Joe Mazzulla: The Coach with History on His Hands

“Intense”, “Intelligent”, even “Hilarious”. These are some of the words you most hear associated with Joe Mazzulla, the Boston Celtics head coach who is leading his team into this week’s NBA Finals. Of course, there is another word that often pops up when talking about the Rhode Island native – “young”. At 35 Mazzulla is the youngest coach to reach an NBA Finals since another Boston legend, Bill Russell (1969).

Much has been made of Mazzulla’s fast start to life as coach of an NBA team. He already holds the all-time record for the best winning percentage of any coach in NBA history (with over 150 games). On the eve of the NBA Finals, that record stands at .738 (121 wins, 43 losses). Unfortunately, the Boston fans won’t care too much about overall records should their team lose against Dallas. The Celtics are favorites in the NBA Finals odds – clear favorites, in fact – but fans will remember the slip-up against the Miami Heat last season. Mazzulla will be acutely aware that winning when it counts is more important than simply winning.

Influences across the coaching spectrum

As with all coaches, Mazzulla was not created in a vacuum. We can make comparisons with the likes of Brad Stevens, especially when it comes to defensive foundations; Gregg Popovich and Eric Spoelstra, too. There are also clear influences from Bob Huggins, for whom Mazzulla played for at West Virgina University.

Yet, there are also parallels outside of basketball. When you look closely at Mazzulla, you can’t help but see similar profiles to some of the top young European soccer coaches, particularly some of the German innovators like Julian Naglesmann. There is a growing trend in European soccer of taking chances on young, innovative coaches who are willing to rip up the rule book in everything from tactics to relationships with players.

Young coaches bring new ideas to the game

Mazzulla may not have even heard of Naglesmann or Will Still, but the similarities are there. Many of these young soccer coaches never shined as players – some of them had their careers cruelly ended by injury – and they threw everything into becoming ground-breaking coaches. That intensity, focus, and will to win is present in Mazzulla, even if the Celtics’ boss can be relaxed and jovial in front of the media.

Of course, it is much too soon to talk of Mazzulla as a ‘great’ coach. One might argue that he has been handed a ready-made team, among the favorites for the NBA Championship in both of his seasons in charge. Moreover, the defeat to the Miami Heat last season represents a fairly significant blotch on Mazzulla’s copybook. Celtics’ fans expected more. That will also be the case starting Thursday evening. Everything – the best record in NBA, home advantage, key players’ form – points to an NBA Championship going back to Beantown. But basketball doesn’t always work that way.

Dallas test will be perfect for Mazzulla

In a sense, the challenge from Dallas represents a perfect test of Mazzulla’s credentials. The Mavericks sparked into life in the latter half of the regular season, going 16-4 over the last 20 games. Mazzulla knows that his defense will have to neuter Luka Doncic. He will also have to make sure his players are psychologically equipped to handle their former team-mate, Kyrie Irving. Yet, there are the qualities that Mazzulla is noted for; he should revel in the challenge.

What happens after is anyone’s guess. Mazzulla has no guarantees. But he will have a little bit of history in his hands as he leads a well-fancied Boston team in search of an 18th Championship. The young coach looks like a star in the making. But the Boston fanbase is hungry for Championships, and they expect Mazzulla to deliver.


credit to Bleacher Report for the image