Will wildest NBA coaching cycle in recent memory include Celtics' Joe Mazzulla?
This is not a standard offseason in the NBA coaching world. Maybe it will mark a true turning point, an era with player salaries soaring so high, the adage of “easier to change the coach” than overhaul a roster reaches new limits. But this rare number of high-profile jobs to lead win-now situations in Phoenix, Milwaukee and Philadelphia has stalled plenty of personnel movement around the league, before factoring in two interesting vacancies in Toronto and Detroit. Not to mention Houston already tapping Ime Udoka as its next bench leader.
It has become so normal for coaches to wear the brunt of failed postseason expectations, with former champions getting axed from the franchises they brought to the promised land so recently, that Boston’s collapse and 3-0 series deficit against Miami in the Eastern Conference finals has sparked plenty of speculation about the future of Celtics rookie head coach Joe Mazzulla.
Boston staffers have shown unwavering support for Mazzulla, a personal favorite of Celtics president Brad Stevens who leap-frogged from behind Udoka’s bench to the first chair after Boston suspended Udoka for the entire 2022-23 season. The sentiment around Boston as recently as last week’s NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, sources said, was that the Celtics would afford Mazzulla, 34, quite a bit of runway to grow into an elevated role on the team’s sideline. Stevens himself was 36 when Danny Ainge anointed the former Butler head coach as Boston’s steward, to the tune of a six-year contract that awarded Stevens all the support and opportunity to develop. If the Celtics suddenly reversed course on Mazzulla, it would be a stark change of direction from the franchise’s original intent to allow Mazzulla similar time to flourish in the position, sources said, even considering Boston’s contending roster as opposed to the rebuild Stevens once inherited.
A nearing conclusion to the Celtics’ season should prompt at least some level of coaching change. Boston has been connected to two former head coaches in Frank Vogel and Stephen Silas as veteran additions to its staff, sources told Yahoo Sports. Several people involved in building Udoka’s bench in Houston have indicated multiple high-ranking Boston assistants could join the Rockets at year’s end. Nets assistant Royal Ivey recently agreed to leave Brooklyn and team with Udoka following a shared season together at Barclays Center.
At this rate, Milwaukee could be the next team to finalize its coaching search, as the Pistons have yet to determine their play-caller despite three known finalists in Bucks assistant Charles Lee, Pelicans assistant Jarron Collins and former Overtime Elite head coach Kevin Ollie all meeting Detroit owner Tom Gores in Los Angeles two weeks ago. Lee was also a candidate in Milwaukee. However, the Bucks narrowed their coaching search over the weekend, league sources told Yahoo Sports, identifying former Raptors head coach Nick Nurse and Toronto assistant Adrian Griffin, as well as Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson as the last three names under consideration.
Milwaukee general manager Jon Horst expressed a strong commitment to chasing another banner behind Giannis Antetokounmpo during first-round interviews with over a dozen candidates, sources said. With the futures of Brook Lopez and Kris Middleton unsettled as both key starters approach what’s expected to be lucrative trips into unrestricted free agency, plus Jrue Holiday only having two years remaining on his own pricey contract, the stakes are as high as can be with this decision. That’s led several people with knowledge of the search to suggest it's unlikely Griffin’s first opportunity to lead an NBA team will come in Milwaukee at this juncture, although he certainly impressed Bucks leadership so far in this process.
Nurse presents the championship background the Bucks so clearly desire. It will be interesting if Milwaukee’s accelerated search — expected to conclude this week, per sources — will impact those in Philadelphia and Phoenix, where Nurse is also a primary candidate. The Sixers’ interview process is now underway, sources said, led by president Daryl Morey and general manager Elton Brand, but it is still too premature to determine any true favorite to fill the vacancy. Phoenix’s attempt to replace Monty Williams has been the quietest of the league’s undetermined coaching situations, although former Sixers head coach Doc Rivers is expected to receive consideration from Phoenix’s new regime under owner Mat Ishbia, sources said. Kevin Durant is a known fan of Nurse’s tact. Former Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, meanwhile, is not seen as a likely candidate for the Suns, sources said, while he’s among the six names Philadelphia is considering for its position.
Atkinson would bring another compelling outcome to Milwaukee’s search for a Bud replacement. Having built a strong reputation for player development during his tenure as Brooklyn Nets head coach and serving in Golden State for the past two seasons, Atkinson did spend four years as an assistant to Budenholzer from 2012-16 in Atlanta. Much of the reasoning behind Milwaukee firing Budenholzer was the hope of finding a new voice for Antetokounmpo and the rest of the Bucks’ locker room. Atkinson could introduce a different character to familiar schemes for Milwaukee and perhaps allow several Bucks coaches to remain on the staff, albeit in not the most conventional deviation from a previous head coach.
Many around the league expected Williams would draw strong consideration from Milwaukee after he was terminated in Phoenix, and there were numerous figures in the NBA’s coaching ranks who expressed surprise at his absence from the Bucks’ final group. Williams was also recently pursued by Detroit for the Pistons’ job, sources said, which must have factored into a slowed result between Lee, Collins and Ollie. At this moment, it appears Williams is more likely to take the next season off, with three years and $21 million remaining on his Suns deal, than to return to the sidelines in a new situation.
The Raptors’ slow search has involved bringing back several candidates for second interviews, sources said, including Kings assistant Jordi Fernandez and Grizzlies assistant Darko Rajaković. Much of the Raptors’ initial meetings have taken place over Zoom, while Toronto sent president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster to visit former Raptors assistant Sergio Scariolo in Italy, sources told Yahoo Sports, where he currently serves as the head coach for Virtus Bologna. Atkinson is another name to monitor in the Raptors’ decision-making, sources said.
Toronto is not afraid to make an unconventional hire. The Raptors have already met with former player and current broadcaster JJ Redick and interviewed former Nets head coach and two-time MVP Steve Nash last week during the combine, sources said. While it’s unclear how seriously Nash will be involved in the Raptors’ process moving forward, multiple people familiar with the Hall of Fame point guard have indicated Nash is determined to learn from his shortcomings in Brooklyn, with a strong desire for another opportunity to lead an NBA bench in the future.