Joe Mazzulla started the season as an assistant coach. He then became interim head coach of the Boston Celtics, in a most unexpected way.
And now, the NBA’s youngest head coach is headed to the All-Star Game.
The 34-year-old Mazzulla and his Celtics staff of assistants will coach Team Giannis — the team that will be captained by Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo — in the Feb. 19 game at Salt Lake City. They clinched that chance on Monday night when Philadelphia lost to Orlando, an outcome that ensured Boston would have the leading record in the Eastern Conference at the close of play on Sunday.
Sunday is the cutoff for the league to determine All-Star coaches; the teams with the best records to that point get the right to send their coaching staffs to the game, provided they hadn’t had the job the year before. Denver’s Michael Malone is currently the front-runner to coach Team LeBron, the squad that will be captained by the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James.
“It definitely hasn’t been easy the whole time,” Mazzulla said last week when asked about the challenges of the season to this point. “But it’s been fun. It’s been rewarding.”
Mazzulla has the Celtics, the reigning Eastern Conference champions, off to an NBA-best record of 36-15 so far this season.
They haven’t missed a beat despite going through a tumultuous beginning of the year once Boston suspended coach Ime Udoka for the season; an investigation by an external law firm found Udoka committed multiple violations of team policies for what sources told The Associated Press involved an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the organization.
“You’ve just got to move on,” Celtics All-Star forward Jayson Tatum said. “Nobody’s going to feel bad for us. We’ve got games to play, we’ve got work to do. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t tough in the beginning with the injuries and obviously getting a new coach two days before the season started. But I think we did a great job of managing that and it’s showing.”
Mazzulla is believed to be the first interim coach in NBA history to have the All-Star coaching opportunity. He will coach the team that Antetokounmpo drafts shortly before the game; the captains, in a change this season, won’t pick their teams until game night in Salt Lake City.
Mazzulla is the first Celtics coach to get the All-Star nod since Brad Stevens — now the Celtics’ president of basketball operations — in 2017. He becomes the eighth Celtics coach to serve as an All-Star coach. Red Auerbach, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Doc Rivers, Chris Ford, Bill Fitch and Stevens are the others.
Mazzulla had been a Boston assistant for the last three years, and until this season his only head coaching experience was a two-year stint from 2017-19 at Division II Fairmont State in West Virginia.
But he’s made coaching the Celtics look easy.
“Overwhelming? No. Has it been hard? Yeah,” Mazzulla said. “Has there been moments where you’ve kind of had to trust, has there been moments of being uncomfortable? Absolutely. But it hasn’t been overwhelming, just because of the guys, the organization, the people that were here getting through it together.”