Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens made beefing up the players coming off Boston's bench a priority last summer. This year, he’s wasted little time upgrading the assistant coaching staff sitting on it.
On the heels of news that the Celtics plan to bring in Sam Cassell to fill one vacancy on the bench, reports indicate Boston will also install Bucks associate head coach Charles Lee as Joe Mazzulla's lead assistant next season.
A new collective bargaining agreement might complicate Boston’s desires to preserve all of its talent on the court, but some like to joke that there is no salary cap for coaches. Coming off a disappointing playoff exit in Mazzulla's whirlwind first season as head coach, the Celtics are adding two giant scoops of veteran experience to further aid the head coach's development.
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The 38-year-old Lee has been an NBA assistant since 2014, spending a couple years with Al Horford and the Atlanta Hawks before joining Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee in 2018. Lee was part of the staff on the Bucks’ 2021 title team.
The Celtics' coaching staff saw numerous departures over the past 12 months, starting when Will Hardy got the head coaching job in Utah. Ime Udoka was suspended in September and later dismissed. His lead assistant, Damon Stoudamire, departed in March to take the head coaching job at Georgia Tech.
The Celtics were left with a bench thin on NBA experience, both on the court (Aaron Miles’ 19 games for Golden State in 2005 essentially was the group's only NBA playing time) and on the bench (though Ben Sullivan was part of that Bucks’ 2021 staff with Lee, too). Stevens said the team tried to hire an experienced coach before the 2022-23 season but the eve-of-training-camp suspension of Udoka complicated that process.
Stevens pledged earlier this month to add at least one veteran presence. He’s now added two in less than two weeks. Lee has been rumored as a candidate for just about every coaching vacancy over the past two years, including reports that Boston was interested in interviewing him before hiring Udoka.
It’s expected that Boston will lose some of its current staff as some of Udoka’s former assistants will join him in Houston.
How should Mazzulla feel about adding two lead assistants with head coaching aspirations? The hirings will invariably spark the suggestion that Boston has two potential options should the team struggle at any point. But Stevens went to bat for Mazzulla after Boston’s exit and acknowledged the difficult set of circumstances he inherited.
The Celtics are banking that Mazzulla will naturally be more comfortable next season after going through a full NBA campaign as head coach. Having Lee and Cassell alongside should only make his job easier.
Even if Lee and Cassell are not in Boston long term, they can help Mazzulla navigate the infancy of his NBA journey. Even in moments that Mazzulla struggled this season, the Celtics were bullish on the sort of coach he can evolve into.
That’s a tricky tight rope to walk when you’re a team with championship aspirations. Windows are never guaranteed to stay open while you wait for a coach to spread his wings. It was understandable that some in an antsy fan base would want Mazzulla replaced with someone with more coaching experience after Boston’s disappointing finish. And, yes, some of what ailed the Celtics could certainly be traced back to coaching.
But it’s worth noting that three straight head coaches — including Stevens — have struggled to get the Celtics to operate with much-needed consistency. And Mazzulla didn’t have much time to prep for his leap from behind-the-bench assistant.
Boston’s bench smarts should rival just about any staff in the league now with the additions of Cassell and Lee. The lingering question is whether those assistants can help push the players to further tap into their full potential, particularly given some of the roller coasters that many of Boston’s players rode this past season.
Assistant coaches don’t typically tip the balance for title contenders, but it’s undeniable that Boston can benefit from an experience infusion on Mazzulla’s staff.