• A Good Coach
  • Posts
  • AGC #016 - How Boston Celtics coaches handle pressure

AGC #016 - How Boston Celtics coaches handle pressure

Tips from Doc Rivers, Brad Stevens and Joe Mazzulla for managing high performance expectations

When the Boston Celtics won their 17th NBA championship in 2008, they didn’t take long to start looking toward the next title.

The Celtics gave away water bottles that listed the years of each of the team’s triumphs, along with the phrase “It’s All About 18” - a reference to the team’s efforts to repeat as champions:

Boston is a sports city with notoriously high expectations among its fans.

And given that title number 18 has yet to arrive, 16 years on, the pressure on the Celtics to win out is higher than ever.

The role of Celtics head coach, therefore, comes loaded with stress.

Today, we are going to look at how three Celtics head coaches have handled that responsibility.

Doc Rivers: Pressure is a privilege

Rivers arrived in Beantown for what would be a nine-year stint in 2004, but spent his first couple of seasons being relentlessly criticized in the media for his coaching style.

Bill Simmons, then the “Boston Sports Guy” and now owner of The Ringer, didn’t mince his words:

“Doc Rivers stinks as an NBA coach.

“After watching him butcher my favorite team for 15 months and 134 games, I feel pretty comfortable making that assessment.”

Expectations weren’t any lower internally; the franchise’s owners had named their group Banner 17 when they took over.

And when the Celtics built a new practice facility, they surrounded the court with their 16 NBA championship banners and left a blank space for number 17.

Rivers thought that was too subtle, so we turned a spotlight on the empty wall at the beginning of the 2008 season, leaving the team in no doubt of their goals.

As outlined in his episode of Netflix’s The Playbook, Rivers thought that “pressure is a privilege”, and wanted his team to lean into the expectations and the pressure.

The Celtics went on to claim title 17 - and banner 17 - with a game 6 blowout win over the Lakers. They needed a record 26 postseason games to do it.

"They can turn that thing off now," guard Ray Allen said in the aftermath, referring to the spotlight on the empty wall.

But Rivers never moved on from his “pressure is a privilege” mantra, reminding Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams about it in 2021 ahead of the Suns’ first NBA finals appearance in 28 years.

The takeaway: All coaches feel pressure to win, and it can feel crippling at times. But pressure is something we should run towards, not away from, and reframe it as an opportunity earned.

Brad Stevens: Growth over goals

Stevens is a rare “dual citizen” in the basketball world, having tasted both collegiate and professional success.

Ar Butler, Stevens was the youngest coach to appear in back-to-back NCAA national championship games, while his rebuild of an ailing Celtics franchise - he succeeded Rivers in 2013 - has helped position them to be national contenders again.

Having shown at Butler that he could get the most out of a limited roster, Stevens was a shrewd choice to help turn the Celtics around.

But that didn’t mean the Celtics’ expectations hadn’t changed.

Where Rivers had shone a spotlight on a blank wall, the practice facility had an even more obvious visual following the 2008 championship: a blank banner.

Furthermore, where Stevens had been able to recruit his own players in college - where he placed a high emphasis on character, often deferring on the best talent to go after those he perceived as having the best intangibles - the front office does the hiring and firing of the players in the NBA.

Constant roster upheaval is the norm as players are traded in and out, meaning no guarantees that they care as much about Banner 18 as they do where their next contract is coming from.

So how did Stevens manage this new situation?

By focusing on growth.

Heavily influenced by Carol Dweck’s famous work on mindsets, Stevens preached constant improvement alongside a commitment to helping everyone within the organization develop and grow.

“It means being fully committed to each person who walked through that door, with the exact same level of enthusiasm, whether you think they’re going to be here for 10 years or 2 months,” he told Brett Ledbetter of What Drives Winning.

Upon gaining a contract extension after drastic improvement in the team’s fortunes over his first three seasons, Stevens said the Celtics would “continue striving for growth in pursuit of Banner 18”.

Noting that reaching that goal would only see a shift in focus to Banner 19 the very next day, Stevens felt a relentless pursuit of growth and improvement - whether the team was winning or losing - underpinned his coaching philosophy:

That interview was done in 2022, a year after Stevens had - in a move that shocked the coaching world - moved upstairs to a director of basketball operations with the Celtics.

Like Rivers, his key values endured even after he vacated the Celtics coaching hot seat.

The takeaway: Having a purpose to your coaching that goes beyond wins and losses, and can be applied to whatever team you coach, is crucial for balance and longevity.

Joe Mazzulla: Surrender to the result

Stevens’ move to the front office saw the Celtics replace him with Ime Udoka, who was credited for boosting the Celtics’ team culture with a large emphasis on personal accountability.

In 2022, Udoka led the Celtics to their first NBA finals appearance since the 2008 success - losing in six games to the Warriors - and that remarkable first season suggested a long tenure ahead.

However, Udoka was suspended for a year for violating team policies amid a personal scandal I won’t get into here, leaving three-year assistant coach Joe Mazzulla in interim charge.

Mazzulla did enough as interim to be one of three NBA head coach of the year finalists, and was given the gig permanently despite a playoff loss to the Miami Heat.

With Stevens masterminding some key off-season trades, the Celtics have a stacked team that, at the time of writing, led the way in the Eastern Conference. The Boston sports media chat is, once again, all about Banner 18.

Like his predecessors, Mazzulla - who at 35 is the youngest coach in the NBA after a rapid rise through the coaching ranks - bluntly acknowledges the reality of his situation.

“I know and love the fact that the expectation is a championship or nothing,” he told The Boston Globe in December.

“But when I was able to take a look back on what we achieved [last season], it freed me, because I realized most coaches in the NBA would take that year 10 times out of 10, and it wasn’t good enough.

“To me, that freed me to be, like, ‘It’s never going to be good enough unless you win, but it’s about how hard you go at something and how much you try to achieve greatness.’”

Having been an assistant to both of the previous head coaches, Mazzulla has some echoes of Stevens - his current boss - in being more process-oriented than goal-oriented.

A key difference comes in his language: Mazzulla, talks a lot about “surrendering” to the result while giving it everything you can:

It remains to be seen whether Mazzulla will be the coach to help the Celtics deliver on their promise, and edge them past the Lakers in the all-time ranks with 18 championships.

Nonetheless, you get the impression it won’t be for lack of trying either way.

The takeaway: Part of the challenge of coaching is that you can get everything right, and still lose. Results are beyond our control, so freeing yourself from that burden is crucial to maintaining your sanity as a coach.

Whenever you’re ready, here are a few ways I can help you:

1. Efficient Practice Design: My multi-step system for creating practice plans that will flow smoothly, stretch your players appropriately, and save coaches of all team sports dozens of hours a year, on and off the field.

2. Premium Practice Planner:  A Notion template to help sports coaches plan, deliver and review their sessions with maximum efficiency - then smartly archive everything.

3. Coach’s Dozen: An ebook of 12 small-sided games with diagrams and animations to help you train goalscoring in field hockey, co-authored with Mark Egner.