After yet another dissapointing season’s end for the Boston Celtics, who again, failed to show up in the biggest game of the year, the time has come to have a difficult conversation.
There’s a head coaching issue that can’t go unnoticed and must be addressed this upcoming offseason in order to get the train back on track before the Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown-led Celtics officially miss their window. And like every other issue that’s hampered the Celtics ever since the Tatum-Brown duo was birthed in 2018, this one’s completely self-inflicted.
The first order of business: Joe Mazzulla.
Boston (prematurely) promoted the 34-year-old ex-assistant in order to rip his interim tag off midway through the season, which at first didn’t seem like the worst idea in the world, right? Mazzulla had the team invested. They we bulldozing through teams offensively, albeit not at all with the same level of defensive intensity that Ime Udoka had the C’s run the floor with. But much of that early on could be attributed to the absence of Robert Williams III — missed first 29 games recovering from a knee injury.
That excuse was all fair but quickly expired upon Williams’ return in December.
Mazzulla, a huge advocate for the always costly (for Boston) live by the three, die by the three method of burying hopes of Banner 18 seven feet below the ground, never kept that emphasis of defensive identity, and it haunted it. It relied heavily on the idea of dropping 120-plus points and blowing their opponents out, but instead were exploited for having no offensive structure, nobody to protect the glass, ultimately turning the C’s from a once-feared defensive juggernaut into a pack of pushovers.
Under Udoka, the Celtics recorded a league-best 106.2 defensive rating. Under Mazzulla, that fell to 110.6.
Boston’s downfall became inevitable despite the fact the Celtics flirted with the idea of making up for an inexcusable 3-0 deficit against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. We should’ve seen it coming from the very start.
Unlike the 2021-22 run under Udoka, the Celtics struggled with everyone in the playoffs. They first struggled to put the Atlanta Hawks away in Round 1, unlike their previous playoff hunt when the C’s demolished Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets to begin. The same issues — closing out, getting Tatum to attack and actually being a No. 1 and the team’s overall defensive response — were constantly harming them.
The Celtics abandoned what made them their best, with a slightly worse roster in terms of depth, a year ago, and paid the ultimate price.
“I think we’ve taken a few steps back, I think in these playoffs overall,” Malcolm Brogdon told reporters after the Celtics fell three games back to the Heat, per CLNS Media video. “It’s showing because we’re playing a very disciplined, consistent, well-coached team, but I think in the Atlanta series, I think in the Philly series, I think we got away with things that are now biting us.”
Mazzulla’s inexperience (excruciatingly) became more and more noticeable as the playoffs went on and the head-coaching test increased until it was far too much and far too late for the Celtics to escape.
So, what’s next?
Perhaps it’s time for Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens and the front office to be honest and recognize that Mazzulla needs a mentor-like assistant. As much as you can argue that Mazzulla was thrown into the fire early (which he was), he’s still been with the organization for four previous seasons. He never fully earned his stripes, nor did he ever hold the Celtics accountable. Udoka did. The uncomfortable truth with Mazzulla is he’s not ready, and that’s fine. He needs someone with more experience, and reports of three assistants under his staff ready to bail and join Udoka with the Houston Rockets is a troubling development less than 48 hours after the season ended in Game 7.
Mazzulla’s current contract — worth $14 million, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic — likely dismisses the idea the Celtics would outright fire him, not to mention it’d be a bad look on their part too. But with plenty of veteran (and much more proven) head coaches on the market, maybe bringing one in could pay off on the last day of the season.
There are also plenty of soon-to-be vacant spots in the assistant coaching seats anyways.