Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens said Thursday that Joe Mazzulla will return next season, offering a strong endorsement of the 34-year-old first-year coach.
Last September, Mazzulla took over for Ime Udoka on an interim basis after Udoka was suspended for having an improper relationship with a subordinate team employee. In February, the Celtics parted ways with Udoka and Mazzulla was named full-time coach and received a contract extension.
He guided the Celtics to 57 regular-season wins — more than Stevens or Udoka ever did — and to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat, where the Celtics’ quest to become the first NBA team in 151 tries to overcome a 3-0 series deficit fell short.
“He’s a terrific leader,” Stevens said. “He’ll only get better at anything that he can learn from this year, because he’s constantly trying to learn. And he’s accountable. Those leadership qualities are hard to find. And I know they’re easy to talk about, but when you can show all those through the expectations and the microscope that he was under, that’s hard to do.
“Was he perfect? Would he like to have some moments back? Every coach would. Even the coaches nobody talks about would. We all that have coached know how hard that is. And at the same time, our players, our staff, everybody around him believe in him and we’ve got to do our best to support him going forward.”
According to a league source, the belief within the organization was that the Celtics fell short in Game 7 against the Heat because of unfortunate and uncontrollable setbacks. Star forward Jayson Tatum sprained his left ankle on the game’s opening possession, guard Malcolm Brogdon was playing through a forearm tear, and center Robert Williams was battling an illness that had kept him in bed all day Monday before the game.
Nevertheless, Mazzulla faced criticism over the course of the season. Among other things, he was often reluctant to call timeouts to stop opponents’ runs, he sometimes became overreliant on the 3-point shot, he benched key contributor Grant Williams during crucial playoff stretches, and players said the team veered away from the defense-first mentality that defined its Finals surge last year.
Mazzulla appeared to be on shaky ground when the Celtics fell behind the eighth-seeded Heat, 3-0, in the conference finals. But he stayed steady and helped guide the comeback, and even after the Game 7 setback at TD Garden, he got the support of his star players.
“I mean, it was his first year, we got to the conference finals Game 7,” Tatum said. “I don’t think people give him or us enough credit that, two days before the season starts, we find out we’re going to have a new coach. We didn’t have Rob the first 25-30 games of the season, we never got a chance to have [injured forward Danilo Gallinari], and we got a new coach one day before Media Day.
“You know, that was an adjustment. We all figured it out. Obviously, we wanted to win the championship. Didn’t happen. But I think Joe did a great job.”
Stevens said the Celtics would look to fortify Mazzulla’s staff with at least one coach with extensive NBA experience. Last June, lead assistant Will Hardy was hired to coach the Jazz, then Udoka was suspended in September, and assistant Damon Stoudamire was hired as Georgia Tech coach in March. The Celtics did not make an outside hire, instead filling those vacancies internally and leaving Mazzulla with a bench that was very short on experience.
“But the staff we had was good,” Stevens said. “And we did try [to hire replacements]. Losing Damon in March, we again tried. But those timings are tough for people to up and move or up and join a new team that they don’t know anything about or don’t know.
“But that was just to be supplemental, because we believed in the people that were here. So, moving forward, we’ll see how everything shakes itself out with what the staff looks like. But we’ll at least have one addition that we’ll make now that we have a summer to make it, and then we’ll go from there.”
Stevens, who coached the Celtics from 2013-21 before replacing Danny Ainge as president of basketball operations, added that Mazzulla should benefit from having an entire offseason to prepare for the upcoming challenges, too.
“I always needed a whole summer of planning, a whole summer of thinking and organizing thoughts and being able to catch yourself ready to emphasize what you want to emphasize on a daily basis,” he said. “There’s no question that will be a huge benefit.
“To do what they did in five days and get ready for the season and to start the season the way we did was a little bit more remarkable than people outside the building would have thought. I certainly was leaning on the leadership at that point. That was not an easy thing.”