Joe Mazzulla addressed the media for the first time since the Celtics’ disappointing end of the season with the same tone and demeanor he carried throughout his first NBA season as coach.
He is hoping that experience and the addition of Kristaps Porzingis can make his second season more successful. After Porzingis was introduced Thursday at the Auerbach Center, Mazzulla covered a variety of topics, including the trade of Marcus Smart to the Grizzlies, a deal that will reverberate throughout the organization for months, if not years.
“I think it’s tough; I was able to talk to him after and just told him I loved him and appreciate who he is as a person,” Mazzulla said. “You’re never going to replace a guy like him, everything he’s done on the court, what he’s done for his teammates and what he’s done in the community and the city of Boston.
“It’s kind of how the business goes. I appreciate how he handled it and he’s going to do great things in Memphis.”
Smart also left a major leadership void. Jaylen Brown, who is expected to sign a contract extension, and Jayson Tatum will have to enhance their leadership roles. Porzingis, 27 and entering his ninth NBA season, said he is capable of assuming leadership.
“Any time you lose something, it’s an opportunity for others to grow in those areas,” Mazzulla said. “I think it’s just a good opportunity for our roster now to develop that identity and grow as far as their communication, but some of the things [Smart] is able to do, you’re not going to replace. It’s a matter of the guys that are on our team, how can we maximize them and get the best out of them.”
Porzingis brings a needed element to the front court, the ability to score from the 3-point line and midrange. Mazzulla now has the luxury of blending veteran Al Horford and defensive ace Robert Williams with Porzingis to fortify the paint presence.
“It just means we have a guy that can play complementary, you can play them both, so the pairing works well,” Mazzulla said. “It just continues to help us on our identity on both ends of the floor.”
Mazzulla endured a rocky first season after taking over for Ime Udoka. Assistant coach Damon Stoudamire departed midseason to take the Georgia Tech job and a handful of Mazzulla’s staff were connected with Udoka. Three key assistants, including Ben Sullivan and Aaron Miles, left the club.
The Celtics replaced them with former Celtics guard and longtime assistant Sam Cassell and ex-Milwaukee top assistant Charles Lee, giving Mazzulla a more experienced and connected staff for Year Two.
“It was who could we get that fits who has great experience, who’s been around the NBA and brought different mind-sets and done it in different ways so that can expand our staff and constantly learn how to [figure out] what’s good and what doesn’t work and what complements our team,” Mazzulla said. “We think the guys that we added do that because of where they’ve been and we’re excited about that.”
Mazzulla said he’s had plenty of time to reflect on a season that included 57 wins, the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, a run to the conference finals, but a crushing Game 7 defeat by Miami at home. The Celtics lost six postseason games at home.
“I’ve had a lot of time to be able to [reflect] on that and I think you have to figure out what we did well and then where we can get better,” he said. “We did a lot of good things. We want to find the small areas where we can get better.
“Whether I do this for one more year or 15 more years, I’m going to learn something every single offseason so continuing to have the open mind that you’re constantly learning and how you can get better from the past.”
After the Celtics lost to the Heat, the Nuggets used a rugged and effective style to beat Miami in five games despite struggling from the 3-point line. The Celtics struggled offensively during the playoffs, especially when 3-pointers weren’t falling. Mazzulla said the team will attempt to take that next step toward consistency.
“It’s really hard [to win a championship] and only one team can do it,” he said. “It’s a matter of we have to continue to chip away at it. I don’t think it’s necessarily one way to do it. Last year in the regular season I thought we were a well-balanced team on both ends of the floor. And in the playoffs we were just a little inconsistent on both ends throughout.
“I think it’s just a matter of how we can maintain a level of focus, a level of consistency on both ends and how do we have that competitive nature regardless.”