Joe Mazzulla’s bold timeout strategy, too-early trade talk and more

Forsberg’s Mailbag: Why Mazzulla hates timeouts and early trade talk originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Celtics own the best record in the NBA at 13-3 on the strength of nine straight wins. But questions persist about the roster, the reintegration of Robert Williams III, and more.

Let’s tackle some of the most common questions we’ve seen in the mailbag recently:

Why does Joe Mazzulla hate timeouts?

Joe Mazzulla, thrust into the role of interim head coach amid the Ime Udoka scandal, has the Boston Celtics playing offense at historic efficiency. He’s pressed all the right buttons despite the team being at less than full health to start the season. About the only gripe among some Celtics fans: Mazzulla’s aversion to timeouts.

The Celtics have owned double-digit leads in 14 of their 16 games to start the season but seem to have to withstand at least one furious charge per game. Boston’s own offensive lulls in those instances have sometimes made games get a little tighter than they needed to be.

After Friday’s win in New Orleans, Mazzulla was quizzed about his timeout usage and professed a “love” of letting players work through adversity.

“I think you have to go through that as a team. You have to build an awareness for your team as to what’s going on,” said Mazzulla. “Sometimes I like the fact that we have to execute through a run instead of calling a timeout for a run. So it’s a feeling thing, there are times when you are going to have to do it. But in order for us to be a great team, we have to handle those situations and we got to build an awareness, we have to know how to execute.

“Quite honestly, I’ve watched a lot of timeouts where you call one and then nothing good happens after the timeout. So it’s a 50/50 shot that timeouts are going to work.”

Much research of NBA game data has been conducted with the general conclusion being that timeouts do not consistently improve team performance in the aftermath. Which explains why there is no uniform rule for using timeouts. Data seems to suggest what should be rather obvious: The NBA’s best teams are more likely to steady themselves than those at the bottom of the league standings.

Mazzulla’s general message essentially echoes what’s become a popular sentiment from fellow Brad Stevens coaching disciple Kara Lawson: Handle hard better. There are going to be instances where any championship-caliber team is going to have to figure things out on the fly, without the aid of a two-minute pep talk.

Mazzulla seems to operate with the idea that being forced into tough spots now could pay dividends for his team when the games matter most. And simply having late-game timeouts is valuable in general considering the nature of the playoffs.

Both Derrick White and Jaylen Brown suggested that Mazzulla’s timeout usage promotes trust between coach and players. Mazzulla is empowering his players by believing they can navigate the in-game bumps.

“I want our team to grow, to build an awareness, to understand how the game is going and to figure out a way to execute it on both ends of the floor,” said Mazzulla. “A timeout doesn’t guarantee anything, except two minutes of rest, I guess.”

Now, all that said, we certainly find ourselves shouting, “Timeout. TIMEOUT!” at the TV when the Celtics lose their way. The Celtics are back in Chicago on Monday night after one of the rare instances where their wheels came off and they couldn’t collect themselves earlier this season. Boston has been better in the aftermath but avoiding those lapses could go a long way towards making end-of-game situations a lot breezier for a team that’s leaned heavily on its key players.

Can the Celtics maintain their offensive efficiency when Robert Williams III returns to the lineup?

Is Boston’s red-hot early season 3-point shooting sustainable?

The Celtics have done a tremendous job of generating quality looks this season. Open shots — defined as 4-plus feet of space — account for 55.2 percent of Boston’s total attempts, per NBA tracking data. Boston is shooting 39.9 percent on all open 3-pointers, which might even be a bit low for a team shooting 39.1 percent overall beyond the arc.

The lingering question is, when Williams III is ready to return to the floor, does subbing out a shooter for a rim-runner alter Boston’s overall shot profile? Mazzulla and team brass have been adamant that adding Williams III’s skill set should only enhance Boston’s offense. In theory, adding a player who can punish teams that leave the lane open in fear of allowing a 3-point shot should create spacing. Williams III’s passing, along with his offensive rebounding, should benefit Boston’s dynamic offense.

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Is it fair to expect the Celtics to linger at their current offensive rating of 119.1? Even before Williams III returns, we’d expect that number to creep back to earth at least a little bit, although the NBA record of 117.3 (Brooklyn, 2020-21) certainly seems in play considering the efficiency of Boston’s offense to this point.

The most encouraging aspect of Boston’s early season offensive efficiency has been the team’s ability to thrive in the half-court set. The Celtics produced an NBA-best 107.3 points per 100 possessions in the half-court. That’s nearly 3 points better than the nearest rival (Sacramento, 104.5) and an astonishing 11.6 points better than the NBA’s season average. Last year, Boston ranked 8th in the NBA while putting up 98.8 points per 100 possessions in the half-court.

Ultimately, the biggest question in our mind is this: What will be the identity of this year’s team?

The Celtics hung their hat on defense last season and that helped their run to the NBA Finals. Is the team willing to sacrifice a bit of that identity to fuel a historic-level offense? Is there a balance that can be struck in which Boston’s defense — already showing improvement while ranking 10th overall in the NBA over this nine-game winning streak — improves enough to offset any downturn on the offensive side?

The one thing to consider: Offense typically rides a wave and shooters are going to go cold at times. Last season, the Celtics could consistently lean on their defense. It’s on Mazzulla to find the proper balance for this particular team.

What should be Brad Stevens’ top priority to bolster this roster?

We enjoy that, even when the Celtics are sitting on top of the NBA mountain, there are always questions about how the team can improve its roster.

The solid contributions of Luke Kornet, coupled with the eventual return of Williams III, have quieted some of the concerns about Boston’s big-man depth. The team has long projected confidence in the current group and, unless Williams III or Al Horford needs their workloads heavily managed in the second half of the year, we suspect that it might not be Boston’s biggest need moving forward.

The absence of Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon in recent games highlighted the benefit of having a fourth guard like Payton Pritchard. Not only did Pritchard provide a much-needed bench spark last week against Oklahoma City, but he allowed the Celtics not to miss a beat despite playing without top point guard options at the start of the current road trip. All this after logging minimal minutes through the team’s first 10 games.

Tomase: Celtics’ decision to avoid Durant trade keeps looking better

It’s fair to wonder if the Celtics might be willing to use the contract of injured big man Danilo Gallinari to pursue a deal later this season. But the question then becomes whether it’s worth attaching draft assets to Gallinari’s money — or any of Boston’s remaining traded player exceptions — in order to add what amounts to an 11th or 12th man. The health of the roster in the ramp to the February deadline could dictate that desire.

If Boston remains healthy, we’ve wondered if the $3.2 million disabled player exception generated by Gallinari’s injury could be a more valuable resource used to pursue a buyout player who could bolster the roster for the stretch run.

Boston can outbid most rivals with the DPE and wouldn’t have to sacrifice future assets to add a player who might have an extremely limited impact on the overall success of the season.

When will the Celtics remove the interim portion of Mazzulla’s title?

The Celtics remain tight-lipped on everything surrounding Udoka, but we suspect the team is unable to give Mazzulla the full head coach title until there is a resolution to that Udoka saga.

Credit to Mazzulla for putting his full focus on simply coaching the team and ignoring any noise. He was thrust into a difficult spot but has shown remarkable poise despite the spotlight cast upon him.

With each game he validates the decision to elevate him from behind the bench to the interim role, and eventually he’ll be rewarded with the title and security he deserves in this new role.

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