pressure you put on yourself to fix it and then there’s the pressure you put on yourself to do a good job. It’s just not sustainable. It’s extremely difficult to get through until you get your feet wet a little bit and then you can take a step back. You’re just one piece of the puzzle, you’ve got to do your job with 15 guys, your front office, your ownership to make something that’s sustainable.
“The more time you have, you get a better understanding of it.”
Mazzulla inherited an unfortunate situation when Udoka was suspended for an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. And he has fueled the Celtics to be one of the elite teams in the NBA and earned the right to be a head coach in the All-Star Game.
It’s been a remarkable run, but it’s far from over. The adjustments Mazzulla makes over the next several weeks could determine whether this season was a success or whether the doubts will carry over to next season.