Trading Marcus Smart for Kristaps Porzingis was a sign that the Boston Celtics wanted to reimagine their offensive structure under second-year head coach Joe Mazzulla. While Smart was a beloved figure in Boston and a Defensive Player of the Year award winner, Boston’s offense didn’t always have the high-level playmaking to consistently navigate crunch time situations in the playoffs.
After a disappointing Conference Finals showing against Miami, Boston chose to double down on the five out offense that Mazzulla shifted to in playoffs with the idea that Porzingis would amplify their spacing without sacrificing anything on the defensive end. Thus far, that idea has held true. Boston sits at 3-0, while Porzingis looks like the unicorn he was promised to be in New York.
Boston provides Porzingis the opportunity to reemerge on the national stage after the one-time All-Star spent the last few seasons in relative obscurity. Porzingis’ partnership with Luka Doncic in Dallas never quite flourished, whether that was due to injuries or friction over his role within the Doncic-centric offense. It’s easy to forget, but when Porzingis was traded to Dallas in 2019, he was coming off his first All-Star nod while Doncic was in the middle of a promising rookie campaign. At that point, it was plausible to think of Porzingis and Doncic as co-stars. While Doncic blossomed into the no-doubt No. 1 option in Dallas, Porzingis held onto the idea of them being on equal footing.
In Dallas, Porzingis was a productive and impactful player when healthy, but he was an inefficient post player. The discourse around Porzingis’ post play lead to then-Mavs coach Rick Carlisle going on a rant on how the post up is an inefficient play. That point held true until Porzingis was traded to the Wizards at the 2022 trade deadline. Last season, Porzingis played in 65 games — his most since 2017 — while quietly having the best season of his career. The 7’3 big man put up 23.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per game on admirable efficiency, and most importantly, he became a very efficient post player.
Kristaps Porzingis stats from his career-best season:
Points Allowed Per Pick-and-Roll
1. Anthony Davis (0.91)
2. Steven Adams (0.92)
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo (0.92)
4. Kristaps Porzingis (0.93)
5. Walker Kessler (0.93)
One of the best drop P&R defenders in the NBA. And on…
— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) June 21, 2023
You would be excused if you weren’t locked in on Wizards basketball last season, but Brad Stevens clearly took note of Porzingis improving enough to break up a Celtics core that had made multiple deep playoff runs. The Porzingis acquisition has allowed Boston to lighten Al Horford’s workload while also deploying a starting lineup that has dynamic shotmaking and plus defense at every position. With all the caveats about the sample size being small, the new Celtics starting lineup of Derrick White, Jrue Holiday, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Porzingis has a plus-31.2 net rating in 54 minutes this season.
Replacing Horford and Robert Williams minutes with Porzingis has supercharged the Celtic offense. For all the fuss about Porzingis post touches, his spot-up shooting is the skill that truly separates him. Porzingis has a quick, high release and can hit jumpers well beyond the three-point line. Most big men don’t want to guard Porzingis when he sets up shop that far out, but his release forces defenses to overreact. The increased spacing has made life easier on both Tatum and Brown. According to Cleaning The Glass, Boston’s effective field goal percentage is eight percent higher when Porzingis is on the court than when he’s on the bench.
Porzingis has managed to be both a productive player and a complementary piece to Brown and Tatum. He’s averaging 20.7 points per game with 85.7 percent of his made field goals being assisted. The egalitarian Celtic offense allows Porzingis to really shine as both a spot up player and a cutter. Much was made of how he set the franchise record for points in a debut; less was made of how that came without a single isolation or post up bucket. It’s a stark contrast from Smart, whose fearlessness meant he was prone to taking over possessions.
On defense, Porzingis has thrived playing next to so many high-level perimeter defenders. This is the first time in Porzingis’ career that’s he’s played behind a perimeter defense this ferocious, and it’s freed him to leverage his shot-blocking skills, particularly when Horford is on the court to take on the bruising post matchups. Thus far, opponents are shooting just 42.6 percent against Porzingis within six feet of the rim.
Kristaps Porzingis says he's playing in a defensive "paradise" here in Boston pic.twitter.com/1dX7MIvR2i
— Taylor Snow (@taylorcsnow) October 31, 2023
There will always be trepidation about Porzingis’ health, however as his Celtic career begins, he’s emphatically answering any and all questions about his on-court play. Boston gambled by trading their longest-tenured and most beloved player for Porzingis, and the first week of the season has shown the upside that move provides.