Joe Mazzulla credits strategy for championship run to time coaching Division 2 basketball in West Virginia


As of June 2024, former WVU basketball star Joe Mazzulla is an NBA Champion, having coached his Boston Celtics to a 4-1 series victory in the NBA Finals over the Dallas Mavericks. In fact, he’s the youngest coach to achieve such a feat since Bill Russell in 1969. 

However, just five years ago, Mazzulla was just a NCAA Division 2 head coach, leading Fairmont State (WV) in his first-ever gig at the helm of a program. Before that, he only served assistant coach stints in the NBA G League and at the Division 2 level.

After Mazzulla’s groundbreaking NBA Championship win this week, he was interviewed by network analysts on the broadcast, and he gave a surprising nod to his time Division 2 basketball in West Virginia, going as far as to heap praise upon a certain program and credit their playing style as an inspiration for the flare he brings to Boston.

Mazzulla mentioned small things that needed tweaking from the previous season during the championship run, and when pressed further, he dug deep into the analytics of just how few possessions needed cleaned up to get the team to a championship caliber and how focusing on those smaller details made all the change.

“If you take a look at last year being down 3-0…being down 3-0, where are the possessions that we lost that would have given us a better chance to win in those situations, and then you focus on those things,” he said.

“Just building connections to the game and doing all the little things that can impact those things. Being down 3-0 was one of the ultimate gifts we’ve been able to have, because you get a great perspective of, it was really just about 15-20 possessions we had to clean up, and can we make those things a mindset, and can we do it together.”

When asked when being such an analytical mind began to intertwine with his coaching philosophy, Mazzulla recalled some important lessons learned in a small town Gilmer County, West Virginia, where he landed his first assistant gig at the collegiate level.

“At my first assistant spot, I was at a D2 school at Glenville State, and I carried around a clicker, and I would just click the possessions,” Mazzulla said. “And I started counting the possessions, and we were playing against this team, we were playing against this team West Liberty (WV) and they dominated the margins of the game and they dominated the possessions of the game, and it was almost impossible for them to lose by the margin of error they gave themselves. I just started counting possessions and once we were able to get the resources, I just really saw the difference it can make and it can open up the game.”

Mazzulla understands well that what he asks might not always make sense to his team, and he credits his team with having enough trust in his vision to help see it through to an NBA title. He learned long ago in those heady days on Mountain East Conference action that a coach is nothing without a team that believes in his strategy.

“Like you said, it's a credit to the guys because some of the stuff we do doesn’t make sense, but you can’t do it if the guys don’t buy into it. They’ve done a great job of just trusting us and having an understanding of hey, this is what leads to winning,” he said.